Today, after many months of planning and discussion, I met with Catoctin’s Chief of Resources and my residency mentor to officially kick off the special resource study. I went over my mental checklist of housekeeping-type items that I needed to discuss (ie. keys, access, meetings, paperwork, and so forth) as I made the hour and a half drive from West Virginia to the park this morning. I did not anticipate a research lead to fall out of thin air.
We were interrupted by the telephone ringing, a common occurrence in the Resource Management office. A man called from the West Coast to request information on the Round Meadow area of the park. His family had owned that property since the early 1800s until the federal government acquired the property in the 1930s to create a Recreational Demonstration Area. He wanted to know tract numbers, dates of transfer, and names for his own family research. Coincidentally, Round Meadow happens to also be my main study site, because it has been the staging area for the WPA, CCC, Job Corps, and YCC throughout the park’s 75 year history.
We put the gentleman on speaker phone and I told him a little about my project. You see, human conservation refers to several different aspects of social reform not just work programs. One aspect is the removal of families from their land in order to create parks. Often times rural uplift accompanies natural conservation efforts. At Catoctin, the federal government deemed the land to be “submarginal” and that it was really in the landowner’s best interest to sell and create a better life elsewhere. So it was quite strange that this gentleman would call at the precise time of the meeting to ask for that particular information, but I am so very glad he did because it shows how this project can reach an audience well outside the park boundaries.
One challenge I have right from the start of this project is that “human conservation” is not a ready term that many people understand. When people ask what I’m doing they often give me a blank look when I say “a special historical study on human conservation.” I even struggle myself to cobble together a working definition, because I have found that it can have different meanings and refer to diverse programs. But reduced to its simplest terms, human conservation encompasses the idea that human beings are an important resource that need to be carefully managed like land and natural resources. This is an idea that people can relate to once they start thinking about it. The cold call from this gentleman was a glimpse of how a person with little knowledge of the term could quickly identify with its significance after a short explanation. It was also a great opportunity for NPS staff and myself to imagine how a completed study might impact certain individuals. This gentleman is probably just searching for genealogical information, but I hope to shine a different light on his family’s relationship to the land that is now a park.