Conservation and Environmentalism Part 2

Conservation as practiced in the late 1800s-1914 or so was about “wise use.” This could be of something like timber, the concern for which led to the creation of the Forest Service and the importation of “scientific forestry” from Germany to the US in the 1890s-1900s, or game species. It is easy to forget that sport hunters founded the first well-funded conservation groups, and pushed for laws banning pot-hunting and large-scale commercial hunting. The question people asked was “what is the best use of the land, for the most benefits for the most people for the longest time?” In some places that meant restricting logging in order to keep trees so that the snowpack would melt more slowly and provide more water to the rivers year-round. In other places it meant cutting out the oldest, largest trees to allow for younger, fresher growth, and suppressing all fires in order to protect timber resources. BUT there were always a number of voices arguing for the protection of plants and animals and landscapes because they were plants, animals, and landscapes. This is the “beauty” aspect of what Samuel P. Hays called Beauty, Health, and Permanence.

The push to preserve things for the sake of their beauty in some ways goes back to George Catlin, the painter, who proposed setting aside a swath of the Great Plains as a bison and Indian preserve. The idea didn’t go too far. By the mindset of the time, bison were numerous and (at times) a positive pest, and Indians, well, opinions ranged from the “pure noble savage” to “poor benighted heathens” to “savages.” And there was always more land and more bison, so why not break and settle the plains? Especially after 1862 and the passage of the Homestead Act and the Land Grant College laws. Commercial hunters killed game birds by the hundreds for the markets back East, and farmers did their best to eradicate pests like the red-winged blackbird and passenger pigeon because the huge flocks would destroy crops almost as fast as a locust swarm would. But some people disagreed.

John James Audubon depicted the birds and some mammals of North America in ways that caught the attention of a lot of people. Indirectly, he pushed conservation in a parallel course, that of preservation of species, because a few women and men decided that the birds in his and others’ paintings and sketches looked far better alive than they did as hats. The hat industry almost eradicated a number of wading birds before activists in the cities shamed women into no longer wearing half-birds on their heads, and eschewing snowy egret plumes. At the same time, a sort of neoRomantic push began that saw wilderness as a haven from industrial society and as something to be protected for itself, not because it was where waterfowl lived or because it helped moderate flood flows.

John Muir is the best known of these, but the children’s book writer Ernest Thompson Seaton also played a role. John Muir lost his faith in the strict Calvinist Scottish Presbyterianism of his father, drifted, and then found a sort of pantheism in the mountains of the American West. He hiked, studied, observed, and wrote about the Sierra Nevada and other mountains, and encouraged the preservation of the wild lands for the sake of their being wild. He was on the losing side of one of the first major battles between preservationists and urban planners, the fight over the Hetch Hetchy Valley near what became Yosemite National Park. Muir, and then after him Frank Church and Aldo Leopold argued that some areas should be set aside and not improved, tweaked, or heavily managed, but should be kept pristine for future generations. Muir didn’t have much success in his lifetime, in part because the emphasis on the use part of wise use. Only after the 1920s would that start shifting, as the country became more industrialized and more prosperous, and the idea of setting aside more chunks of the country just to have them as parks became more popular.

One interesting argument that tied the conservation and preservation groups together was that “nature” was healthy. By getting out in “nature”, young people grew stronger and would become better citizens. Urban areas seemed to generate ill-health, while the great outdoors and rough recreation made for stronger men and women. Theodore Roosevelt is probably the most famous example of this in action, but he was one of many. The writer Earnest T. Seaton worked with Baden-Powell in getting the Boy Scouts organized and promoting children’s animal preservation efforts through his books. The near extinction of the bison also encouraged those who wanted to save at least some of the more attractive or interesting wildlife (“charismatic megafauna” as they are now called), which meant keeping their habitat around. By seeing natural beauty, it would uplift and improve people, or so the argument went. New immigrants and children would especially benefit. To do this, you needed both urban parks (Fredrick Law Olmstead’s work) and larger preserves. There is a reason that the first major parks were all in the mountains and included special landscape features. Everglades was the first flat park.

But for the Romantics, just having a Yellowstone or Glacier was not enough. They were still developed, with tours, and feeding the animals, and nice cabins (many built by the CCC as work-projects during the Great Depression) and trails. They were tamed environments, not real wilderness. Yes, Glacier with trails and a road was better than no park, but still . . . That was not wilderness, especially when rangers practiced wildlife management by killing off all the predators, or encouraging people (or allowing people) to feed the bears and other critters. Aldo Leopold was one who came to change his mind about predator control, and who would argue for wilderness areas, places left completely alone but open to people to hike and camp in.

The first wilderness areas were not set aside until 1964, while the first park was founded in 1872. Parks are one thing, but “locking up” large swaths of the environment just to preserve them “untouched” and “unspoiled” was a bit controversial. OK, it was very controversial, and seemed to fly in the face of wise use. Only people who had wilderness camping skills could use the land, logging, hunting, fishing, all those were forbidden, no vehicles were allowed . . .

It took WWII, industrialization, and the luxury of having a lot of national wealth that allowed the vision of the Romantics to become real. The movie Bambi is a beautiful example of the Romantic vision, tamed down considerably from the German original. Fire is bad, hunting is really bad, skunks are sweet (!), and deer are lovely creatures that talk and look cute. If you get the sense that I am shaking my head a little, you’re right. The Romantic wilderness doesn’t have overpopulation due to the lack of predators, starving deer that develop wasting disease because there are too many of them, massive crown fires because of too many years without smaller fires (a topic for itself because of the enormous range of natural variation in forests and forest management in North America), or large swaths of dead grass caused by the lack of grazing and fire to clean out the dead growth. The Romantic wilderness is fixed and perfect forever.

There had to be a compromise between the Romantic wilderness, a forest-under-glass if you will, and the usable environment of parks and forestry and grazing. Finding that compromise is a process that is still being sorted out as we learn more and more about various ecosystems, and as the desires of the general population shift over time.

What about environmentalism? Ah, we are about to see it begin, in the 1950s-60, and really kicking off with the publication of the book Silent Spring and the battle to keep power dams out of the Grand Canyon. We’ll also see a few hints of it in the USDA Yearbook of Agriculture in the 1920s, which suggested moving people off of “unfit” land where farming and ranching were inefficient, and putting them into better places. Better for whom? Well . . .

To be continued.


7 thoughts on “Conservation and Environmentalism Part 2

  1. Here’s a thought. San Francisco wants to remain a ‘sanctuary city’, where illegal aliens can find shelter against Federal law enforcement wanting to deport them. However, San Francisco has arguably been in violation of the Raker Act since the 1920’s. Why should a Trump administration not retaliate against SF’s intransigence by enforcing the Raker Act, tearing down the Hetch Hetchy Dam, and leaving San Francisco to find its water elsewhere? The beauty of it is, it’d be in the name of conservation! Environmentalism! It’s for the snail darter and the spotted owl!


    • And the smell of the decaying . . . stuff that has accumulated at the bottom of Hetch Hetchy would also have quite an effect, at least when the winds cooperated. Anaerobic decay FTW.

  2. Peter beat me to it… SFO and Hetch Hetchy always stuck in my craw. During the drought in the late 70’s, stationed at Moffett, we were on severe water rationing. But you go up to SFO, they watered all the time, had green lawns, etc. Didn’t care, because they had all the water they wanted from Hetchy. Same is holding true today, while Momo and other lakes are down over 100 feet, and farmers are going broke in Sacramento and the central valley because of the snail darter… Sigh…

    • Yet those same people want to “create” wilderness in other people’s backyards, forbidding them from using the land. Maybe we should return Hetch Hetchy to ‘nature’ and “create” a wilderness there?

  3. Thanks for writing this series of posts. I knew chunks of this, but you’re doing a great job of filling in the gaps, and you’ve arranged it quite coherently.

Comments are closed.