The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor


Geography, Environment, and American Law.

By Gary L. Thompson; Fred M. Shelley, and Chand Wije, editors. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1997. Bibliographies. Notes. Index. x + 163 pages. $39.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Philip R. Pryde, Professor of Geography, San Diego State University, editor of San Diego: An Introduction to the Region (3rd ed. 1992).

The editors of this concise but informative volume note in the preface that law influences geography and geography influences law. For example, local legal provisions (zoning laws, general plans, etc.) have obvious influences on the appearance of the regional landscape. Geography, in turn, influences the law both through intrinsic physical absolutes (aridity, atmospheric conditions, etc.) and by technical input from geographers on many topics relating to the regional environment. That these relationships are rarely thought about as being mutually interdependent serves as both the justification and motivation for this volume.

The chapter authors explore those aspects of American law where geographers have had, and can have, the greatest influence. These areas include natural resource issues, the physical bases for environmental problems, natural hazards, and boundary issues. Regionally, case studies are drawn from Louisiana, California, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and several other states.

The volume has been prepared with the non-geographer in mind, as several early chapters (out of nine in all) elaborate upon what geography is and what geographers do. Chapters three through six discuss water, land, and mineral law, and constitute the heart of the volume. The middle three chapters are all well crafted, culminating in Matthews’ chapter on mineral rights which is commendably clear, logical, and easily comprehended. Chapters four through six will also be the most rewarding to those interested in the historical development of American law as it governs particular resources.

In a thought-provoking final chapter the editors elaborate on three current developments that could influence the nature of the 21st century relationship between geography and law. These are the post-Soviet “new world order,” the anti-federal government sentiment in contemporary America, and the GIS revolution in data analysis and mapping.

The book contains much valuable information, but is not without shortcomings. The chapters are unevenly written, with some being very clear and readable, while others are rather verbose, nebulous, and difficult to follow. The book is unusual (for geographers) in that it contains not a single instance of non-text material: no tables, figures, illustrations, or maps grace any of its chapters. This adds to the difficulty of following certain chapters.

This reviewer wishes that the editors had been a bit more authoritarian in carrying out their editorial prerogatives. As in many volumes that are collections of articles, the material in the various chapters could be better tied together and cross-referenced to create a more coherent book. As one example, Platt in chapter five introduces the key concept of spatial externalities. Yet the chapter on mineral rights that follows discusses the doctrine of “extralateral rights” (a textbook case of a geographic externality), but the term “externalities” never appears here to tie these concepts together.

Another example of a missed editorial opportunity occurs in chapter seven, which deals largely with boundary determinations. The author’s case study of Lake Pontchartrain virtually cries out for maps to assist the reader in visualizing the many boundary lines being described, but the editors did not insist on the inclusion of any maps with this (or any other) chapter.

One might also wish that the water resources chapter’s discussion of the public trust doctrine had included some mention of the critically important Mono Lake case in California, which has significantly revised the “ground rules” for the appropriation doctrine and interbasin water transfers in that bellwether state. It is equally surprising that the book has no mention at all of the role geographers have played in the ongoing challenge of political redistricting, especially in the state of Washington.

These omissions aside, the book performs well its stated objective of conveying to the reader the inseparable interplay between the fields of law and geography. It succeeds in its goals of 1) informing the lawyer of the role that geography plays in structuring laws to meet regional needs and variabilities, 2) informing geographers as to how they can better serve the process of creating more appropriate laws, and 3) informing those in other disciplines as to why this symbiosis is important. It is a recommended addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in America’s natural resources and the laws that govern their use.