Generational Landscape Change: Montana and Madrid

It’a been out for a while (so there are several reviews available ) but I only just got and started reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse (How societies choose to fail or survive). I’ve only read the first part (Modern Montana) so far, but already I’ve come across several parallels between the socio-economic changes, and their potential ecological impacts, occuring in the landscapes under Montana’s Big Sky and Madrid’s Sun-Blessed Skies.

The broad similarity between the change Diamond describes in Montana and that occurring in my PhD study area (SPA 56, an EU protection area for endangered bird species to the west of Madrid, Spain) is the shift from an economy and landscape driven by agricultural activity to one driven by recreational activities. Such a shift reflects both the differing visions of multiple stakeholders within these landscapes, but also generational changes in attitude between older inhabitants and their children and grandchildren. In Montana’s Bitteroot Valley larger macroeconomic changes nationally and internationally have made previously profitable extractive industries (forestry, mining and agriculture) largely unsustainable economically. This has come about as land is now valued not according to resource and agricultural production but according to real-estate potential for incoming retirees, second-homers and tourists. Incoming (usually older) ‘out-of-staters’ arrive to enjoy the outdoor recreation (fishing, hiking, etc.), beauty and lifestyle opportunities, replacing the younger generation of Montanans going the other way to seek modern urban lifestyle opportunities and lifestyles;

“It’s a wonderful lifestyle to get up before dawn and see the sunrise, to watch fly hawks overhead, and to see deer jump through your hay field to avoid your haying equipment. … Occasionally I get up at 3 AM and work until 10 AM. This isn’t a 9 to 5 job. But none of our children will sign up for being a farmer if it is 3 AM to 10 PM every day.”

Dairy Farmer, Montana

Locals in SPA 56 have expressed similar feelings and ideas when I have visited over the last few years. Younger generations that would have previously continued the family farm that has passed through generation upon generation of farmers, are now seeking out employment in construction and service sectors to secure what is understood as a more ‘modern’ lifestyle. A lifestyle that affords leisure time at specified times of the week and at regular intervals (i.e. the weekends and paid holidays);

“Most farmers are part-time, maintaining the tradition agriculture. The children or grandchildren of those [farmers] do not have interest [in agriculture] because is it not profitable and requires a lot of dedication. The youths go or they seek other work.”

Local Development Official, Madrid (2006)

In Montana, Diamond describes the conflicts that have arisen between existing inhabitants and the new-comers, each with differing world-views, priorities and values. For example, contrast the attitudes of the third generation dairy farmer fighting to ensure the survival of his farm in the global economy vs. the lady who complained to him when she got manure on her white running shoes. Of course, these multiple perspectives within the landscape are inevitable in a changing world and tools and strategies must be found and employed to ensure appropriate decisions and compromises are made. In my simulation model of agricultural decision-making I have attempted to represent the influence of two differing world-views on landscape change (as have other modellers). I have termed the representative agents ‘commercial’ and ‘traditional’; the former behaving as a perfectly rational actor (in economic terms), the latter designed to reflect the importance of traditional cultural values in land-use decision-making;

“Whoever has a vineyard nowadays is like a gardener… they like to keep it, even if they lose money. They maintain vineyards because they have done it all their life and they like it, even having to pay for it. If owners were looking for profitability there would be not a singe vineyard… People here grow wine because of a matter of feeling, love for the land…”

Vinter, Madrid (2005)

As the primary thesis of his book Diamond highlights, for both contemporary and historical societies, the impacts of social, economic and technological change on the physical environment, and the sustainability of those changes. Of the several issues of concern in Montana, those related to forestry and water availability are likely to be of most concern in SPA 56. One particular interest of my PhD thesis is the importance of changes in the landscape for wildfire regimes, which Diamond discusses with reference to previous management strategies of the Unites States Forest Service (USFS). Commercial forestry has not been a widespread activity in SPA 56, the nature and human history of Mediterranean ecosystems restricting contemporary timber productivity. However, the problems of increased fuel loads due to the fire suppression policies of the USFS during the 20th century may be beginning to present themselves in SPA 56. If the agricultural sector continues to decline due to the social and economic trends just outlined, farmland will (continue to) be abanoned or converted to recreational uses (for example, hunting reservations). In turn this will leading to increased biomass and fuel loads in the landscape. As yet the consequences of such change on the frequency and magnitude of fires in the region is unclear due to spatial relationships and feedbacks between vegetation growth and burning. In the very near future the results of my simulation model will be able shed some light on this aspect of the region’s changing landscape and ecology.

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