September 22, 2010
17 illus.
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August 8, 2012
17 illus.
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Seeking Refuge

Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway

Each fall and spring, millions of birds travel the Pacific Flyway, the westernmost of the four major North American bird migration routes. The landscapes they cross vary from wetlands to farmland to concrete, inhabited not only by wildlife but also by farmers, suburban families, and major cities. In the twentieth century, farmers used the wetlands to irrigate their crops, transforming the landscape and putting migratory birds at risk. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded by establishing a series of refuges that stretched from northern Washington to southern California.

What emerged from these efforts was a hybrid environment, where the distinctions between irrigated farms and wildlife refuges blurred. Management of the refuges was fraught with conflicting priorities and practices. Farmers and refuge managers harassed birds with shotguns and flares to keep them off private lands, and government pilots took to the air, dropping hand grenades among flocks of geese and herding the startled birds into nearby refuges. Such actions masked the growing connections between refuges and the land around them.

Seeking Refuge examines the development and management of refuges in the wintering range of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Although this is a history of efforts to conserve migratory birds, the story Robert Wilson tells has considerable salience today. Many of the key places migratory birds use — the Klamath Basin, California’s Central Valley, the Salton Sea — are sites of recent contentious debates over water use. Migratory birds connect and depend on these landscapes, and farmers face pressure as water is reallocated from irrigation to other purposes. In a time when global warming promises to compound the stresses on water and migratory species, Seeking Refuge demonstrates the need to foster landscapes where both wildlife and people can thrive.

About the Authors

Robert M. Wilson is associate professor of geography at Syracuse University.


"Wilson puts the biological problems within the context of a long history of competing land-use interests, water entitlements, and overlapping mandates of powerful federal agencies. . . . This is a very clearly written book that deals concisely with a hundred years' worth of complex confrontations and conflicts. . ."—Gary Kaiser, BC Studies, Win 2011/12

"“The ultimate value of this book lies in its empathetic illumination of the complexities of human-environment relationships, thoroughly documenting how they have been manipulated over time yet also seeking clarity and inspiration for the future. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares for the past, present, and future of the American West."—Craig S. Revels, Journal of Historical Geography, November 2013

"This thoughtful and engaging book blends agricultural history, environmental history, ecology, and historical geography into a compelling narrative that traces the co-evolution of waterfowl management and irrigated agriculture . . . points to how agricultural historians can and should make room for wild nature."—Mathew Klingle, Agricultural Histor, Fall 2011

"Whether readers' partiality tends toward politics, water management, agriculture, wildlife conservation, or history, all will find something of interest and hopefully learn from the past how to better manage these varied and valuable resources in the future."—James C. Bartonek, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2011

". . . essential reading for all who are interested in the protection of wildlife that must survive within intensely transformed landscapes."—Philip Garone, Environmental History, July 2011

"In Seeking Refuge, Wilson seamlessly fuses geography and cultural, political, and environmental issues related to land use patterns and wetland management. . . . [T]he content is easy to understand, not overly technical, and presented in a logical chronological progression. While this is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students, it is also useful for anyone with an interest in migratory birds and wetland management as well as those interested in US environmental issues and environmental history."—Choice

"Seeking Refuge approaches the region at several scales simultaneously. As a result, Wilson provides a rich analysis of land and water use; waterfowl migration and conservation; biologists, wildlife agents, and hunters; and the transformation of multiple landscapes. His thoughtful study also enhances our appreciation of the remarkably resilient birds, whose semiannual migrations continue to lift our spirits."—Science

"This concise, understated, well-crafted work allows readers to reach their own conclusions…. Wilson suggests that wildlife habitat cannot truly be restored to its original state. Like it or not, when we try to save nature we inevitably change it. This is true on the planetary scale and the local scale. By looking to the past, Wilson helps us peer into the future, as we try to imagine the consequences of our efforts and proposals to engineer our way out of the latest environmental crisis."—American Scientist

"For anyone who has followed the ongoing disputes on water allocations in the Upper Klamath Basin, Seeking Refuge… is a book to devour."—Klamath Basin Herald and News

"This compelling story of action and reaction that saved numerous species of migratory ducks and geese is detailed and easy to read."—Wildlife Activist


"The author’s skill in examining the interplay between wild birds, their increasingly manufactured habitats, and the varied human institutions responsible for altering them makes for a compelling story that readers will find fascinating."—William K. Wyckoff, Montana State University

"Wilson ranges across the entire refuge system of the Pacific Slope in order to observe the dynamics and management challenges associated with the whole flyway. The result is a tour de force of historical and geographical analysis that will surely become a standard work on its subject."—William Cronon, University of Wisconsin

"By surveying the complex history of the Pacific Flyway, Robert Wilson has provided us with the portrait of a win—win ecology, one where the needs of a bewildering variety of migratory waterfowl are met even amidst the surging activity, agriculture, and land transformations of humankind. More than this, he has shown us that such reconciliation ecologies are very political indeed. Eschewing environmental romances typical of conservation by stressing historical struggles over land and water, Wilson nevertheless preserves a wonder for a 'natural' world always in—the—making."—Paul RobbinsProfessor of Geography at the University of Arizona and, author of Lawn People

"How do American farm policies reshape wild landscapes to produce food for people? How do American wildlife policies reshape wild landscapes to produce habitat for ducks? These may seem like quite different questions, but Robert Wilson's Seeking Refuge brilliantly reveals the interconnections between wildlife refuges and agricultural systems in the West. Wilson explores how the toxic waste water running off farm fields became integral to wildlife refuges. Irrigated agriculture fed a hungry nation while it created wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl. But the results poisoned both chicks and children. Clearly argued and wonderfully written, Seeking Refuge illuminates the intricate connections between wildlife and people in America."—Nancy Langston, University of Wisconsin—Madison

University of Washington Press
Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books

9780295990026 : seeking-refuge-wilson-cronon
320 Pages
$99.00 USD
9780295992112 : seeking-refuge-wilson-cronon
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