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History in the Making

Philip Garone, an EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) graduate fellow, recently accepted a full-time tenure track position as an Assistant Professor of U.S. Environmental History at California State University, Stanislaus.

In his first year, he will be teaching classes on U.S. History, and in subsequent years, he plans on designing and teaching courses with titles like: Twentieth-Century Environmental Themes in U.S. History; Nature and Culture; World Environmental History; and The History and Ecology of California's Central Valley.

As a STAR fellow, Garone conducted a project called "The History and Ecology of California's Central Valley Wetlands" that combined the human history and ecology of the area since 1850. The project addressed the economic incentives for draining wetlands and compared them to the more recent environmental inducements to protect them.

Garone's research consisted of looking at historical sources, legislative proceedings, and scientific reports concerning both wetland and avian ecology and the environmental transformation of California's Central Valley. He addressed the large-scale conversion of the Central Valley into agricultural land, primarily in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, a process facilitated by California's massive water development projects. The ecological consequences of this conversion led to losses of essential wintering and breeding habitats for waterfowl and shorebirds of the Pacific Flyway, resulting in dramatic declines in populations. In addition, degradation of the remaining wetland habitat resulted in losses of native plant and animal species, and risks to endemic threatened and endangered species. During the 1980s, at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, many waterbirds were hatched with lethal deformities due to exposure to toxic levels of selenium that had been leached from agricultural fields and delivered to the wetlands in irrigation drainwater.

Because of these and other problems, there was a gradual shift in policy toward wetland protection. Since the 1930s, national wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas were established throughout the Central Valley to protect wetlands and the waterfowl they support. More recently, legislative initiatives, including the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, and private-sector/public-sector partnerships, such as the Central Valley Joint Venture (part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan), aim to protect and restore historical wetland habitat. Conservation easements protect much of the Central Valley's remaining privately held wetlands. Farmers now use new methods and practices to manage and reduce toxic elements in agricultural drainage water, and many flood their fields during the winter to provide additional habitat for waterfowl.

Garone's study provides scientists and policymakers with a long-term perspective of the ecological consequences of land-use decisions and water development projects that impact wetlands.

In addition to his EPA funding, Garone received grants from the Society of Wetland Scientists and the Huntington Library, and a dissertation-year fellowship from the University of California, Davis, to conduct this research.

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