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The Value of the George Wright Society Conference

By Eleanor Mahoney March 4, 2021

Over the past year, parks and other protected areas have served as sites of dialogue, research, and rejuvenation. But how do we ensure that these landscapes, which vary tremendously in their scale and their approaches to resource management, remain connected to one another? What mechanisms can be put in place to facilitate knowledge exchange among staff, partners, and volunteers? And how can we continue to bridge the artificial divides of science / humanities and nature / culture that (still) remain so pervasive? 

One place to looks for ideas on how best to foster crosscutting interchange is the George Wright Society (GWS). For 35 years (1982 – 2017), the GWS sponsored a biennial meeting that explicitly sought to bridge institutional and scholarly divisions. Named for George Meléndez Wright, the first chief of the National Park Service’s wildlife division, the GWS promotes protected area stewardship by bringing practitioners together to share their expertise. As David Harmon, the Society’s Executive Director, explained to me over email, “We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States. The GWS conferences modeled a kind of discourse — collegial, stimulating, and, yes, fun! — that really does bridge divides.” 

We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States.

David Harmon

In 2015, I had the chance to take part in the GWS biennial Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites in Oakland, California. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation on the politics of National Park creation after World War II and came hoping for some inspiration. At my panel, a number of the attendees had worked for the National Park Service (NPS) during the postwar period and generously shared their firsthand knowledge of events chronicled in my study. In addition, they and others present discussed how my findings might impact future NPS decision-making. There was a general openness to new ideas and a lack of pretension. It was an excellent meeting and I was already looking forward to future gatherings.

Unfortunately, the GWS conferences have been on hold since 2017. According to Harmon, the conference was negatively impacted by changes to federal government travel rules. After the media reported on a few extreme examples of employee misconduct at conferences (in no way linked to the GWS), scrutiny over all travel costs increased. It became almost impossible to plan any event with a large federal presence. Review by some departments became so onerous that approval or rejection of travel might only have occurred ten days before a meeting. Even with these challenges, the GWS still hopes to re-start its meetings, but much depends on how the federal government manages its travel programs in the future.

Origins of the GWS Conference Idea

The origins of the George Wright Society conference are quite interesting. Harmon told me that the roots actually go back to the late 1970s. During that period, two NPS scientists, Robert M. Linn and Theodore W. Sudia, helped organize two agency-wide science conferences. Both men also served as the chief scientist of the NPS and were among the co-founders of the GWS. The meetings proved valuable, and Linn and Sudia hoped to expand them. “They recognized the need for a mechanism of sustained information exchange to support better research and management, not just in terms of science, and not just in terms of US national parks, but across disciplines and for all kinds of parks, protected areas, and cultural sites,” Harmon noted.  “This was their key insight, and it became what sets GWS apart: the need to bring together people from different perspectives, from different disciplines, for the common purpose of conserving and protecting important place-based cultural and natural heritage.”

Building on those initial NPS-wide science conferences, while also expanding to include interdisciplinary perspectives, the first GWS meeting took place in 1982. This was only a few years after the organization’s founding in 1980. It took a little bit of time, but, by the 1990s, the GWS conferences had become one of the premier opportunities for protected area managers from across the U.S. – and indeed, the world – to gather and learn from one another. Rolf Diamant, who served as the superintendent of multiple NPS units and as a past president of the GWS board, emphasized the international significance of the meeting to me in an interview. He recalled that Tim Badman, Director of the Nature-Culture Initiative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), always tried to make the GWS meetings “because, as he could only get to the US infrequently, it was the one single event anywhere in the US where he could connect with the very latest in park & conservation thinking and practice – all under one roof.”  

Want to know more about the George Wright Society Conference? Read our interviews with David Harmon and Rolf Diamant.

As the conference matured, the GWS also sought to expand its reach and purpose. The organization, Harmon stressed, mounted sustained outreach to Native peoples through an Indigenous Involvement Working Group, “a Native-led group that had direct input into the conference program at the highest levels.” An Indigenous Participant Travel Grant Program, primarily funded through NPS donations, helped support this endeavor. In addition, a parallel program for students of color and other under-represented groups, the George Meléndez Wright Student Travel Scholarship, also took shape. Significantly, despite the conference hiatus, the Indigenous Involvement Working Group is still working on a number of projects.

The Value of the GWS Conference 

For agencies like the NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in-person interaction is essential, yet also limited. Geography is one challenge, but so too are intra- and inter- agency institutional silos. Exchange with academics, whose research often touches directly on protected area management, also remains uneven across programs and bureaus. This is why the George Wright Society conferences were so vital.

The meetings brought diverse groups of people together, to share ideas, experiences, and perspectives in often unscripted and creative ways. As Diamant put it, the meetings “engaged an interesting mix of academics and practitioners presenting on both theory and practice. These were not two separate worlds (the agency and the academy) coming together for a meeting, rather, the program was largely made up with presentations and panels that referenced university projects being undertaken in parks and in partnership with park staff.”

Dr. Stephanie Toothman, who served as the National Park Service Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Partnerships, and Science, also commented on the uniquely interdisciplinary nature of the conference. She served for seven years on the GWS board and supported the events as NPS Associate Director. “The conferences were very valuable in providing an inter-disciplinary forum to discuss issues of common interest from climate change to cultural landscapes and wilderness…the latter three topics were repeated over and over again. There was nothing like it and there still isn’t,” she told me. Toothman also commented on the importance of the GWS as a venue for practitioners in the NPS to share their research with colleagues inside and outside the agency. “Another value is that the conference provided opportunities for resource staff in the field to present without the peer review of journals.  So the conferences presented a lot more hands-on research than your standard professional conference.”

Looking Ahead – What Do you Think?

What does the future hold? Ideally, the Society would re-start its meetings as soon as possible, but given the pandemic, as well as the ongoing uncertainties of federal government funding, that appears unlikely – at least in the near term. Also, the climate impacts of air travel, especially, must be considered as we plan for events in the future.

The past year has demonstrated the value and malleability of virtual gatherings (webinars, conferences) but also their limitations. Great, even amazing, content is available, but interaction, especially spontaneous exchange, is limited. Rather than chatting with the person sitting next to you, we are often just a number on the bottom of a screen during a Zoom meeting, sending our questions anonymously to a moderator. The ability to form lasting connections just is not there for the most part. Mentoring opportunities are also limited. As Diamant noted, “by not meeting occasionally in person, you are also passing on opportunities to meet and get to know other people with similar interests and informally build collegial networks. Large organizations like NPS really benefit from this networking and from problem solving based on personal relationships with people scattered across the system.”   

Going forward, smaller, hybrid meetings may be an option – one I would love to see. Attendees in a local area might come together, with others able to attend virtually. Maybe a version of “speed networking” will launch virtually as well, which might aid in meeting new people, especially across experience, age, and background. Equity needs to be built into all gatherings from the ground up too. Virtual meetings allow those who might not have access to travel funds or the professional flexibility to travel to take part in important conversations – whether presenting information or asking important questions of those speaking. Accessibility must also be considered and prioritized from the beginning when planning any virtual or in-person meetings – and there is much to do to improve accessibility in both cases.

No matter what, we need more, much more, of the type of crosscutting conversations that took place at GWS conferences. With new leadership in federal land management, preservation, and humanities agencies, 2021 may offer a chance to re-new and build upon these types of gatherings. 

______________

To learn more, read interviews with David Harmon and Rolf Diamant. The LLO thanks Harmon, Diamant, and Dr. Stephanie Toothman for sharing their insights into the history of the GWS conference program.


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Naturecultures Dialogues: The theory of naturecultures integration

By Guest Observer June 28, 2020

Session 7 with Je-Hun Ryu and Fran Han

In our new series of naturecultures sessions that runs from May to September 2020, we followed a different format than before. Presentations are pre-circulated, leaving most of the dialogue session open for active discussion. In this particular session we had two separate presentations circulated under the theme Theory of Naturecultures Integration. The abstract, and link for each of these presentations are included below. 

As opening to the discussion Maya summarised the two presentations as follows: In both presentations, Je-Hun and Fran point at the problem of using the concept behind World Heritage “cultural landscape” in Korea and China respectively, because it follows a modern Western-European idea of nature, as separate from culture. They both explained the historical background in their own contexts of an undivided nature-culture paradigm, and where humans are understood as part of the natural world. Je-Hun points at a regional particularity of understanding landscapes in Asia, while Fran focuses on the environmental ethics as applied in a Chinese context. She recalls the Confucionist and Taoist philosophies which are complementary and underpin Chinese peoples’ relationship and interactions with the non-human. As opening question, Maya asked Je-Hun and Fran to share how they confront this Western naturecultures divide in their own work. When approaching it from a different cultural and philosophical background, how they reconcile these two worlds in their discourse and practice.

Abstract by Je-Hun Ryu: 

Bridging nature-culture dualisms in the conservation circles: A Perspective from cultural landscape 

Since 1992, those landscapes, which were thought to have outstanding universal values in terms of interaction between people and their natural environment, have been protected as World Heritage Cultural Landscapes. However, even if the term cultural landscape is now widely circulated internationally, its use in Asia still presents problems. There is a need to look closely at regional values and their inextricable connection to the continuing process of landscape creation in Asia. I will review “the rise of cultural landscape” as a means of bridging the nature-culture dualism in the conservation circle, while drawing an example from my research experience in an area called Wando Archipelago in Korea. Then, to conclude, I will propose several theoretical issues to be considered in recognizing and protecting the values of cultural landscapes within the Asian context. Theoretical issues to be proposed for our discussion are like the following: cultural ecology, environmental aesthetics, landscape as a way of seeing, and landscape phenomenology. 

Link to Presentation HERE

Abstract by Fran Han:

Cross-cultural confusion

The presentation aims to explore the root of the debates in the field culture-nature related conservation from environmental philosophical perspective. Five value-based central questions of environmental philosophy are interpreted and the philosophical and religious root of the dichotomy of culture and nature in the West are explored.  The Chinese traditional philosophy of Oneness with Nature provides an eastern perspective of culture-nature relationship and to understand the human-nature intertwined Chinese landscapes. The presentation calls for the awareness and understanding of the intrinsic and instrumental value of nature, and learning from each other through multi-cultural dialogue in naturecultures journey. 

Link to Presentation HERE

Attendees

1Alicia Cahn (AC)13Ken Taylor (KT)
2Ana Bajcura (AB)14Leticia Leitao (LL)
3Brenda Barrett (BB)15Marike Franklin (MF) Dialogues Convenor
4Carlo Ossola (CO)16Mary Laheen (ML)
5Cira Szklowin (CS)17Maya Ishizawa (MI) Moderator
6Fran Han (FH) Co-chair and Presenter18Nora Mitchell (NM) 
7Gabriel Caballero (GC)19Nupur Prothi (NP) Co-Chair
8Greg de Vries (GdV)20Patricia ODonnell (POD)
9Jane Lennon (JL) 21Steve Brown (SB) Co-chair
10Jessica Brown (JB)22Tim Badman (TB)
11Je-Hun Ryu (JR) Presenter23Tomeu Deya (TD)
12Jon Weller (JW)  

SUMMARY

Naturecultures integration/separation?  SB: Fascinating point that ‘interaction between nature and culture’ is predicated on the belief or philosophy that these things are separate in the first place. SB: I was fascinated in the discussion by the challenges to come to grips in all parts of the world with the need to understand what is meant by ‘interaction’ between people and the environment – as the basis for understanding the idea of cultural landscape. As I said in a ‘Chat’ comment, ‘interaction’ necessary presupposes that there are pre-existing separate entities (in this case of cultural landscapes, these entities are nature and culture). So, no wonder it is problematic in China and Korea to apply the notion of ‘interaction between nature and culture’ if, in these countries, these constructs are not viewed as separate. In my writing and thinking on naturecultures, I have promoted the idea of ‘intra-action’. Thus, while INTERACTION assumes that nature and culture are separate domains or ‘silos’ and agencies that precede their interaction; by contrast, INTRA-ACTION (or entanglement) recognises that distinct agencies do not proceed, but rather emerge through, their intra-action (i.e., naturecultures) (cf. Barad 2007, p.33)[1]. In other words, nature and culture are not separate or even linked domains, but rather they are mutually constituted; and nature culture have always evolved one with the other in ways that are so intertwined as to be impossible to meaningfully disassociate. I think the idea of intra-action may make more sense in conceptualising cultural landscapes in different cultural contexts.     A second point I would make is that the nature / culture separation is often framed as a Western construct, which it is. However, within the Western world this thinking or practice is not universal; and particularly in local contexts. Fabrizio Frascaroli and Thora Fjeldsted (2019) have a great chapter in this regard – looking at traditions of agriculture, animal husbandry, and craftsmanship in mountainous areas in Italy, where Christianity and spirituality are mingled with local folk beliefs and pre-Christian heritage. That is, the ‘spiritual values of nature’ are expressed in material practices and rituals by ‘local and rural communities – even those living in apparently modernised, Western settings’. I am sure many of us can think of and have observed other such examples. LL: What If we don’t always think of cultural landscapes as a symbiotic or harmonious relationship between humans and nature but as destructive? We have recognised many cultural landscapes in the World Heritage list, such as mining landscapes, that are actually the result of the destruction of the nature over the years.SB, LL
Different categories for the inscription of properties on the World Heritage list? PoD: For Korea – How is JeJu inscribed? As a Mixed Property? We might say that it is an inscribed cultural landscape. FH: Do you see the Chinese Scenic and Historic Scene Interest Areas as always equivalent to the WH construct of cultural landscapes? FH: Now in China many cultural landscapes are from ordinary landscape (rural landscapes…) GC: From my understanding, the classifications are sometimes also a practical question of challenges on inscription in world heritage. For some countries it is depending on what is easier to submit. The focus of a cultural landscape (mainly following the cultural criteria, with natural values) vs natural heritage (with some cultural values) are evaluated and written differently by the stakeholders who craft the message. JB: These examples you are citing (JR) might be categorized as IUCN Category V? Or consistent with this. Note that the definition of IUCN Category V- Protected Landscapes and Seascapes- includes specifically this element of interaction. An area of land, with coast and sea as appropriate, where the interaction of people and nature over time has produce dan area of distinct character with significant aesthetic, ecological and/or cultural value, and often with high biological diversity.Safeguarding the integrity of this traditional interaction is vital to the protection and evolution of such area.  JL: Australia was a major player in getting the 1992 change to criteria which introduced the cultural landscape categories. We had recognised by then, despite our colonial eyes, that as for Indigenous people there is no separation of nature and culture and the land is a living entity – it is them. So, our landscapes are deeply entangled and the Aboriginal English word is ‘country’ which signifies all this. This concept has been appropriated by government programs such as Caring for Country[2] and it helps us all here to do away with artificial boundaries, except for the legal titles of land as in private or public reserves.
    The spiritual value of nature through European immigrants agricultural and horticultural practice in colonial lands is another avenue of research in intangible heritage in South Australia, as is the Aboriginal-European interaction and adoption of each other’s practice in colonial Tasmania in the first two decades of 19th century with a kangaroo economy[3].     With the current lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic many urban people are longing to connect with nature -at least in wide open spaces and parks.
PoD, FH, GC, JB, JL
‘Western’ naturecultures Dualism SB: Important point about ‘high culture’. This is the situation in the Western naturecultures dualism. Things can be very different at local community levels.  BB: Agree with SB, so the struggles we have in wrapping our arms around the concept and management of rural landscape is so important.  ML: I feel that the question of dualism and non-dualism in our approach to cultural landscape is so much at the core of our work and our thinking, that it is a discussion which will permeate our discussions as we go forward into the summer with these on-line sessions. I appreciated hearing about the philosophical underpinnings of non-dualism in the approach of China and Korea to Nature-Culture. The concept of ‘cultural landscape’ may be a Western concept, but it is also true to say that ‘the West’ in this regard wears a multi-coloured coat, and there is diversity in the culture of the West with regard to Nature, which Steve and others have already touched on. Perhaps it would be true to say that Genesis and Descartes are at one end of the spectrum, and there are many calibrations in-between. I think of Shakespeare’s – Mid-Summer Night’s Dream – in which the spirits and the humans, the flowers, and the Moon herself seem to speak in a multiplicity of voices that are at the same time one voice, in a circular swirling motion that transports us from nightfall to morning. Or, St, Francis of Assisi who sang to the birds and wrote the Canticle of the Sun.      While 13th century Italy and Elizabethan England were at the heart of the European cultural world of their times, here in Ireland in those centuries we were at the edge of the world. The Celtic hegemony, which had once held throughout most of Europe, had continued in Ireland for more than a thousand years after it had been overcome elsewhere by the invading Romans. Consequently, and especially, when we look at our landscape, we see traces of the Druidic and Celtic culture that responded to Nature in a somewhat different way to the Classical World. It is a landscape that even today is ‘replete with field monuments’ from the Celtic past, and manifests a land division system devised, probably in the early Medieval period and perhaps before. Of course, the landscape also shows traces of the years of colonisation and more recently, modernisation, and therefore changing attitudes to the Nature-Culture amalgam. I suppose that as we work with landscape, we begin to realise that as Steve says nature and culture “are mutually constituted; and nature / culture have always evolved one with the other in ways that are so intertwined as to be impossible to meaningfully disassociate”     Here, in my study of Irish rural landscapes I have found the work of the Australians, learning from indigenous peoples and their relationship to ‘country’ which JL references, very helpful. That is not to say that Irish farmers and rural dwellers have the same relationship to the landscape as the Aboriginal people of Australia, but, neither are they Descartes! They live to a large extent with and from the land, and their relationship to it is different from city-dwellers like myself who come to write and think about it! I’m working with this now as I look at a rural landscape of upland hill farmers, which I hope to share with you later in the summer. POD: Thanks for your well stated and interesting commentary from an Ireland viewpoint with a complex Celtic, Druidic history. I find it interesting as well because my viewpoint is both urban and rural- city born, rural dwelling and land based. KT: I was hoping to offer some comments on country and culture and landscape and culture and that landscape is about people and ideologies, not things. SB, BB, ML, PoD, KT
Language and perspective CO: It would be interesting to know better the linguistic and translations of the term cultural landscapes. Even in European languages we have very different terms, that leads to incomprehension.  NP: On the point about language – There are different understandings for the word ‘cultural’ and ‘landscape’ in Eastern (Asia-pacific) and Western cultures. In Asia there is confusion about what Cultural Landscape really means (Han 2018, p70). Not being able to express a lot of the thinking, terminology and values that goes into our cultures, in many cultures it is complicated on a colonial layer as well. Here we have another layer to contend with, where we have to start thinking about nature about beauty. NP: What we see in practice because of our education is not what someone else sees stakeholder/community/dweller. A lot of times we see chaos, dirt and filth and they see something else. That has always been difficult- how do we learn from them.  MF: I was reminded of Tension 2 Observation/Habitation in the introductory section of John Wylie’s (2007) book: Landscape on page 4-6.  What also came to mind was a project we engaged with as students in an informal settlement in South Africa. We launched a ‘I Love Alaska’ photography competition, as an alternative analysis strategy (inspired by Nabeel Hamdi) to understand our site, and to eventually respond with an infrastructural development framework. We asked some of the youth that we met on the streets to take pictures (portable cameras) of what they saw as positive; ‘loved’ about Alaska. Alaska is the name of the informal settlement because it was so far removed from the main centre of Pretoria. What came back was a set of pictures that pointed to all the issues of the site. Dangerous, exposed overhead electrical cables, poor sanitation, litter etc etc. The one picture we thought reflected at least the one positive feature of the site (apart from those that had friends/people in them) was the beautiful view… When we engaged with this picture, we got a resounding ‘no’ it reminds us how far removed we are from any opportunity. This situation taught us about our own pre-conceived ideas (often involuntary) that we enter a site with and how important it is to always find a way to test/deconstruct our own perceptionsCO, NP, MF
Charters and diverse lenses FH: Chinese traditional perspective is only one cultural perspective in the world. All nations have their own perspectives. That’s cultural diversity.  AB: I think that it’s important to “meeting diversity”. Maybe it’s interesting to think that each one finds his one identity, his differences, looking inside his one naturecultures and based on this …. being able to explain the differences between European, Asian, African, pacific and American that make this an enormously rich world. If we can understand our differences, we can understand our coincidences, equalities, too. We can learn to walk between diversity. Latin-American people hasn’t the same occidental naturalcultural/ landscape concept that Europeans has. Because their indigenous/ European/ Spanish people, geography, climate, language, religion, etc. I am proud of Landscape Charter of The Americas, because it really identifies me. (and it isn’t the same of the European one).FH, AB
What should we take forward from these presentations? NP: What can this group do on their second life, building onto the presentation. What would the presenters like this group to take forward? NM: You both mentioned the importance of talking about value as- can you imagine a way forward that we can find ways to encourage mor of this dialogue? JL: My take-home points from our two presenters were:
Fran Han
Environmental lessons to be learnt from Indigenous people -live in harmony, return to the land to alleviate estrangement from nature
Je-Hun Ryu
Gap between international framework for universal CL values and the establishment of a set of regional values firmly embedded in rich SEA and EA cultural processes -rich heritage of CLs of Asia Experiment with set of theories to connect OUVs with regional values embedded in Asian CLs -cultural ecology, environmental aesthetics, landscape as a way of seeing, landscape phenomenology 
NP, NM, JL

Circulated pre-reading:

Reading by Je-Hun Ryu: 

Je-Hun Ryu, 1998, “Regional Human Ecosystem and Cultural Adaptation in Rural Korea,” Journal of the Korean Geographical Society, Vol. 33, Special Issue, pp. 697-707. (Attached)

John Wylie, 2007, Landscape, London and New York: Routledge. (downloaded from https://epdf.pub/landscape-key-ideas-in-geography.html, and the PDF attached)

Peter Howard et. al. (eds.), 2013, The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies,London: Routledge. (an extract of Peter Howard attached)

Reading by Fran Han: 

Light, A. and Rolston, H. I. ed.  (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Malden, MA, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Han, F. (2008) Cross-cultural Confusions: Application of World Heritage Concepts in Scenic and Historic Areas in China. In The Wilderness Debate Ranges On: Continuing the Great New Wilderness Debate, Ed. Michael P. Nelson, J. Baird Callicott, P252-263.University of Georgia Press. Georgia: USA. (Attached.

Han,F.(2018).World Heritage Cultural Landscapes: An Old or a New Concept for China? Built Heritage.No.3 Volume 2.pp68-84 (Attached). 


[1] Karen Barad, 2007. _Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Fabrizio Frascaroli and Thora Fjeldsted, 2019. Exporing spiritual and religious values in landscapes of production: lessons and examples from Italy. In: Bas Verschuuren and Steve Brown (eds), _Cultural and Spiritual Significance of Nature in Protected Areas: Governance, Management and Policy_, pp. 264-277. London and New York: Routledge.

[2] ‘Caring for Country’ in Graham Fairclough, Ingrid Sarlöv Herlin, Carys Swanwick [eds], Routledge Handbook of Landscape Character Assessment: Current approaches to characterisation and assessment, 2018, Routledge, London, pp. 203-16

[3] See Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce, 2008, Black Inc publisher. 

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