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Tracking interpretations of Nature

“I’m pig-headed,” says Rik Scarce, tugging his ball cap on tighter. “With important things, I can be pretty determined”—enough, in fact, to do jail time in defense of his scholarly principles.

A journalist turned sociologist, Scarce had extensively researched Eco-Warriors, his 1990 book about radical environmental activism. When one of his sources became the chief suspect in a laboratory break-in, Scarce was interrogated about him. He refused to answer certain questions, citing his vow to protect the confidentiality of his sources, and a judge tossed him in jail for contempt of court. Scarce stayed mum, and incarcerated, for a headline-making 159 days, until the judge gave up and let him go.

“I’m an absolutist about confidentiality,” Scarce avers. “Journalists and scholars are fact-finders for society. When people trust them and speak frankly to them, they can elucidate public policy and its effects—and that can bring insights that could even help prevent future crimes.” (Scarce readily stipulates that foreknowledge of a criminal act would oblige him to warn the police; but after the fact, loyalty to his source comes first.) In attacking the code of confidentiality, “the authorities worked to stifle knowledge, to continue their own ignorance, about the activist groups they were trying to investigate,” he says. One positive outcome: he recently completed a book about his jail experience, to be published this spring.

After teaching at large state campuses in Montana and then Michigan, Scarce came to Skidmore (“my dream school”) in 2003. And he brought a long-term project with him: a study of the people affected by wolf protection and reintroduction policies around Yellowstone National Park and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After ten years of research, he’s begun publishing articles in sociology journals—a systematic way of preparing a full-scale book.

Scarce uses “social constructivism” to study how people construe—that is, develop and apply meanings for—things in their lives. (His 2000 book, Fishy Business, explored social constructions of salmon: as wildlife, as income source, as bio-engineered farm animal.) Wolves, he says, are often “a stand-in for nature, with a capital N. Thus they can mean wilderness and purity, or disaster and pestilence. As one interviewee told me, We don’t bring back smallpox just because we’ve driven it to extinction, so why reintroduce wolves?” But others—even ranchers who’d lost livestock to wolf predation—saw wolves “as a completion of a healthy ecosystem. With wolves back, their world made more sense to them.”

Upon analyzing his data, Scarce was surprised to find “how much chaos had been generated by a law. Laws are supposed to correct chaos.” Because of endangered-species restrictions and reintroduction measures, for example, “ranchers feel prevented from protecting their livestock, while wildlife managers feel prevented from making the best decisions for •problem’ wolves, such as euthanizing them rather than having to transport them elsewhere to face territorial battles and other trauma.”

In the Yellowstone area, Scarce found a strong divide between traditional ranching folk and incoming parvenus just looking for an escape from urban stresses. He reports, “Most ranchers lead a hardscrabble existence; they barely get by. I could sympathize with their plight: If losses to wolves put them out of business, that would mean a loss of their whole way of life.” These traditionalists gave Scarce a message for the vacation-home set: You New Yorkers want more wolves? Fine. Let’s put some in Central Park.

“Fascinating tensions!” says Scarce. And he’s already planning his next inquiry into societal conflicts over natural resources: a social history of the Hudson River. The river’s early role as
a route into the wilderness, its crucial supply of water for metropolitan development, its pollution and recent cleanup controversies—that should give an indefatigable researcher and critical analyst like Scarce plenty to sink his teeth into. —SR

Learn more about Yellowstone's wolves.