Where would we and the manatees be had it not been for the work of early conservationists? The struggle to protect national lands, waterways and sites goes on.
More than five generations ago, a few leaders in this country showed courage and vision. They confronted forces that were dedicated to using the so-called free gifts of nature without regard for the damage wrought on the landscape.
The economic and political interests these leaders opposed were powerful: timber, mining, railroads, and a rapidly growing oil industry, all linked to burgeoning firms that needed natural resources for production. These industries played an important role in developing the country, for better and for worse. Whatever the benefits of industrialization, these businesses also significantly destroyed the environment, stripping timber from the surface and gouging the earth for coal, iron and other minerals.
There was damage done by smaller economic and political interests, too, the individual citizens who wanted land for farming and ranching. Maybe they appreciated the landscape. Maybe they didn’t. But most held a single-minded goal: to wrest a living from the land, no matter what the longer-run cost. Land was free or cheap. It was plentiful. Sometimes it was productive and profitable.
In the years after the Civil War, some leaders saw a growing crisis: a rich continent with barren, eroded hillsides, fields with gullies, dirty water, foul air, and vanishing plant and animal species. Rapacious logging, agriculture, and mining had denuded hillsides and valleys, fouling waterways with soil and waste chemicals. Industrial operations were polluting the air with toxic smoke and the water with even more waste. This was the free market at work, unfettered by regulations and, in fact, aided by generous government subsidies of cheap land and low or nonexistent taxes.
The emerging group of conservationists wanted a better future, and they fought for it in legislatures across the country, in the courts, and in the Congress and White House. Theirs was a mini-revolution, placing government squarely in the midst of preserving the nation’s precious natural and historic commonwealth.
This diverse, bipartisan group of leaders truly altered the course of U.S. history in both cities and the countryside. Where the land was concerned, they were truly conservative though they ended up being called “progressives.” Their broader movement not only made this country’s environment better, it also laid the foundation for more humane treatment of our children and working citizens.
One of the progressives’ greatest gifts was the protection of national lands from untrammeled development. Some of the land, such as forest, is to be managed for use with scientific oversight, for the good of the greatest number of people. This is a lofty goal, pursued by the departments of the Interior and Agriculture, especially the U.S. Forest Service, at the federal level.
Some of the land is to be left alone, not to be used for production of any sort. This land is sacred in its own right, distinguished by its beauty that inspires awe or by the historical events played out upon it. These are our national parks, monuments, historic sites, seashores, battlefields, and the like. They include our wilderness areas and wildlife refuges. Many are located in or near urban areas, but most are rural.
Through the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s, the forces dedicated to land protection gathered with astounding strength. Leaders – national, regional, state and local – developed a truly conservative vision for places with future generations in mind. They recognized that land could be, and should be, more than a commodity. Lands must be reserved for rest and enjoyment and for the protection of wildlife. For saving Yellowstone, Yosemite, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other national, state, and local places, we owe these conservative yet progressive leaders our thanks.
Few of these people reached the status of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, or President Theodore Roosevelt, or, later, his cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most were simply men and women who loved a particular place and wanted it saved for posterity. Local battles occurred across the country, most evidently in the West; it had more open space, and, in the eyes of some, more spectacular scenery that deserved protection. But everyplace had its sacred ground, and, in many cases, groups that were interested keeping such spaces relatively untouched for posterity.
Forester Gifford Pinchot exemplified the “wise use” of national forests. Pinchot started work with as chief forester for the U.S. Division of Forestry in 1898 and also led that agency’s successor, the Forest Service, founded in 1905. As one of the early foresters in the nation, he shaped scientific forest management within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, providing not only for more sustainable harvests of timber but also for recreation such as camping, hiking, and hunting. Later, as governor of Pennsylvania, he set aside lands for state forests.
As a result of the work of Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot, and others, the United States now has 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as other special areas that, according to the Forest Service, cover more than 192 million acres of public land.
Ironically perhaps, Pinchot was fired by President William Howard Taft in 1910 for criticizing the policies of the Interior Department under Richard Ballinger. Before joining the Taft administration, Ballinger had been Seattle’s mayor, who had enjoyed strong support from business and opposed municipal ownership of facilities and utilities. Taft, whom Theodore Roosevelt had annointed as his successor, was not as passionate about the environment. Pinchot, a Roosevelt holdover, disagreeing with how Ballinger was handling public coal lands in Alaska, started a highly public dispute with him.
Once fired, Pinchot, along with Roosevelt and other disenfranchised Republicans, set up the Bull Moose Progressive Party, with conservation as a key component of its platform.
Then, there is Stephen T. Mather, First National Park Service Director, whose efforts, along with those of his successors, permanently preserved millions of acres of land in almost 400 parks. Congressional approval of National Parks in 1916 followed decades of philosophical debate over policy that sought to take lands with presumably high economic value off the market because of their high aesthetic value.
Battles were won and lost over these places, just as they are today. Earlier this month San Francisco residents voted to maintain the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park (Proposition F). Early in the twentieth century, Pinchot vigorously opposed Muir’s desire to keep all of the Yosemite Valley undeveloped and pristine as part of the larger park. The pro-development forces won out in 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill allowing construction of the 364-foot O’Shaughnessy Dam that supplies water to San Francisco and generates electricity. The dam and reservoir, completed in 1923, are owned by the City of San Francisco, a classic contradiction of progressive municipal ownership and the progressive preservationists who favor conservation.
The passage of time leaves us only a record of wins. Photographs are hardly adequate to record what we have lost. Still, the victories are reason for celebration and thankfulness even as they continue to come under challenge from those coveting the natural treasures that can be turned into financial wealth.
Land preservationists faced – and still face – the toughest opposition because the purposes they espoused for the land were minimal, low impact, and non-monetary: rest, recreation, and appreciation of nature’s beauty. This approach opposes predominant philosophies of land use and industriousness for profit. For some, preserving nature is simply wasteful and certainly not profitable. Land is to be used; not using it productively is a luxury the nation cannot afford.
Threats to protected areas, including national parks, continue to emerge: just this past year, there was discussion of logging inside Yellowstone. Sometimes these threats are along the fringes of protected areas. For example, in 1996 a gold mining company wanted to lauch operations near Yellowstone, activities that might have polluted water and air within the park itself. The constant coveting of “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped” natural resources is insidious. Even for places long ago protected, battles for preservation continue today.
Our conservative progressive leaders of past generations were wise. They managed to negotiate the conflicts among several perspectives: conservation for future generations, land use for profit, and preservation. These early leaders made mistakes, like the Hetch Hetchy dam, and so do today’s conservationists in disputes over oil drilling along our coasts or in Arctic reserves. But their greater legacy of preserving resources for use now and for setting aside sacred places more than balances the human foibles.
On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for those who put land in what is intended as permanent preservation. May our current leaders have the fortitude to keep these lands in public trust and the courage to preserve even more acres of our treasures for future generations.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.