I (successfully) defended my dissertation over two weeks ago. I found the defense actually quite enjoyable, although I did sweat the entire time. Anyone who tells you not to be nervous for your defense is full of it. But the barbs were pretty toothless and I was pleasantly surprised about the nice things my committee members had to say about my work. I became Dr. Sirna after a few signatures over some Donut Country sweets that a friend left on my car that morning. I went to the gym afterwards to work out my nervous energy, and then I celebrated by drinking some shandy in my backyard, enjoying the sweet Tennessee sunshine.
There is no rest for the wicked, as they say. I went back to work the next morning and sat in a conference call about my next big project. I’ll probably say more about that in a few weeks. I finished up the last few copyedits of my dissertation and submitted the whole dang thing to the university, splurging on copyrights in the process. Enjoy, ProQuest.
Two days after submitting, I flew to Oakland, California for the George Wright Society meeting on parks and protected lands. The first time I attended this meeting coincided with sequestration, so not very many NPS made it to Denver that year. Fortunately, many natural and cultural resource managers from the NPS and other agencies did make it to Oakland. It was great to talk to managers again after so many months of dissertation writing. Here are some of my highlights from sessions:
- Katie Algeo, Western Kentucky University, and master’s student Collins Eke, presented their work on tracking migration patterns from Mammoth Cave National Park between 1920 and 1940. I can’t stress enough how important this work is to understanding the impact of populations living within proposed park boundaries. They were able to do this using data from the 1940 census. They found that many families remained in the area after the Kentucky National Park Commission purchased their land. Those that did move to cities tended not to go south, but north and west where jobs were available and could be accessed by the Dixie Highway. It’s interesting that people did not move to the county seat or Bowling Green, which is perhaps indicative of local politics.
- Climate change is a big topic at GWS, and cultural resources people take part in this conversation. I was interested to learn that Robert Melnick has a grant to research and write about climate change and cultural resources, which I look forward to reading.
- I learned about interesting work at Martin Van Buren’s Lindenwald and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park about using agricultural landscapes to engage local communities. However, this session got me thinking about how sites can do this when these places have difficult histories relating to population removal, slavery, share cropping, and migrant workers.
- I attended a focus session on philanthropy and indigenous cultures and learned about how native peoples in California have been working to preserve sacred places for their communities, such as through the Native American Land Conservancy.
- Lu Ann Jones held a workshop on oral history and wilderness, which I found quite fascinating since the two kind of seem like a paradox, but are perhaps very similar to one another.
My own panel was held the last day of the conference, which was on social policy and the national parks. Really, it was a fifty-year retrospective of how the agency has interacted with various social groups or was influenced by larger policy and trends. I spoke about the Job Corps program, using Catoctin Mountain Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and Mammoth Cave National Park as case studies. I concluded with some general recommendations for NPS managers, including oral history projects, resource documentation, and civic engagement. I was joined by John Sprinkle, NPS Bureau Historian, who described Francis P. Bolton’s efforts to preserve Mount Vernon’s view shed at Piscataway Park. Eleanor Mahoney, Ph.D. candidate at University of Washington and editor of Living Landscape Observer, argued that economic change is a driving factor to park creation. Chris Johnson, a historian in the NPS Pacific West office and another freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Washington, rounded out our panel to discuss his new administrative history on Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park in Hawaii and how the agency’s relationship with the native community has developed over time and became quite contentious at certain moments. Our presentations were well received by those hearty souls who decided to stick out the conference to the very end. Their general reaction was that the NPS needs to look at its own past more, and this inward reflection is often missing in park management. We hope to discuss these topics more frequently in the future.