I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Rivers and Forests

  • H.V. Nelles, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines & Hydro-Electric Power in Ontario, 1849-1941 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974). 
  • David Massell, Amassing Power: J.B. Duke and the Saguenay River, 1897-1927 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. 
  • Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden, and H.V. Nelles, The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009). 
  • Matthew D. Evenden, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 
  • Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service: A History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976).
  • Peter Gillis and Thomas R. Roach, Lost Initiatives: Canada’s Forest Industries, Forest Policy and Forest Conservation.(New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).  

In The Fur Trade in Canada, published in 1930, Harold Innis introduced the Staples Thesis. The thesis contends that Canada’s entire political and economic character has been shaped by its immersion in the trade of fur and other staples. Unable to gather the capital to develop industry and without an abundance of land suitable for agriculture, Canada, in its early years, remained subservient to both the United States and Britain, acting as their suppliers of raw materials. This staples trade led to a highly centralized government and a strong relationship between government-owned and privately-owned business ventures. H.V. Nelles, Professor of History at McMaster University, intends his study, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines, and Hydro-Electric Power in Ontario, 1849-1941, to be an updated extension of this staples philosophy. Nelles claims that the Staples Thesis has been thoroughly applied to pre-twentieth century, Canadian economic and political history, but no one has taken the time to apply it to the twentieth century and the rise of three main, new staple commodities: timber, minerals, and water or hydro-electric power. Nelles views The Politics of Development as an opening for further analysis of the ways in which the staple market affected political actions in Ontario and other regions in Canada. 

Focusing on Ontario, Nelles seeks to flesh out the intricacies of modern, natural resource development in the province, and finds that the state as is it is today has survived due to its close relationship with industry and industrialists. The control over staple commodities that the government often exuded was, in large part, a façade. Behind the scenes, industrialists used the government to achieve their own, self-interested aims, including providing “key services at public expense, promot[ing] and protect[ing] vested interests, and confer[ing] the status of law upon private decisions.” (ix) The remarkable attribute of twentieth-century resource law is that it was practically unchanged from nineteenth century pre-industrial legislation. Unlike in the United States, where the independent yeoman farmer of the frontier was celebrated, Canadian farmers and lumbermen were never invited to march ahead of progress, decisions were confined to government bodies. Collectivism and conservatism defined Canadian resource management. 

The Northern frontier of Canada, which came into significance at the turn-of-the-century, was not agrarian in nature, but rather industrial. It was technology, argues Nelles, that brought value to northern Ontario. Once the technology was available to develop the north, businessmen and provincial government figures worked together to accelerate the rate of industrial expansion. “Industrial promotion was the first major use made of the authority of the state,” Nelles writes, “over its natural resources in the modern era.” (102) The opening of “New Ontario” took place due to the partnership efforts between private and state actors. The government invested in railroads, which opened up the north even more, and mineral extraction, while simultaneously attempting to ensure that the public benefitted from resource extraction and resources, such as timber, were properly conserved.  

Nelles also highlights the development of a more integrated, economic trade system between the United States and Canada, creating a continental relationship of which Walter N. Sage would be proud. As was the case with the fur trade in centuries past, American demand for the new staples—timber, minerals, and power—drove the development of the resource industry in Canada. This trade created a north-south axis, which diminished the power of east-west relations that had dominated as a result of Canadian wheat production. While natural business structures strengthened this North American pattern, Ontario government actions attempted to instill policies that would weaken this pattern. Canadian businessmen, throughout the twentieth century, Nelles discovers, used the law in order to capitalize on, as much as possible, the manufacture and preparation of natural resources before they were exported elsewhere. Nelles sees the pattern of staple industry and government relations in the twentieth century as a diminution of the government to a state of industrial servitude, resulting from the inheritance of nineteenth century of a backward and impeded economic system. Nelles is adamant that this outcome, which he openly abhors, was not natural or necessary, but rather the result of considerable failure on the part of government to rein in industrial forces, and subsequently bring “responsible” government into the modern age.   

David Massell, a professor in the History Department at the University of Vermont, further accentuates the inextricability of American and, to a smaller extent, European economic interests in Canadian resource markets after 1900 in Amassing Power: J.B. Duke and the Saguenay River, 1897-1927. Massell reports that his personal connection to Northern Canada, beginning in his youth, awakened an academic curiosity surrounding the history of the region’s environmental and economic management. This personal inquisitiveness coupled with fortuitous access to pertinent documents during his time as a Ph.D. student at Duke University lead Massell to pursue a heavily archive-based, recreation and analysis of the events surrounding J.B. Duke’s involvement in the campaign to dam the Saguenay River, which ultimately occurred in December of 1922, and the related industrialization of Quebec’s Saguenay River Valley. Duke was an American entrepreneur who specialized in tobacco and electricity development.  

Massell’s investigative propensity is impressive. When beginning the project, he states that other historians attempted to dissuade him due to the lack of easily accessible sources and the historical invisibility of “crooked deals.” However, Massell’s perseverance was rewarded when he stumbled on the papers of Arthur Amos, a provincial civil servant who participated in negotiations with American capitalists, including Duke, about the creation of a dam on the Saguenay and provides a clear example of shady, American-Canadian, resource-driven economic dealings, in which Quebec officials attempted to balance both selfish and political demands. Quebec stood as an anomaly whilst progressive forces elsewhere, during the first couple decades of the twentieth century, called for increased government regulation of private enterprise. The personal astuteness and savviness of Duke are showcased in Massell’s account. It is clear that Massell places a great deal of causal weight on Duke’s personal character and aptitude. “Here we have an American capitalist,” Massell states, “of enormous means, operating fluidly in distant corners of the empire…and bringing tremendous pressure to bear upon the British government…to solve a power property in Quebec.” (11) 

The story begins in the late 1890s with the efforts of Thomas Leopold Willson, who attempted to harness the waters of the Saguenay, but was, due to lack of investors and an unfavorable market, ahead of his time. Willson’s efforts, however, drew the attention of Duke and other American investors. Industry in the valley, aided by Duke and others, evolved from pulp to fertilizer production. Massell also brings attention, through narrative and photographs, to the impressive transformation that occurred in the rural, Saguenay Valley as a result of the onslaught of power, pulp, and aluminum industry. As industry intensified and morphed into morphed into more complicated configurations, demand for increased hydro-electric capacity and sophistication followed. Letting industry lead the way, however, not only lead to wealth, but also created new problems, which were mainly social in nature, Massell argues. The harshest opponents to industrial development and the dam were the region’s farmers, whose main concern was the effect the damming would have on flood activity. Massell concludes that his narrative demonstrates that, despite Duke and his colleagues possessing vast quantities of wealth and power and the government being friendly to private concerns, developing power resources in the north was not an easy task and was full of difficulties and hazards. 

In The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow, Nelles teams with Christopher Armstrong and Matthew Evenden to present another river’s development, the Bow River in Alberta. The River Returns, according to the authors, “is a story about how the Bow flowed into the lives of the people who came to live in its valley, what happened to it as a result, and how after long experience people came to terms with the river.” (ix) Nelles, Armstrong, and Evenden are concerned with the evolution of human-constructed relationships with the river, both personally and economically. The Bow serves as a perfect case study because it gives specific and manageable examples of larger, widespread occurrences in river systems and the environment in general. Throughout history the river has been a source of power and livelihood, only the actors and processes have altered. Using the river as a resource has always been difficult, and the struggle over generations to control the river for public and private advantage is the subject of The River Returns. The title of the book represents the authors’ contention that there is a “circular relationship” between the inhabitants and the river. All that goes downstream, they write, returns, the effects of which are never fully predictable or stoppable.  

Rivers are natural organizing instruments. They set boundaries and determine placement of settlements. In the case of Canada, the staples thesis largely rests on the role of the St. Lawrence shaped the fur trade and subsequently the character of the country. Rivers and other natural features also play a large role in the development of a region’s culture; in fact, according to the authors, culture and nature are inseparable, and one cannot consider one without automatically considering the other. When one considers culture in regards to a river system, the ever-changing character of both the river and culture are showcased. Similar to William Turkel in The Archive of Place, the authors view the landscape, in this case a river, as “an archive; it records and retains what has been done to it and by it.” (23) 

The authors begin by discussing the way in which the river served as the center of indigenous peoples’ homeland, and simultaneously was considered the margins of Euro-Canadian civilization. Both populations held concurrent, incongruent perceptions of the same river. Like in Doug Owram’s Promise of Eden, the authors treat perception as a powerful instrument of the mind that can warp reality just as easily as tangible forces. The authors trace the pattern of settlement and resource development in the valley, emphasizing the uneven, non-linear nature of settlement, which is supported by their subject-driven, rather than chronological, organization. In one section, that on sanitation, the authors support Martin V. Melosi’s findings in Garbage in the Cities, that in an effort to clean Calgary’s streets, the citizens polluted and fouled the river. Their analysis of the Bow River reveals the move from preservation, protection of water supplies, controlled forestry to a more multi-use ideology driven by tourism and its subsequent recreation as well as industrial desires. Whether it is for aesthetics or usability, humans continuously attempt to shape the river to their particular desires, believing that they can improve upon nature.  

Perhaps due to the downside of multiple-authorship, the authors of The River Returns present a slight contradiction in principles at the beginning and the end of the work. At the beginning, it is made clear to the reader that this work does not consider the river, and assumedly nature as a whole, to have agency. “Humans act and react; the river simply flows,” the author states. However, throughout the book, the vocabulary used suggests a more active role on the part of nature, and in conclusion, the writers’ assert that the river “reasserted” itself in the 1990s, acting out against the man-made constraints exacted upon it. Reassertion does not denote a total lack of agency. It seems that it may be plausible that the concluding statements were designed by Evenden, who demonstrates a more emotional view of nature in his prior work, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River, than Nelles demonstrated in The Politics of Development. 

During the twentieth century, Evenden writes, rivers had been drastically modified through damming, diverting, and depletion. Hydro-engineering was and perhaps still is seen as the ultimate exemplifier of man’s ability to instill order in the natural world. These revisions of nature have unsurprisingly drawn the attention of historians who have sought to unravel the means by which mankind has made river modification both possible and economically desirable. As a result, those rivers that do not fit neatly into this mold have been ignored. In Fish versus Power, Evenden seeks to look at a river, the Fraser River in British Columbia, where the outcome was different. The Fraser has remained undammed because the voices of the fisheries and their proponents have been stronger than that of hydro-developers. Evenden writes that he uses three main categories of scholarship in his examination study of the Fraser River. Firstly, he like Nelles, addresses the significance of the staples theory. His approach lies between Nelles’ politics of development and the “environmental history of contested resources.” (11) Secondly, he looks at the transnational environmental history, also addressed in some way by Nelles and Massell. Thirdly, he looks at the connection between scientific development and environmental occurrences.  

Evenden emphasizes that before 1900, the river was not pure and untouched, but rather subject to hundreds, even thousands, of years of human modification. Before 1945, the main threat to the river was the damming of its tributaries for assistance in resource extraction, however “the limits of local markets and state intervention as well as practical difficulties of dam development kept large dams off the Fraser,” he writes. After 1945, power and flood control aspirations endangered the natural flow of the Fraser; however as a result of cross-border cooperation amongst American and Canadian salmon fisheries and the insights of fishery scientists who warned of the ill effects power development would have on the salmon population, damming efforts were once again quelled. Evenden states that there is no guarantee that the river will remained untouched by hydro-power. The battle between fish and power has no end in sight. The river remains undammed, not because of the dedication of preservationists, but in spite of determined developers.  

One of Evenden’s main arguments is that the dispute between power and fish did more than delay river development, but also had great effects on the fish, the field of science, and society.  For instance, the catastrophic landslide at Hell’s Gate in 1913, caused by railroad development, had significant consequences fish and society. Natives were vilified after the incident, and their access to their native fishing grounds severely limited. The spatial limits of the river were greatly changed, and placed restrictions on salmon migration, the negative effects from which they never recovered. As hydro-power pressure amped up in the latter half of the twentieth century, fishery scientists were compelled to advance their knowledge base in order to defend against this power encroachment. Again reminiscent of Turkel, Evenden emphasizes the personal nature of the river, which he states “flows through the contemporary environmental imagination.” (4) The river connects people both to the past and to the present, to the tangible and to the imaginary. An environment rarely has a fixed meaning, Evendent argues, as years pass, situations change, as do the meanings that humans place onto the environment. Nature provides the framework on which human’s lay their self-serving definitions. Railroad developers, farmers, politicians, and fishery workers all have their own unique perceptions and definitions of what the Fraser embodies.  

Forests also hold a special place in American and Canadian imaginations, as well as in the two countries’ economies. Detailed management and conservation of the nations’ forests has been as important and contentious as water management. In The U.S. Forest Service: A History, Harold K. Steen, who served as executive director of the Forest History Society from 1978 to 1997, traces the development of professional forestry in the United States. Writing in the mid 1970s, Steen states that the United States Forestry Service’s health is contended by two major groups, both of which agree that the early goals of the agency were commendable. One group celebrates the achievements of the agency, and argues that any criticisms are from individuals that do not take into account the fact that it is impossible to satisfy everyone. The second group, Steen writes, believe that the earlier goals of the Forestry Service have been lost and the agency has gone astray.  

Steen writes that the Forest Service is the largest bureau in the Department of Agriculture, and therefore it deals with nearly every matter in the country that deals with forestry. Its objectives are so diverse and its origins so scattered that it is impossible to write an absolutely complete narrative of its development, Steen argues. Like William R. Lowry in The Capacity for Wonder, Steen places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of the forestry service’s employees. Forestry employees have immense pride for their work, he believes, and their experiences, both good and bad, give accurate measure to the effectiveness of the Forestry Service at any given time in history. “In a sense,” Steen states, “this book is dedicated to these people in the field who carry out their difficult and routine but still important assignments with pride and dedication,” despite discomforts and very little opportunity for advancement. Steen also contends that Forest Service policy is, indirectly, the result of changes in nation’s populace’s outlooks on conservation and forestry lands.  

At the core of the Forestry Service’s origins is the development of the nation’s public domain policy during the late 1800s. Steen recognizes Frederick Jackson Turner’s end of the frontier as a turning point in history when cheap resources came to an end and Americans had to awaken and adjust to a new, modern world. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which authorized the president to reserve certain forested lands from the public domain, marked the beginning of serious forestry practices in the United States. Steen tracks Gifford Pinchot’s role in forestry management, as well as he and Roosevelt’s conservation movement. Like Samuel Hays’, Steen illustrates the efficient and scientifically-minded characteristics of the movement. The idea was not to stop or cut off lands from timber production, but to better manage the timber industry, to ensure that timber resources were not diminished to the point that the damage could not be reversed. Steen highlights some of the fire suppression tactics highlighted by Stephen Pyne in Fire in America, but does not seem to have a strong opinion for or against such practices. One of the greatest threats and difficulties that faced forestry in its initial stages and has come to the forefront once again in contemporary times is the dilemma of multiple-use. Grazing and wildlife management uses have given way to the competing interests of recreation and preservation. Steen argues that cooperation between public and private sectors has dominated the Forest Service’s actions, in general. “Cooperation to inspire voluntary action,” as embodied by the Clarke-McNary Act, has been the main focus of the service, he writes. It was during the 1950s that the Forestry Service’s popularity began to fade. Arguments between conservationists and preservationists over such issues as recreational use and ecological damage divided the populace. This current division, at the time that he is writing, seems to trouble Steen, who concludes that a middle ground must be found so that the Forestry Service can continue to operate effectively.  

The scientific forestry methods developed in the United States greatly influenced the development of forestry in Canada, according to R. Peter Gillis and Thomas R. Roach. In Lost Initiatives: Canada’s Forest Industries, Forest Policy, and Forest Conservation, Gillis and Roach continue the theme of transnational, north-south trade of ideas and materials between the United States and Canada, as illustrated by other books in the section. Roach brings practical and firsthand knowledge of the subject to the analysis of Canadian forestry history, while Gillis, a Senior Public Servant with the Treasury Board Secretariat of the Canadian government, lends a more academic approach. Together, Roach and Gillis lament the disconnection between Canadians and their forests. They are no longer integral parts of everyday life; the number of professional foresters and lumbermen has decreased from nearly half of the populace gaining their livelihood from forests at the time of Confederation. Timber was Canada’s third great staple, after fur and fish. Canadians, Roach and Gillis argue, now view forests are inhospitable places, good for little more than a weekend camping trip. This change is a modern occurrence, they state, the foundation of which they attempt to demonstrate in Lost Initiatives 

The timber trade gained its footing during the era of the American Revolution and other conflicts, during which time Britain was hungry for timber, particularly for shipbuilding. As with fur and fish, Canada’s timber industry played its role as compliant, exploitive, and opportunistic staple provider. It was not until the 1880s and more significantly after the turn-of-the-century, like in the United States, that the exploitive ethic was replaced by scientific conservation and preservation. Three groups comprised Canada’s conservation movement: Canada’s burgeoning scientific community, concerned lumbermen, and environmental preservationists comprised of the country’s educated elite. Canada’s conservation steps, though unique to Canadian conditions, were greatly formed by the policies of Pinchot and Roosevelt, they argue. A large portion of the book is dedicated to tracing how these conservation initiatives played out in different provinces. Between 1911 and 1929, forestry conservation enjoyed a great deal of support from the public and the private forest industry. By the late 1920s, private industrial support began to wane, subsequently causing the entire movement to suffer.  

One of Roach and Gillis’ main arguments is that Canadian forestry has only been successful because throughout the years, at varying levels of intensity, the forestry industry has supported its efforts. As a result, forestry often shaped its goals to guarantee that the industry’s interests were taken into account. Roach and Gillis connect the current (1986) regretful conditions of Canadian forestry to the decline in support from the forestry industry in the 1930s onward. Roach and Gillis do not have the hopeful air that Steen exudes, instead they are set firmly in Steen’s camp of individuals that lament the decline of forestry and its “lost initiative.”

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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