Conservationist Movement Founded
Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, founded the conservation movement in the United States. He was a populist who fervently believed that the best use of nature was to improve the life of common citizens. Pinchot had extensive influence during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an ardent conservationist, and helped to steer conservation policies from the turn of the century to the 1940s. Guided by the writing and thought of his conservationist predecessors, Pinchot brought science-based methods of resource management and a utilitarian philosophy to the Forest Service.
George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont forester and geographer, whose 1864 publication Man and Nature is a wellspring of American environmental thought, influenced Pinchot's ideas for American environmental policy. He was also inspired to action by John Wesley Powell, Clarence King, and other explorer-naturalists who assessed and cataloged the nation's physical and biological resources following the Civil War, as well as by his own observations of environmental destruction and social inequities precipitated by unregulated wilderness exploitation.
Conservation, as conceived by Pinchot, Powell, and Roosevelt, advocated thoughtful, rational use of natural resources, and not establishment of protected, unexploited wild areas. In their emphasis on wise resource use, the early conservationists were philosophically divided from the early preservationists. Preservationists, led by the eloquent writer and champion of Yosemite Valley, John Muir, bitterly opposed the idea that the best vision for the nation's forests was their conversion into agricultural land and timber tracts, developed to produce only species and products useful to humans. Muir, guided by the writing of the transcendentalist philosophers Emerson and Thoreau, argued vehemently that parts of the American wilderness should be preserved for their aesthetic value and for the survival of wildlife, and that all land should not be treated as a storehouse of useful commodities. Pinchot, however, insisted that: "The object of [conservationist] forest policy is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful... or because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness... but the making of prosperous homes... Every other consideration is secondary." The motto of the U.S. National Forest Service, "The Land of Many Uses" reflects Pinchot's philosophy of land management.
Because of its more moderate and politically palatable stance, conservation became the more popular position by the turn of the century. By 1905, conservation had become a blanket term for nearly all defense of the environment. More Americans had come to live in cities, and to work in occupations not directly dependent upon resource exploitation. The urban population was sympathetic to the idea of preserving public land for recreational purposes, and provided much of the support for the conservation movement from the beginning. The earlier distinction from preservation was lost until it re-emerged in the 1960s as "environmentalists" once again raised vocal objections to conservation's anthropocentric (human-centered) emphasis. Late twentieth century naturalists like Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, as well as more radical environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Earth First!, owe much of their legacy to the turn of the century preservationists. More recently, deep ecologists and bioregionalists have likewise departed from mainstream conservation, arguing that other species have intrinsic rights to exist out-side of the interests of humans.
As a scientific, humanistic, and progressive philosophy, conservation has led to a great variety of government and popular efforts to protect America's natural resources from exploitation by businesses and individuals at the expense of the American public. A professionally trained government forest service was developed to maintain national forests, and to limit the uncontrolled "timber min ing" practiced by logging and railroad companies of the nineteenth century. Conservation-minded presidents and administrators set aside millions of acres of public land as national forests and parks for public use. A corps of scientifically trained fish and wildlife managers was established to regulate populations of gamebirds, sportfish, and hunted mammals for public use on federal lands.
Some of the initial conservation tactics seem strange by modern, ecological standards, and have had unintended consequences. For example, federal game conservation involved extensive programs of predator elimination leading to near extinction of some of America's most prized animals, including the timber wolf, the grizzly bear, the mountain lion, and the nation's symbol, the bald eagle. Decades of no-burn policies in national forests and parks, combined with encroachment by sub-urban neighborhoods, have led to destructive and dangerous forest fires in the American West. Extreme flood control measures have exposed a large population along the Mississippi river system to catastrophic flooding. However, early environmental policies were advised by the science of their time, and were unquestionably fairer and less destructive than the unchecked industrial development they replaced.
An important aspect of the growth of conservation has been the development of professional schools of forestry, game management, and wildlife management. When Gifford Pinchot began to study forestry, Yale University had only meager resources, and he gained the better part of his education at a school of forest management in Nancy, France. Several decades later, the Yale School of Forestry, initially financed largely by the wealthy Pinchot family, was able to produce such well-trained professionals as Aldo Leopold, who went on to develop the first professional school of game management in the United States at the University of Wisconsin. Today, most American universities offer courses in resource management and ecology, and many schools offer full-fledged programs in integrated ecological science and resource management.
During the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, conservation programs included such immense economic development projects as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which dammed the Tennessee River for flood control and electricity generation. The Bureau of Reclamation, formed in 1902 to manage surface water resources in 17 western states, constructed more than 600 dams in 1920s and 1930s, including the Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon dams across the Colorado River, and the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. The Civilian Conservation Corps developed roads, built structures, and worked on erosion control projects for the public good. The Soil Conservation Service was established to advise farmers in maintaining and developing their farmland.
Voluntary citizen conservation organizations have also done extensive work to develop and maintain natural resources. The Izaak Walton League, Ducks Unlimited, and local gun clubs and fishing groups have set up game sanctuaries, preserved wetlands, campaigned to control water pollution, and released young game birds and fish. Organizations with less directly utilitarian objectives have also worked and lobbied in defense of nature and wildlife, including the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the World Wildlife Fund.