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Citation: Spiro, Jonathan P. "Conservation." Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. 366-372. Student Resources in Context. Web.

CONSERVATION is the term coined by the forester Gifford Pinchot in 1907 to describe the philosophy that the environment must be managed to assure adequate supplies of natural resources for present and future generations. Several other definitions of conservation exist, and an examination of the evolution of theconservation movement in the United States may help elucidate how and why the term has come to have different meanings for different people at different times.
Utilitarian Conservationism

Throughout most of American history, the prevailing attitude toward the natural environment was that it was something to be subdued and used for the good of humankind. This exploitative ethos was grounded partly in the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave humans "dominion … over every living thing." The perception that the continent was endowed with limitless natural resources and the dogma of free enterprise with the concomitant view that private property was sacrosanct and beyond the scope of government regulation also encouraged exploitation. Accordingly, as the nation expanded westward, hunters, loggers, miners, ranchers, and settlers heedlessly laid waste to the country's wildlife, forests, minerals, grasslands, and soil in the name of progress, civilization, and manifest destiny.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a few scattered individuals fore saw the dangers of such practices. In 1832, for example, the artist George Catlin warned in North American Indians that the American wilderness eventually would vanish unless subject to formal preservation, and he consequently proposed setting aside a large area of the West as a national park where Indians and wildlife could survive. In the following decade, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau castigated his fellow citizens for prizing only the material potential of the landscape and urged preservation of portions of the countryside in their pristine states. In 1864, the geographer George Perkins Marsh traced in Man and Nature the disastrous consequences of deforestation in terms of flooding, soil erosion, and degradation of the water supply and implored society to take responsibility for its actions. In 1878, the geographer John Wesley Powell issued his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, in which he advised settlement of the West in a planned manner that took account of the constraints of the environment. In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, the country's and the world's first national park, to protect the area's unique geysers and geological formations.
But the creation of Yellowstone National Park was an anomaly, and farsighted people like Catlin, Marsh, and Powell were lone voices crying in the rapidly diminishing wilderness. Not until the late nineteenth century, when it was no longer possible to ignore the evidence that the country's natural resources were not in fact limitless, did those voices turn into a chorus. It is not insignificant that this occurred at the same time that the accelerated settlement of the West led the Census Bureau to proclaim the closing of the frontier in 1890. In addition, in this era the burgeoning cities were vacuuming their hinterlands of resources, the increased pace of industrialization was depleting the nation's raw materials, the ownership of resources was concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, a newly imperialistic United States required ever greater material holdings to stoke its military and economic engines, and the rising rate of immigration seemed to increase competition for assets. It accordingly dawned on forward-looking policymakers that what was left of the public domain would have to be administered in a more thoughtful and planned manner if future generations were to avail themselves of nature's bounty.
Conserving wildlife. Persons whose work or avocation brought them in contact with wildlife were among the first to manifest a conservationist ethic. Ornithologists, mammalogists, foresters, and sportspeople became increasingly concerned that North America's game animals were dwindling in number drastically. The numbers were decreasing because the advancing tide of settlement caused widespread habitat destruction and also because it was in the immediate financial interest of many Americans, for example, farmers, tanners, milliners, furriers, and market hunters, to kill as many wild animals as possible. As a result, several species of North American game had been exterminated by the beginning of the twentieth century, and the outlook was bleak for a number of other animals.
In 1887, Theodore Roosevelt founded and became first president of the exclusive Boone and Crockett Club, with membership limited to an elite core of one hundred big-game hunters. Roosevelt's most important successors as president of the club were George Bird Grinnell, a famous ethnologist and the influential editor of the nation's foremost periodical for sportspeople, Forest and Stream; and Madison Grant, an amateur anthropologist and the powerful chairman of the New York Zoological Society. Aristocratic sportspeople like Roosevelt, Grinnell, and Grant accepted that those in a position of power and prominence were obligated to husband the nation's resources for the benefit of their less-enlightened compatriots. They set about convincing their fellow sports-people that, if big-game hunting were to survive beyond the nineteenth century, they would have to lobby for restrictive game laws. Consequently, the Boone and Crockett Club was transformed from an association of gentleman hunters into one of the seminal conservation organizations in the United States. To implement its agenda, the club's members cultivated key legislators, entertained important newspaper editors, submitted articles to influential journals, and appeared frequently before congressional committees. Within a few years, a number of other organizations devoted to conservation joined the Boone and Crockett Club on the national scene, and together they racked up a number of legislative victories for wildlife protection. Many species that had been headed toward extinction at the beginning of the twentieth century were relatively common by the end of the century.
But the legislative successes of the conservationists and the proliferating number of organizations devoted to wildlife protection did not ensure the popularity of the conservation movement at the dawn of the twentieth century. The vast majority of the American people still looked upon conservationists as effete "sentimentalists" and aristocratic "busybodies" who threatened the right of average Americans, especially the hard-working hunters, trappers, loggers, ranchers, and miners of the West, to benefit from the country's public resources. Conservationists countered that, aside from any sob sister concern about wild animals, the true economic interests of most westerners lay in preserving rather than using the wildlife and resources of their region. In the long term, far more people could make far more money in guiding, lodging, rafting, and outfitting than in market hunting, clear-cutting, and strip mining. But the conservationists were few in number; not until the 1920s did the conservation organization the Izaak Walton League attract a mass membership. Conservationists were still part of a narrow-gauged effort that had succeeded so far precisely because it was composed of a small but well-connected elite with ready access to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and certain state capitals.
Fortuitously for the perpetuation of the conservation movement, the founder of the Boone and Crockett Club ascended to the U.S. presidency in 1901. During his tenure in office, President Roosevelt vigorously espoused conservation and transformed the previously esoteric philosophy into a popular movement. In addition to making wildlife protection an important priority of the federal government, Roosevelt also raised the public's consciousness about the need to conserve the nation's forests and to protect its water resources.
Conserving forests and water. From its inception, the federal government had pursued an energetic policy of transferring into private hands the vast quantities of land, known as the "public domain," it had obtained as a result of the nation's westward expansion. A variety of disposal laws encouraged land speculators, railroad magnates, cattle kings, mining interests, timber syndicates, and others to lease, purchase, develop, or otherwise acquire "usable" areas of the public domain. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, conservationists began urging the government to "withdraw" areas of particular value from the operation of the disposal laws so they could be permanently protected under the control of the federal government. The creation of Yellowstone National Park provided the model for the practice of withdrawing discrete areas from the public domain to preserve unique qualities. The next major step in this process was the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which authorized the president to protect areas covered wholly or in part by trees. The creation by executive order of such forest reserves, which became known as the national forests, would put those lands beyond the reach of the loggers who were decimating the nation's timberland to meet Americans' unquenchable demand for wood to build their homes and for fuel to run their steamboats, locomotives, and factories. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland proceeded to set aside 38 million acres of public land as forest reserves, all in the western part of the country, as the East had long since been denuded of its old-growth forests.
The forest reserves were supported by a number of groups, including wildlife organizations, who appreciated that forests provide habitat for fauna; hydrologists, who understood that forests protect watersheds and temper flooding; and agronomists, who realized that trees block the wind and prevent soil erosion. But the forest reserves were extremely unpopular in the West, where the average citizen, remarked Roosevelt, had always had but one thought about a tree—to cut it down. Westerners bitterly resented the federal "lock up" of public lands and grew increasingly angry over the magnitude of presidential withdrawals. Politicians, including President William McKinley, noted the level of the westerners' enmity and began listening attentively to their demand that the forest reserves be restored to public sale.
When Roosevelt became president, he was fully determined not just to retain but to expand the nation's forest reserves. He and his close friend Pinchot, the head of the U.S. Forest Service, worked together to create many new forest reserves, and by the time Roosevelt left office in 1909, he had quadrupled the extent of the national forests to 172 million acres. But Pinchot correctly feared that future presidents might be less sympathetic to forest conservation than Roosevelt. He understood that, if the reserves were to be protected in perpetuity, the opposition of the West would have to be taken into consideration. Accordingly, he explained to suspicious westerners that the federal government had no intention of locking up the forests forever. Rather, he and Roosevelt simply sought to replace wasteful, short-term exploitation by selfish lumber barons with efficient, long-term management by the federal government. In Pinchot's vision, forests, if protected properly and harvested judiciously, could be renewable resources that would last forever. Just as the Boone and Crockett Club wanted to save animals now so they could be hunted later, so Pinchot's Forest Service wanted to conserve trees now so they could be harvested later.
For Pinchot, conserving forests was a matter of both fiscal prudence and fealty to the tenets of democracy. "The natural resources," Pinchot declared, "must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many, and not merely for the profit of a few. Conservation means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time" (Breaking New Ground, pp. 46–48). He furthermore pointed out that forests, if wisely managed, not only would return crops of timber but also would accommodate land for grazing and, most importantly, protect watersheds that could be used for irrigation. Thus, forest reserves would benefit local, that is, western, residents most of all and were not just a pet cause of effete tree lovers. To drive home the point, Pinchot changed the name of the forest reserves to "national forests." The former term implied that the trees were being reserved from the nation's use, while the latter implied they were being conserved for the nation's use. "The object of our forest policy," repeated Pinchot, "is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful. … The forests are to be used by man. Every other consideration comes secondary" (Hays, Conservation, p. 42). It was not at all illogical therefore that in 1905 the national forests were removed from the jurisdiction of the Interior Department and placed under the control of the Department of Agriculture. "Forestry," explained Pinchot, "is tree farming" (Breaking New Ground, p. 31).
Pinchot's defense of the national forests provided the manifesto of the nascent conservation movement, which sought to "conserve" the resources of the nation in the present to ensure a supply in the future. Pinchot's philosophy fit well the tenor of the times, for conservationism mirrored the progressives' enthrallment with scientific management, rational use of resources, and long-term planning by the federal government. This helps explain why the public so rapidly embraced the concept of conservation during the Roosevelt administration and why the public eagerly agreed with the president that it was not just wildlife and trees that needed to be conserved. Water, for example, was now seen as a resource worthy of conservation, and Congress passed the Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) to fund water reclamation projects in arid western states. In 1907, the government created the Inland Water ways Commission to oversee multiple-purpose river development, including irrigation, navigation, flood control, and power creation.
In addition, President Roosevelt set aside millions of acres of coal, phosphate, and other mineral reserves to prevent private exploitation, and he kept the momentum going by hosting the historic White House Governor's Conference on Conservation in 1908 to persuade state governments and corporations of the importance ofconservation. The Governor's Conference led in turn to the creation of conservation commissions in forty-one states, and it also appointed the National Conservation Commission, chaired by Pinchot, to inventory the nation's resources as a guide to future policy decisions.
Aesthetic Preservationism

President Roosevelt accepted the utilitarian rationale for conserving trees. "These [forest] reserves," he stated unequivocally, "are created purely for economic purposes" ("Wilderness Reserves," p. 23). He reminded Congress that "forest protection is not an end in itself: it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them. The preservation of our forests is an imperative business necessity" (Pinchot, Breaking New Ground, p. 190).

But in conserving trees, Roosevelt was also motivated by a sentimental consideration, his genuine love of nature. While his first priority was utilitarian, he also wished to have some forested areas remain in their natural conditions, untouched by the ax of the logger, no matter how "inefficient" such a policy would be. "In addition … to the economic use of the wilderness," he wrote, "it is wise here and there to keep selected portions of it … in a state of nature … for the sake of preserving all its beauties and wonders unspoiled by greedy and shortsighted vandalism" ("Wilderness Reserves," pp. 23–24).
Roosevelt's conflicting motives for expanding the national forests highlight the fact that in the early twentieth century the growing conservation movement was actually fed by two different streams. On one side were the utilitarian conservationists, epitomized by Pinchot, who were interested in conserving the nation's resources so they could continue to be used by future generations. On the other side, led by John Muir, who in 1892 founded the Sierra Club, were the aesthetic preservationists, who were interested in preserving nature for its scenic values and who lobbied for the creation of inviolate sanctuaries, for example, national parks and wildlife refuges, where fauna and flora could be preserved in their pristine states, safe from the encroachments of modern civilization. Muir and his followers disdained the utilitarians for seeing only the material, as opposed to the spiritual, benefits of nature and were aghast that the Forest Service encouraged lumbering, grazing, and mining in wilderness areas. As far as the preservationists were concerned, the only way the nation's forests should be exploited by humans was as sites for recreation and contemplation.

The preservationists were part of the long American tradition in which citizens responded to the ravages of urbanization and industrialization with a romantic yearning to "get back to nature." And certainly at the beginning of the twentieth century, the aesthetic and recreational charms of the outdoors were ever more inviting to the increasing proportion of the population that was living in urban areas and evincing disgust at the congestion, corruption, pollution, and inequalities of the cities.

While the popular mind viewed both the Pinchotian conservationists and the Muirian preservationists as part of the conservation movement, a large gulf existed between those who looked at a forest and saw, in Pinchot's words, "a manufacturing plant for the production of wood" (O'Brien, "Environmentalism as a Mass Movement," p. 9) and those who looked at a forest and saw an inviolate temple of nature. To be sure, some persons, like Roosevelt, appreciated the arguments of both the conservationists and the preservationists. But the two sides were generally hostile toward each other, and their philosophical differences became starkly evident during the protracted battle between 1901 and 1913 over whether or not to construct a dam in the isolated Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Pinchot weighed in favor of building the dam, which would create a water reservoir for San Francisco. He did so both as a conservationist and as a progressive advocate of public utilities. After all, James D. Phelan, the reform mayor of San Francisco who sought to protect his constituents from the monopolistic practices of the privately owned Spring Valley Water Company, which specialized in poor service, high prices, and unsafe water, wanted the dam built. Furthermore, the residents of San Francisco had approved the dam in a 1908 referendum by an overwhelming 7–1 margin. But Muir and his preservationist allies, especially Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of Century, were incredulous that anyone could even think of destroying the priceless beauty of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and they fought for years to prevent construction of the dam. The difference between the two sides was summarized by Mayor Phelan when he accused Muir of engaging in "aesthetic quibbling" while "the 400,000 people of San Francisco are suffering from bad water" (Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, p. 141). Muir and the preservationists thus found themselves in the uncomfortable position of opposing the legitimate needs of "the people." In 1913, Congress finally approved construction of the dam, whereupon the Hetch Hetchy Valley disappeared under the waters.conservationist, preservationist. president theodore roosevelt (left) and john muir at glacier point in yosemite valley, which they visited in 1903 and again in 1906, after muir convinced roosevelt to have the valley added to yosemite national park. © corbis
Despite their defeat at Hetch Hetchy, the preservationist wing of the conservation movement won a number of victories in the early twentieth century. In 1903, for example, they convinced President Roosevelt to create the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, Florida, and Roosevelt created more than fifty national wildlife refuges during his administration. In addition, preservationists persuaded Congress to enact the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorized the president to protect areas of scientific or historical interest by designating them "national monuments." The Roosevelt administration created sixteen national monuments, including Devils Tower, Muir Woods, and Natural Bridges. Congress also created many new national parks during this period, including Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890; Mount Rainier in 1899; Crater Lake in 1902; Wind Cave in 1903; Mesa Verde in 1906; Glacier in 1910; Rocky Mountain in 1915; Lassen Volcanic in 1916; Denali in 1917; Grand Canyon and Zion in 1919; Hot Springs in 1921; Shenandoah in 1926; Bryce Canyon in 1928; Acadia and Grand Teton in 1929; Carlsbad Caverns and Great Smoky Mountains in 1930; and Isle Royale in 1931. To administer this greatly expanded system, the National Park Service was formed in 1916 with an institutional philosophy of aesthetic preservationism that counterbalanced the utilitarian policies of the Forest Service.
Finally, in one of their more notable accomplishments, the preservationists saved the California redwood trees, the tallest and among the oldest living things on Earth. The Save-the-Redwoods League, formed in 1917, raised millions of dollars to purchase groves of trees from the loggers and converted them into the thirty-seven California State Redwood Parks, where they are protected forever. All of the efforts, from saving roosting pelicans to protecting giant trees, represented aesthetic preservationism at its purest, for conservationists were saving scenery—impractical, intangible, non-utilitarian scenery.
Wildlife Management

The conservation movement lost some of its public momentum in the 1910s and 1920s in part due to the departure of Roosevelt from the White House in 1909, the dismissal of Pinchot by President William Howard Taft in 1910 in the wake of the BALLINGER-PINCHOT CONTROVERSY, the involvement of the United States in World War I, the enthronement of big business during the Roaring Twenties, and the expenditure of effort on internecine clashes between the utilitarian conservationists and the aesthetic preservationists. While conservation experts continued to work unobtrusively on such prosaic and utilitarian projects as resource surveys, management systems, forest fire protection, flood control projects, mineral leasing programs, and soil erosion research, the crusading spirit of the Progressive Era waned, and conservation faded from the public's consciousness.

But out in the field significant developments were taking place. By the late 1910s, ominous hints indicated that the preservationists may have been too successful for their own good. The problem was that the populations of some of the species of animals they had saved in wildlife refuges were expanding so rapidly that the animals were actually beginning to exhaust their food supplies and perish from starvation. As the President's Committee on Outdoor Recreation explained in 1927, "Over-protection, paradoxical as it may seem, defeats its end, and under its stimulus certain types of game animals multiply beyond their means of subsistence and cruel starvation ensues" (Cameron, The Bureau of Biological Survey, p. 192).
One of the most famous examples of this took place in the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve on Arizona's Kaibab Plateau. President Roosevelt had created the million-acre refuge in 1906 to protect the three thousand endangered Rocky Mountain mule deer on the plateau. Hunting was prohibited in the area except by agents of the Forest Service, who went after the main predators of the deer—wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes—with a vengeance. Within a few years the protected mule deer had managed to double their numbers, and the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve was hailed as a great success. But with no natural enemies, the Kaibab deer herd kept right on growing. Between 1906 and 1924, the herd increased from 3,000 to perhaps as many as 100,000 animals, far beyond the carrying capacity of the range. After the herd depleted its natural food supplies, malnutrition, disease, and starvation wreaked havoc with the deer herd, which plummeted to a few thousand gaunt animals.
Tragedies like the one on the Kaibab Plateau were repeated in many places throughout the continent where a favored species had been granted protection, and preservationists began to understand that simply placing animals in a refuge and passively hoping for the best was not always in the best interests of the animals. They realized that wildlife populations needed to be actively managed to ensure their healthy survival.
The strongest proponent of a more dynamic approach to wildlife conservation in the 1920s was Aldo Leopold, the nation's first professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin and the author of the seminal monograph on the subject, Game Management (1933). Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac (1949) joined the works of Thoreau and Muir as the founding texts of the environmental movement of the 1960s, believed that all species, including Homo sapiens, exist in a symbiotic interdependence. His theories prefigured the modern science of ecology, defined as "the study of the interrelationships of organisms to one another and to the environment," and his words were echoed later by proponents of the "Gaia hypothesis." Leopold preached the need for humans to appreciate "the indivisibility of the earth—its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants and animals—and respect it collectively" (Chase, In a Dark Wood, p. 45). He understood that a region's flora and fauna subsist in an intricate web of interdependencies and that to single out one species, such as the Kaibab deer, for protection at the expense of others is to disrupt a natural equilibrium that had been eons in the making. In a development emblematic of the evolution of conservationism from a movement staffed by upper-class amateurs to one composed of middle-class professionals, Leopold called for a new generation of scientifically trained experts conversant in population dynamics and the operation of food chains to become involved in game management. He taught that wildlife officials could institute a number of practices to maintain the balance of what became known as the "ecosystem," such as practicing selective castration, conducting breeding programs, and allowing predators and even licensed hunters to cull dangerously expanding populations.
Ironically, preservationists had devoted years to convincing the public and Congress of the need for inviolate wildlife refuges, and as a result most Americans were revolted by the idea of predators and hunters being allowed to kill supposedly protected animals in refuges and national parks. But according to the theories of wildlife management, understandable but misplaced sympathy for the fate of the individual animal must not be allowed to override concern for the welfare of the herd as a whole. Just as foresters cut down a diseased tree that threatens the overall health of the forest, so game officials should cull an individual animal that endangers the survival of the herd. These theories slowly won acceptance among wildlife professionals. In the early 1940s, for example, the National Park Service finally overrode public sentiment and began killing a certain number of its game animals every year to maintain the wildlife population at its optimum level.
Eugenics. The philosophy of wildlife management was in tune with other political and social developments of the time. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, for example, the Progressives and their New Deal heirs tried to regulate not only big business but also the political system, public utilities, working conditions, and public health, and now even the wild animals of the forests were going to be managed scientifically. Through expert analysis and intelligent planning, the most fundamental processes of nature were going to be controlled.
In this context, it is notable that the eugenics movement became popular in the United States at the same time that the tenets of wildlife management were formulated. Eugenics was an effort to improve the nation's "germ plasm" by discouraging the propagation of "unfit" humans and encouraging the "fittest" members of society to breed more prolifically. Eugenicists were particularly anxious to preserve the blond-haired, blue-eyed "Nordic" race, whose survival, they feared, was threatened by the unprecedented influx and high birthrate of non-Nordic immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. Thus, conservationists and eugenicists both were interested in managing and regulating breeding to protect the noblest endangered species of the United States, whether they were bison, redwoods, or the "master race" of human beings.
It is not an accident that many of the leading conservationists, most notably Madison Grant, were also eugenicists. In the 1920s, conservationists like Grant, who was the guiding force behind the Bronx Zoo in New York, the Save-the-Redwoods League, and the American Bison Society, saw that the protected animals on their wildlife refuges were dangerously increasing in number, and they adopted the techniques of wildlife management to control them. At the same time, eugenicists like Grant warned that the "inferior" races in the United States were dangerously increasing in number and exhorted the public to accept the techniques of eugenics to control them. In essence, Grant simply applied the concepts he developed in wildlife management to the human population. Thus, Grant led the fight to pass the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s, successfully lobbied legislatures to enact anti-interracial laws, and influenced many states to implement coercive sterilization statutes under which thousands of Americans deemed "unworthy" were sterilized in the 1930s. The connection between such measures and the conservation movement was made explicit by the eugenicist Ellsworth Huntington when he declared: "The germ plasm is the nation's most precious natural resource. Eugenics is thus an integral component in the conservation of our natural resources" (Tomorrow's Children, p. 9).
Interestingly, conservationism and eugenics again crossed paths after World War II. At that time, conservationists began to fear that overpopulation and industrial poisons were wreaking havoc with the environment, while eugenicists worried that the population explosion in the Third World and the mutative effects of atomic radiation threatened the purity of the germ plasm. Thus, both movements jointly embraced family planning and environmentalism in the 1950s.

Conservation during Depression and Prosperity

The New Deal. Conservation usually is viewed as an indulgence of affluent societies, as only they can afford the luxury of reserving from immediate consumption a portion of their resources. But during the Great Depression, when the public accepted the necessity of dynamic federal action on behalf of the public welfare, the United States entered its second notable period of conservationism. Like his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an ardent conservationist, and he took advantage of the economic emergency to launch government programs that conserved the country's natural resources at the same time that they provided a living wage to its human resources.
During the first hundred days in 1933, Congress created two of the most famous conservation agencies, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which rehabilitated the natural landscape and improved the standard of living of an entire region of the country, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent out 2.5 million young men to dig reservoirs, stock lakes, maintain fire trails, work on erosion control, plant more than 2 billion trees, and under-take a host of other conservation projects. A number of other New Deal agencies, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) under Harold Ickes and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins, spent billions of dollars on hundreds of projects, many of which were related to conservation. In addition, Franklin D. Roosevelt designated more than 2 million acres of federal land as national monuments, including Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and White Sands, and created several new national parks, including Everglades in 1934, Big Bend in 1935, Olympic in 1938, and Kings Canyon in 1940.
The federal government also took a number of steps to deal with the dust bowl, which ravaged western farmlands in the early 1930s thanks to poor agricultural practices, disastrous overgrazing, and a series of dry years. The Soil Erosion Service, established in 1933, and then the Soil Conservation Service, established in 1935 under Hugh Hammond Bennett, aided landowners in soil and water conservation. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 halted overgrazing on public lands, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act of 1937 provided for reforestation of abandoned or submarginal farmland, and the Shelterbelt Program planted more than 18,000 miles of tree belts on the Plains to break up the wind, to provide shade for livestock, and to retain moisture in the soil.
As with the rest of the New Deal, Roosevelt's conservation program suffered from little coordination, frequent redundancies, and even blatant inconsistencies. Nevertheless, Roosevelt initiated an unprecedented level of federal involvement in the natural environment, and as a result, the conservation movement became linked with liberalism and the Democratic Party, an association that lasted through the rest of the century.
The 1950s and the wilderness movement. Conservation was put on hold during World War II, but during the 1950s, the movement reemerged and gained momentum. This was mainly due to the noticeably worsening state of the environment. The country's growing population and booming economy, featuring tremendous growth in the automobile, plastics, petroleum, and chemical industries, put increased stress on the nation's finite resources and led to highly visible and noxious forms of pollution. The public was increasingly cognizant that water was unfit to drink, food was laced with chemical additives, milk was contaminated with radioactive fallout, and cities were choked by poisonous air. A number of well-publicized episodes helped heighten awareness of the environmental crisis. For example, in 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, thousands of residents became ill, and twenty died from severe air pollution. As a result air, water, and noise pollution were no longer proudly pointed to as signs of modernization but were decried as disfiguring to the landscape and dangerous to public health. The fear arose that the list of species whose survival was endangered might have to include Homo sapiens.
That the Republican Party, now far removed from its Theodore Roosevelt days, returned to power in the 1950s did not help the environment, but it did help the conservation movement. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration threatened to reverse the gains of previous decades by cutting funding of federal conservation agencies and opening protected areas to military use. Eisenhower also appointed a wealthy automobile dealer named Douglas "Giveaway" McKay, whose sole qualification for office was a large campaign contribution to the Republican Party, as secretary of the interior. McKay promptly opened national wildlife refuges to gas and oil leasing.
With the state of the environment deteriorating and the government showing no interest in stemming the tide, the public turned to private conservation organizations to take up the slack. All the major conservation groups experienced healthy growth in the 1950s, as they broadened their membership bases, increased their budgets, hired professional staffs, expanded their range of activities, and cooperated with each other to push the conservation agenda. The movement's resurgence was exemplified by the broad-based and successful fight from 1950 to 1955 to save Dinosaur National Monument from being drowned by the proposed $417 million Echo Park Dam.
In addition, in the 1950s the conservation mosaic added a new element, the wilderness preservation movement. Americans had historically viewed wilderness areas, whether swamplands, forests, prairies, or deserts, as wasted areas with no value until they had been drained, cut, cultivated, or irrigated. But in the increasingly crowded postwar world, undeveloped areas became valuable precisely because they had been left in their natural states. Where wildlife and forest groups heretofore had dominated conservationism, wilderness organizations joined them on the front lines. Among those leading the charge were the Nature Conservancy, formed in 1951, which sought to preserve biological diversity by purchasing tracts of threatened wilderness, and the Wilderness Society founded in 1935 by Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Robert Sterling Yard, which lobbied the government to protect primitive areas from contamination by civilization. The wilderness forces shared a bond with the earlier efforts by the aesthetic preservationists to preserve the scenery of the United States. Their differences were that scenery is meant to be seen, whereas wilderness should ideally exist unseen so it can remain untouched and unspoiled by humans. The wilderness movement's efforts were rewarded with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The resurgence of the conservation movement in the 1950s laid the groundwork for its evolution into the mass movement of the 1960s and the 1970s known as environmentalism. By then, the forebears of the environmentalists, utilitarian conservationists, aesthetic preservationists, wildlife managers, and wilderness preservationists, had already established a formidable and enduring legacy, witnessed by the fact that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States included 55 national parks of 83 million acres, 75 national monuments of 4 million acres, 177 national forests and grasslands of 192 million acres, 530 national wildlife refuges covering 93 million acres, and over 700 national wilderness areas of 104 million acres, where fauna, flora, water, scenery, and other natural resources survived as living embodiments of the philosophy of conservation.

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