The Conservation Movement

The Lost Ways 2

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By the late nineteenth century, most of the land and natural resources of the western United States had been entered, claimed, and developed under the federal government's liberal land laws. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, in his 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," argued that the frontier had come to a close. "In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890," he wrote, "appear these significant words: 'Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.'" Only small areas of land throughout the West remained to be claimed, and however significant the frontier had been for the emergence of American democracy, "never again will such gifts of free land offer them-selves."2

The perception of abundant unexploited lands teeming with wildlife and fertile soils began to turn to one of wasted resources and inefficient use. Timber companies cut the best trees and moved on without reforestation, leaving slash and litter behind. Ranchers exploited the perennial grasses of the open range, leaving sagebrush and eroded soils. Settlers discovered that periods of drought made farming in the arid West unreliable and that dams and canals for irrigation were costly to construct and maintain. Market hunters and fishers depleted supplies of fish and game and decimated bird populations for feathers for women's hats. Rivers, lakes, and air were polluted from industrial development.

George Perkins Marsh (1801-82), one of the earliest advocates for the wise use of land, warned that American lands might suffer the fate of the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean world, where once abundant forests had turned to denuded slopes and eroded soils. His book Man and Nature, published in 1864, sold 100,000 copies in a few months, testimony to the level of concern over the waste of resources in the United States. "Man," Marsh wrote, "has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste____[M]an is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords." Marsh proposed that the pioneer settler "become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged fabric____ He must aid her in reclothing the mountain slopes with forests____"3 Marsh's concerns were echoed by a growing number of eastern elites who hiked in the Appalachian Mountains, western sportsmen who hunted and fished in the Rockies, women's groups, birders, nature writers, artists, scientists, and foresters who saw wild nature vanishing under ax and plow and valuable resources wasted under exploit-and-move-on policies.

By the late nineteenth century, laissez-faire capitalism, which had supported the free market's development of natural resources, began increasingly to be scrutinized and curtailed. The initial period of disposition of the public domain was followed by a second period of withholding lands for forest reserves, game refuges, national parks, and wilderness areas. During the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, the government passed laws that regulated both corporations and land use, initiating a shift away from the policy of unregulated development, characterized by the term, laissez-faire, a French phrase meaning "let it be." The Division of Forestry's first chief, Bernhard Fernow (1851-1923), in his 1902 book Economics of Forestry, proposed instead a policy of faire-marcher, another French term, meaning "to make it work," or to give direction or guidance to development through resource conservation.

Utilitarian conservation began to displace the earlier policies of "free" disposition of federal lands between the 1880s and the beginning of World War I. Utilitarianism, an ethic developed by philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73) in England, was based on the idea of "the greatest good for the greatest number." "Utility" meant putting the land to work to promote people's happiness. The conservation ethic of the early twentieth century added the idea of time, captured in the phrase of conservationist WJ McGee (1853-1912), "the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time." 4

The concept of conservation was promoted in 1908 by forester Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House Conference on Conservation. It brought under one rubric the various strands of the movement toward resource efficiency in the use of forests, water, and rangelands that had developed separately during the prior three decades. Resource conservation came to mean the wise and efficient use of natural resources. "Conservation above all," states environmental historian Samuel

Hays, "was a scientific movement____ Its essence was rational planning to promote efficient development and use of all natural resources."5

Pinchot followed Fernow as the Chief of the Division of Forestry (now the Forest Service). The Division, established in 1886, managed the forest reserves, established in 1891 through the Forest Reserve Act. During this period, certain lands within the public domain were reserved from homestead entry as forest reserves. In 1905, Pinchot transferred the forest reserves out of the Department of the Interior and into the Department of Agriculture, on the grounds that forests ought to be managed as if they were a crop. He also advocated allowing controlled grazing in the forest reserves. He instituted a sustained yield process in which timberlands must be reforested after cutting. With the work of Fernow and Pinchot, the twentieth-century forestry movement, devoted to the efficient use of natural resources and sustained timber yields, was launched.

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