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Hudson's Bay Company fur trapping policies set stage for modern environmental struggles

The Pacific Northwest has seen its share of major environmental battles. Now a new historical study of the fur trade indicates that early Europeans and Americans in the region struggled with similar issues nearly two centuries ago as they sought to exploit and preserve the area's natural resources.

In a pilot study examining the historical record for the National Park Service, a University of Washington researcher has found that the Hudson's Bay Company, the dominant outside force in the region during the early years of the 19th century, set the stage for later environmental struggles through its own sometimes conflicting policies.

Brian Schefke, a UW history doctoral student, said the firm failed as a force for conservation because it was constrained by its business strategy and the constant demand for profits.

"The company tried, but the very nature of the fur trade ultimately meant its conservation efforts couldn't succeed. It had to expand because its old beaver trapping grounds were in decline and this expansion brought ecological stress to new territory," he said.

In addition, it forever altered the Northwest landscape with the introduction of European farming methods and crops to supply its far-flung fur-trading empire. And later, when the supply of beaver pelts began to decline, the company began switching its focus from furs to firs. Export of commodities such as timber, fish and agricultural products from its farms became increasingly important sources of revenue.

Hudson's Bay Company was the preeminent outside influence on the Pacific Northwest from 1821 to 1846 when the Oregon Treaty fixed the border between American and British territory. That influence, although waning, persisted until 1871 when the company closed its last post in the United States.

The company gained its foothold on the Pacific Northwest when it absorbed a competitor, the North West Company in 1821. George Simpson, head of Hudson's Columbia De
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Contact: Joel Schwarz
joels@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
13-Dec-2004


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