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Environment and Society, Early Conservation Movement

preserving wilderness, president Theodore Roosevelt, Sequoia National Park, Henry David Thoreau, literary movement

From colonial times through the early decades of U.S. independence, most Americans viewed the wilderness either as a dangerous, untamed region that needed to be brought under control, or as a storehouse of raw material to be exploited for commerce. Few were concerned with preserving wilderness in its natural state.

Attitudes toward nature began to change in the United States in the 1830s with the emergence of transcendentalism, a philosophical and literary movement that included writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Among the basic tenets of transcendentalism was the belief that divinity was present in all aspects of the world and that man should treat the wonders of nature with respect and awe.

However, little action was taken to preserve the natural environment until later in the 19th century. Public concern over dwindling wilderness areas began to grow after conservationist George Perkins Marsh detailed the destruction to the natural landscape in the United States when he published Man and Nature (1864). Appreciation of areas of great natural beauty increased following an expedition by photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran into Wyoming’s Yellowstone area in 1871. Their depictions persuaded the public to preserve the area. In 1872 the U.S. government created Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first national park.

In 1891 the first U.S. National Forests were set aside, but almost immediately a controversy began over the use of public wilderness areas. To some extent, that controversy continues today. The prevailing attitude in the 19th century, typified by the policies of Gifford Pinchot, first head of the U.S. Forest Service, was that wilderness areas should be used mainly as a reserve of resources for commercial use. Meanwhile, a growing number of dedicated conservationists began advocating the preservation of nature for its own sake. They pushed for restrictions on the commercial exploitation of wilderness areas.

The movement to preserve untainted wilderness areas owes much to naturalist John Muir, who dedicated considerable time to observing the wildlife, plants, and natural wonders of the United States. He worked to raise awareness among politicians and the public of the shrinking wilderness in the nation. His efforts led to the creation of both Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in California in 1890. Muir also helped found one of the nation’s leading conservation organizations, the Sierra Club, in 1892. He became a close friend of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, who greatly expanded the national parks and national forests during the early decades of the 20th century.

Another major conservation push by the federal government took place in the 1930s following a major ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. For years, farmers had practiced agricultural techniques that left the land vulnerable to erosion. Many of the natural grasses that anchored the dirt had been replaced with farm crops. When a prolonged drought struck the Great Plains in the 1930s, much valuable topsoil was carried away by high winds that hit the region. In response the government instituted a number of programs to educate farmers on soil conservation techniques.

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