Protecting People, Protecting Places: What Environmental Litigation Conceals and Reveals about Rurality

Journal of Rural Studies (2016) Forthcoming

UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 490

Posted: 17 Mar 2016 Last revised: 1 Jun 2016

Lisa R. Pruitt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Linda Sobczynski


Date Written: March 15, 2016


This paper considers how conservation litigation seeking to protect wilderness from degradation can overlook those living nearby or within it, even though the degradation also threatens residents. We use as a case study the controversial siting of a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in a chronically impoverished, all-white community in the remote Arkansas Ozarks of the United States. Because the CAFO is at the cusp of federally protected wilderness, it attracted the attention of national conservation interests, who sued seeking the CAFO’s closure.

These events provide a basis for illustrating how and theorizing why the community was disserved by both its rurality and its whiteness. We suggest that widely held rural associations with the pastoral and bucolic — imaginaries that are at least implicitly white — may have blinded those strategizing the litigation to the place’s deep and entrenched poverty and therefore to the residents’ vulnerability. Alternatively, the conservation-oriented plaintiffs and attorneys may have viewed these poor white residents as transgressing wilderness — as having trashed pristine nature by their very presence — and thus as unworthy of advocacy. Either way, the plaintiffs did not bolster their conservationist claims with environmental justice advocacy, presumably because of the absence of a clear optical trigger for the latter.

Finally, we consider these events through three lenses typically associated with environmental law: conservationist, economic, and social (environmental justice). Finding each of these lacking, we illustrate how the robust and multi-dimensional concept of rurality can synthesize these individual frames while surfacing voices and issues not otherwise heard. Turning a rural lens on these events also reveals socio-spatial obstacles to environmental justice, explaining, for example, why multi-generational residents are unwilling to assert their legal rights. The paper is thus essentially a meta-narrative of rurality.

Keywords: environmental justice, environmental racism, rural poverty, race, whiteness, rural, wilderness, environmental law, conservation, localism, persistent poverty, rural imaginaries, legal geography

Suggested Citation

Pruitt, Lisa R. and Sobczynski, Linda, Protecting People, Protecting Places: What Environmental Litigation Conceals and Reveals about Rurality (March 15, 2016). Journal of Rural Studies (2016) Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 490. Available at SSRN:

Lisa R. Pruitt (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

Linda Sobczynski

Independent ( email )

No Address Available

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