Ideo-etymologies of the American West

Note: this was first published in August 2009 at the Delta National Park blog.

The word “reclamation” refers to a process that uses labor and technology to convert “useless” nature to land that works for an individual and a culture.

Reclamation is a clever and deeply deceptive word. Implicitly heroic, the word describes a process by which human beings transform a natural environment, begging the question: From what (or who) is this land being <i>reclaimed</i>? Nature? God? A pre-Colonial culture? All three?

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1869 Delta reclamation map (detail)

Until I began doing work on contentious spatial issues in Colonial – Native British Columbian relations, I didn’t realize that “reclamation” had an ideo-etymological partner in a British word referring to a process of property creation: preemption. As in “We preempt this regularly scheduled if differently inhabited land to bring you a new program – Property.”

What is preemption? To paraphrase British property law, land that is not “productively settled, with a proper fence, house and garden” shall not be considered “owned” and shall become the property of the Crown, who shall then redistribute (via preemption) it on the merits of those who are capable of capitalizing on that land’s economic potential. Migrant workers or peoples need not apply.

These two deeply ideological words are perhaps the best motivators of a deep skepticism one might develop over any nativist claims (as opposed to Native claims, which are no doubt legitimate and many in number) for a privileged right to the Delta. Or the claims of endangered fish, who seem to have developed the capacity to hire attorneys.

To reiterate: Beginning in the 1850s, land speculators like the Tide Land Reclamation Company first transformed the Delta from a more-or-less freshwater tidal estuary to a landscape of leveed, subsiding polders. As John Thompson’s unpublished 1959 PhD clearly outlines, much of the work was done by Chinese laborers in horrendous conditions. It is a remarkable history, actually — a landscape created by corporate interests, sold to small landowners, only to gradually re-aggregate to the ever-increasing large-scale ownership of most of the Delta that we see today.

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Large Owner Axis, Delta National Park Project

This is why the “local,” “they want our water” argument in today’s debate is so incomplete when it comes to representing the interests of the Delta. The Delta is not a monolithic constituency. Yes, there are people who live, work and play in the Delta that genuinely love this unique place and are tenacious in their resistance to seeing it change. Got that.

But there is another Delta-situated interest that has very different interests. Until just a few years ago, the Oregon State Teachers’ Pension Fund owned Staten Island. Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts had a stake in the Delta, as did Steve Wynn of MGM Grand fame. Today, the Metropolitan Water District, nee Kemper Insurance Group holding company owns four islands. Are these individuals and groups altruistic in their motives, or investing in the value of this piece of California real estate? Despite the Hilton family’s annual fireworks display, altruism hasn’t been a significant impulse in the Delta’s claiming and maintenance.

Like it or not, the ownership trend is toward land consolidation by large-scale, absentee interests. Essentially, they are reclaiming what they claimed in the first place.

Unless many of the pro-Delta folks are willing to convert to a pretty pure form of socialism, imagining that long traditions of living, working and playing in the Delta will be preserved intact is a nice thing to dream, but it is no less a fantasy that imagining that one day small, eco-friendly organic farmers working the soil behind their fortified, earthquake impervious levees will supplant the corporate owners who currently control the key geographies of the Delta.