Environmental conservation appears a simple enough concept until one must reconcile it with other considerations like development, justice for Indigenous lands and the economic interests of Americans whose income stems from the depletion of natural resources. At a Wednesday night panel, Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle and Visiting Assistant Professor of Earth and Oceanographic Science Evan Dethier and Brunswick Conservation Commission Chair Sandy Stott unpacked these concerns and the future of environmental conservation in the United States.
The panel is the first in a series called “Speaking on Sustainability”—an effort by Student EcoReps in the Sustainability Office to extend their work to the Brunswick community. Besides focusing on sustainable habits, the Sustainability Office is currently planning panels for next semester on transportation in Maine, environmental justice and agriculture.
Klingle remarked that environmental conservation in the US has historically come at the expense of Indigenous and other historically marginalized communities.
“The conservation movement is born out of this effort to try to preserve what was being lost in the natural world,” Klingle said. “And yet, every single major national park beginning with the first park created in 1872, Yellowstone, was created by the intentional expulsion of Indigenous peoples to create so-called wild spaces.”
Having extensively studied and written about the conservation landscape of Seattle, Wa., Klingle used the city as an example of this phenomenon.
“Many people see [Seattle] as this ecologically sophisticated place,” Klingle said. “Well, Seattle … is a city that ostensibly said it was close to nature, but that history of being close to nature meant the exclusion, the marginalization, the outright removal of Indigenous peoples and migrant laborers for the purpose of building the city and the economic powerhouse it is.”
Stott, a writer and a former editor of Appalachia Journal, emphasized the importance of accessible land that is free from development.
“[Such land] needs to be accessible to everybody who would like to go there, and it doesn’t need to have a kind of admissions quality to it, where if you feel comfortable going there you go there,” Stott said.
According to Stott, the tension between development and conservation is one that Brunswick faces as it looks to expand affordable housing while preserving its watershed.
The town recently purchased 283 acres of land in the Maquoit Bay Watershed to prevent a large-scale housing project of about 500 houses from occurring in the area. However, Stott thinks that development and conservation on that land are simultaneously feasible.
Dethier said that conservation should prioritize the function, rather than purity, of a landscape. He discussed the existence of over 90,000 dams in the United States as an example of this. Demolishing some of them, he said, would heal some of the damage done to freshwater systems in the country, even if such dams still have aesthetic value.
“In addition to using these as easy waste disposals humans have gone about damming and diverting a substantial percentage of global surface freshwater for various purposes, primarily agricultural dams,” Dethier said. “[They] impede fish passage, they change flow patterns, and they alter water chemistry and temperature on many rivers.… We hold back nearly the entire annual flow in giant reservoirs that form behind dams.”
Patrick Sullivan ’26, who attended the talk, said, “There are so many perspectives and histories you have to take into account that it’s not just a clear cut ‘We need to save land for X.’… There is also Y and Z, so there is really no obvious, correct answer.”
Mike Daly, a Brunswick resident and volunteer for the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, viewed the talk in terms of an age-old Bowdoin adage.
“I think all three of these speakers were excellent in saying that the part of the challenge is, how do we have conservation that really helps the Common Good?” Daly said.