Where Land, Water, and Militants Meet: A Conversation with Nancy Langston

Nancy LangstonNancy Langston, professor of environmental history at Michigan Tech, tells stories of ecological change and social upheaval in her book, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed, which is about the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In our recent conversation, we focused on Malheur, parsing contested claims to and meanings of public lands. We also talked about prospects for collaboration, translation, and paths forward.

When Nancy and I set up an interview time, it was simply a mutually convenient date in advance of her visit to Madison for CHE’s E is for Environment Symposium. But since January 2, 2016, an armed group protesting federal land ownership has occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Nancy has given a number of radio interviews on the Malheur conflict (including with Oregon Public Broadcasting), her book has been quoted in newspaper articles (such as in The Washington Post) and featured on The Daily Show, and she has published an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

Listen to our conversation below. Lightly edited interview highlights follow.

Chloe Wardropper: First, I want to ask: did you ever think that as an environmental historian you would be asked to give so many interviews on a hot-button current issue?

Nancy Langston: All my work has been guided by a hope of interacting with broader publics. I’ve chosen all three of my projects because they were issues that a lot of people had powerful disagreements about. They were issues that were real sites of conflict. And so I’ve always wished that my work would intersect with broader publics, but I didn’t expect this amount, and I didn’t expect any of this coming up with Malheur. It was the last place I would have predicted that a group of militants—essentially terrorists—would have showed up. It seems like a bizarre choice. But when you look at the history of public lands, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

CW: In the introduction to your book, you write that studying the management of riparian zones, or the places where land and water meet, can help to better formulate strategies for effective resource management. Can you speak a little more about why you decided to write this book about Malheur?

NL: When I was working on my first book, which was also my PhD dissertation on old growth conflicts in the inland West [Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West], I spent a lot of time in the high deserts of eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. As part of that book I started to hear people talking about riparian areas as being absolutely critical sites for both wildlife and for human cultures in the West. And it’s not surprising why—where there’s water in the desert, that’s where people and lots of wildlife tend to hang out.

But in the process of writing that book I also realized that there were big conceptual clashes over how different people envision that boundary between water and land. And that made me interested in thinking a bit more about riparian areas. A good friend of mine was a great birder and we used to go [to Malheur]. Right after my dissertation was turned in, we were sitting on top of Steens Mountain, looking out over the desert and the wetlands, and I thought, I want to spend more time here. And I thought, well how can I do that? Well, write a book about it.

CW: Let’s get to the heart of the current conflict, which is the argument over who should control the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and what it means that the refuge is public land, owned by the federal government. Ammon Bundy, one of the occupiers at the refuge has said that his group is there to “defend the people of Harney County in using the land and the resources” and that it is their goal to “get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching.” Many occupiers have talked about returning land to rightful owners, by which they primarily imply that it should go to ranchers.

NL: Ammon Bundy and many in his militia movement say that the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge was an unconstitutional act because it pushed local ranchers from their lands [and] thrust the county into poverty and an economic depression. [He says] that it’s his job to return the land to its rightful owners. There are so many layers of history there. That’s one of the most powerful things about this conflict: it’s conflicts over different interpretations of history, different stories about the past and the power they have for today. And it’s also, dramatically, conflicts over different ideas of what the environment means to different people.

The first big issue there is that there are certainly rightful owners of this land, but they’re not the ranchers and they’re not the militia. They’re the Paiute tribe. For anywhere between 6,000 and 13,000 years—the Paiute say since time immemorial—these wetlands and riparian areas of the high desert had been the home of the Paiute. They were forced quite brutally off their lands right after the Civil War by army General Crook, because settlers and others didn’t see them as fully human. The army after the Civil War believed that the only good use of the environment was for farming—a settled, agrarian, Jeffersonian ideal. And the Paiute had adapted for thousands of years to these high desert wetlands by doing something very, very different than settled farming. They had used and manipulated the wetlands; they certainly did a form of agriculture, but not settled agriculture. But in 1872, after a brutal campaign, they signed a treaty that gave up most of their lands, but that did establish the Malheur Indian Reservation. And that’s where the current refuge is now located.

So [Malheur] has never left federal ownership, never went into the hands of the state [of Oregon]. Instead it went into the hands of the tribe as part of this treaty. By 1878, however, ranchers such as Peter French and others had ignored the treaty and illegally taken over some of the Indian lands. Some members of the tribe participated in the Bannock Uprising, a tribal uprising against really intense racism. The uprising was brief; retaliation, however, was quite brutal and quite swift. The survivors, many people who hadn’t fought at all, were forced by federal troops to march 350 miles through the snow to the Yakima Reservation, home of tribes who had long been their enemies. In 1898, the President abolished the reservation, and there are enormous legal arguments over what part of that was legal. But I think it’s really important to recognize, as the Paiute tribal people right now are saying so effectively, if any group has prior claims to refuge lands, it’s not the ranchers. It’s not the militants. It would be the Paiute Tribe.

CW: One tribal representative said recently, “It’s the same battles that my ancestors had. And now it’s just a bunch of different cavalry wearing a bunch of different coats,” which I thought was really poignant and telling about how they feel about this conflict.

NL: What I think is also important to recognize is that the Paiute have not gone and tried to take over the refuge with an armed uprising. Instead, for at least two decades and probably many more decades, they have worked very closely with refuge staff to develop both protection for their sacred artifacts, and also to participate in collaborative conservation plans. [These plans] recognize the needs for local community to be involved in refuge management, but [they] also recognize that these refuges are national treasures and can’t just be taken over by any one group.

CW: Along those lines of hopeful collaborations between tribes and other public and private entities, in the last chapter of your book, Where Land and Water Meet, you describe what you call Pragmatic Adaptive Management as a potential way forward for the Malheur Basin. What does that term mean in this context?

NL: Well what I meant was management policies that are based in part on the philosophy of American pragmatism, which has a long and glorious history in recognizing that no one group has absolute truth. [Pragmatism] tries to move away from ideology and use an iterative process, essentially based on the scientific method and on the recognition of uncertainty and change. [Adaptive management] brings together diverse voices to represent their positions and negotiate [so that] one group can’t bully their way into power over others.

CW: That seems like a great concept.

NL: And it’s working for the refuge, probably better than anywhere I know in the West right now. In 2013 the Malheur Refuge adopted a long-term management plan, the Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which was forged with the participation and help of the Paiute Tribe, with local ranching community members, with county commissioners, [and] with some environmental groups such as Portland Audubon. So of all places in the West to choose to make your last stand as the militia movement, this seems like the wrong place.

CW: I’d like to ask you about your current book project, Sustaining Lake Superior, which is about how we can learn from the past to manage an ecosystem into the future. You wrote on your website of this project that you hope your work can translate between how historians and ecologists differently conceptualize ecosystem change in Lake Superior forests, which are threatened by climate change and invasive species, among other things. Can you say a bit more about how this project is translating across disciplines or epistemologies?

NL: I’m intrigued by Lake Superior partly because I fell in love with it many years ago. But also because it’s one example among many in North America and across the world, where there was extraordinary environmental devastation, and there’s also been incredible recovery. And I think those stories need to be told better.

I was trained primarily as an ecologist. I did my PhD at the University of Washington in ecology and evolution and then switched right at the end to an independent PhD that brought together geography, ecology, and history. So in some ways in my entire career I’ve tried to do this translation because I think the insights are really valuable. I think it’s important that we create processes by which ranchers and loggers and environmentalists can start to hear each other’s language and understand that—even though they have very different ideas about what the environment is for—they share a love for place. Equally, I think it’s also important that ecologists and physicists and computer scientists and humanists and historians and geographers and community members start figuring out some way to recognize their epistemological differences, but also to find a way to recognize that they have certain things powerfully in common. Even if they tell very different stories about the past, there’s a shared future that they hope to engage with.

Featured image: “A view of the Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge” by Jeff Sorn, CC BY 2.0.

Dr. Nancy Langston is professor of environmental history at Michigan Tech. She’s the author of three books: an environmental history of Malheur Wildlife Refuge, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed; a history of the old growth crisis in the west, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West; and an environmental history of toxics, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. She’s currently finishing her fourth book, Sustaining Lake Superior. During 2012-2013, she was the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science at Umeå University in Sweden. Before that, she was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 17 years. She served as President of the American Society for Environmental History and editor of Environmental History. Website. Contact.

Chloe Wardropper is a PhD student in Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. Her research focuses on how agricultural conservationists in the American Upper Midwest produce and use measurements to track water quality. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a soil conservationist for the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Contact.



  1. Maryann Owens

    A timely interview. Steen’s Mt calls to me too and I’ve been there many times. I’m a photographer, daughter of ranchers who once worked another of Peter French’s ranches, ecologist, and an observer of the grazed and, in places, over-grazed lands of the west. Ranchers feel their way of life and cultural values are a) under threat, b ) disappearing, or c) irrelevant.

    That there is a commonality that stems from love of place and love of land. That points to the way forward.

  2. Timely interview that sheds new light on the conflict at Malheur! Particularly interesting that the Refuge operates under a “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” that Dr. Langston considers exemplary in engaging differing stake holders. She goes on to suggest that it is the last place you’d expect to see a group wanting to “bully themselves into power” would want to take a stand.

    Either the Plan can be a tool for resolving this standoff, or perhaps it needs to be revisited in light of the standoff…..either way, thanks for this fascinating viewpoint on a dramatic example of environmental conflict resolution!

Leave a Comment