Professor blends ecology, history

April 21, 2008

by Madeline Fisher

As a University of Washington graduate student in the late 1980s, Nancy Langston traveled to a national park in Zimbabwe to study an endangered bird. She came back with a resolve to know more about people.

Nancy Langston

Forest and wildlife ecology professor Nancy Langston plans to examine the global pollutants, such as mercury, that have made their way into bodies of water — and fish — everywhere.

Photo: Bryce Richter

During her time in the park, a flood of refugees from neighboring Zambia had stirred fears about poaching, recalls Langston, now a UW–Madison professor of environmental studies and forest ecology.

As a result, authorities enacted a brutal conservation strategy: Any African found inside the park would be shot on sight. At the same time, the Zimbabwean government was under intense pressure to open parklands to farming and settlement. With the country’s prime agricultural lands committed to commodity crops, such as sugar, many people had little means of feeding themselves.

As she learned of these tensions, Langston found herself reflecting less on birds and more on people. What was driving them into the area? Who had access to land? And, most of all: Why after people arrived in a landscape did so many striking changes follow? The young ecologist-in-training soon became convinced that understanding — and hopefully reversing — environmental decline meant paying much closer attention to human communities.

“I think it’s very important for us to understand the history of ideas about forests or about water, to help scientists realize that scientific ideas are never completely free of the culture or political era in which they’re being developed.”

Nancy Langston, professor of environmental studies and forest ecology

“I came back to America and decided I wanted to look at the intersection of history, culture and conservation,” says Langston.

The niche she found was environmental history, the study of the shared history of people and the land. Started by a small group of historians and ecologists a decade before Langston went to Zimbabwe, the field rests on the idea that long-term changes in the landscape have as much to do with human culture as with natural processes. Ecologists and historians were already studying human impacts in parallel, but it was the pioneers of environmental history who got them talking about “how the two fields could add to one another,” says Langston.

One of those early leaders was UW–Madison history and environmental studies professor William Cronon. Another was University of Washington historian Richard White, who became Langston’s mentor when she decided to switch tracks.

“So I got integrated into this group of people who were trying to do this new field,” she says. “And I felt like the whole world opened up for me.”

In the years since, Langston has examined the historic roots of the forest health crisis in the western United States, as well as conflicts over management of riparian areas, the zones where land and water meet. And a current project is documenting the history of the hormone-mimicking chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which have become ubiquitous in the environment and, consequently, in us.

In each study, Langston combines the quantitative data of scientists, with information gleaned from historical documents and interviews in the tradition of historians. Working across disciplines isn’t easy, says forest and wildlife ecology professor David Mladenoff, who is Langston’s frequent collaborator. But her background helps span the differences in language and assumptions that normally make interdisciplinary work so challenging.

“What’s interesting about Nancy is [since] she had almost completed a Ph.D. in ecology before she switched, as an environmental historian she’s also extremely scientifically literate; I would say she’s a good ecologist. Not that ecologists are somehow better,” Mladenoff says with a laugh. “But it really does make communication easier.”

It was in a time and place where communication wasn’t easy, where people’s views had become too polarized to bridge, that Langston found her first chance to do environmental history. During her studies at University of Washington, she often visited a friend who worked for the U.S. Forest Service in northeastern Oregon. And there, Langston learned about the plight of the Blue Mountains.

The Blues were once dominated by park-like stands of sun-loving, fire-resistant (and commercially valuable) ponderosa pine. With logging and other management practices, however, these trees had been replaced during 80 years by fir forests that were extremely fire-prone and riddled with insects. Foresters and environmentalists were both blaming each other for the calamity and arguing furiously over how to fix it. Yet, nobody really knew the history of how the changes had occurred — giving Langston her opportunity.

“I thought that before we try to come to terms with each other and resolve some of these conflicts,” she says, “it would be helpful to have some idea of what happened: what people did, why they did it and what the ecological consequences were.”

As she unraveled the story, Langston came to terms with her own view of foresters. Her training in ecology and sympathy for environmental causes had led her to see them as people who cared little for the land beyond the resources it provided, she says. This quickly changed, though, once she began interviewing some of the older, retired Forest Service rangers and foresters who still hung around the Blues.

“As soon as I started spending time with them, I realized how diverse their perspectives were, how much they loved the places where they worked, and how puzzled they were by the changes that were going on,” she says. ”In other words, although forest management — and mismanagement — had certainly contributed to the tragedy, there were no villains. Rather, ordinary people had made decisions based on their cultural beliefs and assumptions about forests; decisions that only in retrospect seemed unsound.

Langston believes such lessons about the power of our assumptions and ideals are critical, especially for scientists.

“I think it’s very important for us to understand the history of ideas about forests or about water,” she says, “to help scientists realize that scientific ideas are never completely free of the culture or political era in which they’re being developed.”

In her next project, Langston plans to examine the intersection of human culture with yet another sweeping environmental change: the profusion of global pollutants, such as mercury, that have made their way into water bodies — and the bodies of fish — everywhere. Fish is a healthy source of protein that we’re encouraged to eat, and eating fish is also of great cultural significance to Indian tribes in the Great Lakes region. But the potential toxicity of fish today forces people to make trade-offs between their beliefs and possible harm to themselves.

“How much fish do you eat when it’s culturally important? How much do you eat when you’re pregnant?” asks Langston. “These are terrible dilemmas people shouldn’t have to face.”

Terrible, but also telling of how inextricably linked the fates of people and the environment truly are.