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Conservation thinking has evolved over centuries, often as a response to the profound land use changes that shaped the American landscape after the arrival of European colonists in the 1600s. Since that time, deforestation, urbanization, and industrialization all produced profound environmental changes that spurred conservation ideas and practices. At the national level, environmental historians have identified three major historic strands of conservation thinking and action that provided historic foundations for the contemporary environmental movement. These are utilitarian conservation (natural resource management), preservationist conservation (preserving scenic nature), and wildlife habitat protection. Utilitarian and preservationist conservation ideas, which developed by the first half of the 19th century, provided major, and different, arguments for a variety of large open space conservation initiatives in the second half of the 19th century, culminating in the creation of the first national and state forests. Many of the protected open spaces that we have today—and to a large extent, the arguments that we still use to conserve and protect natural places for their scenic, recreational, or habitat values—have been inherited from one or more of these three traditions.
Early Utilitarian Conservation Ideas and Practices
Although colonial ordinances attempted some protection of natural resources, they were quite limited in nature. Over time, population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and a shift to a market-driven economy put increasing pressure on remaining natural resources. By the middle of the 19th century, many Eastern forests had been depleted. Fish and wildlife populations had also dropped dramatically as the results of habitat loss, over-fishing, and hunting. The settlement of the American West also set off a massive transformation of landscapes there with a rapid depletion of forests, soil erosion, and loss of wildlife that alarmed many people. While State Horticultural Associations promoted experimentation with new crops and better crop management in the first half of the century, few understood that environmental damage, such as erosion, might have permanent consequences.
Early 19th Century Conservation and the Romantic Movement: Promoting New Attitudes toward Nature
European writers and artists in the 18th and early 19th centuries developed Romantic ideas to celebrate the aesthetics of nature. They recognized distinct categories of scenic nature. Terms like “beautiful,” “picturesque,” and “sublime” were used to describe landscape types, all of which were expected to elicit uplifting—though differing—emotional responses in people. “Beautiful” landscapes were typically scenes of pastoral nature, including elements such as gentle rolling hills, cultivated farm fields, meadows, and tended gardens—landscapes largely shaped through the presence of humans. Pastoral nature was expected to have a soothing effect on people. “Picturesque” landscapes included more wild natural elements—the scenery was irregular in pattern, with exaggerated vertical and horizontal elements. Mountains, valleys, and forests were typical aspects in picturesque landscapes, which might also include signs of human presence (cities could also be considered to contain picturesque elements). Picturesque landscapes were stimulating and provided a sharp contrast to urban living. “Sublime” landscapes, on the other hand, were exaggerated in scale—monumental peaks, vast caverns, thundering cataracts, even violent weather effects like thunderstorms characterized sublime landscapes believed to be shaped only by the hand of God. Sublime landscapes were expected to elicit emotions such as awe and even terror.
Both European and American scenery provided ample examples of beautiful and picturesque scenery—but the American wilderness was something that Europe, with all of its refinement and culture, lacked. American wilderness, celebrated in 19th century writing, art, and photography, soon became an icon of American identity. In the northeastern United States, these romantic depictions of nature were popularized in the mid to late nineteenth century by the works of the Hudson River School landscape painters, including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederick Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Eastern American wilderness areas like Niagara Falls, and later western landscapes like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, first inspired writers and artists and eventually tourists to visit these scenes as stops on the American Grand Tour. The over-commercialization of sites like Niagara Falls in response to 19th century tourism became a major concern and spurred efforts to preserve scenic wilderness areas. During roughly the same period, urban preservationist initiatives led to the creation of pastoral country parks in or near many American cities. Both of these preservationist initiatives were outgrowths of Romantic ideas of nature that led to an increasing interest on the part of the public to visit scenic natural areas.
Early Ecological Conservation Ideas and the Watershed
The Conservation Movement Matures:
Preservation of Scenic Wilderness Areas
Creating National Parks
Preserving Nature Nearby: Urban Conservation and the 19th Century Parks Movement
The prototype for the country parks was the rural or garden cemetery. The first of these cemeteries to be built in the United States was Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Watertown and Cambridge, Massachusetts, which dates from 1831. Rural cemeteries became such popular destinations for recreational excursions that landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing, William Cullen Bryant, and others lobbied for the creation of a large rural park in New York City. A group of New York’s leading citizens picked up the idea in the 1850s acquiring a tract of over 700 acresin the northern part of the city. After winning a design competition, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his colleague, architect Calvert Vaux, were hired to design the large park. The park design included pastoral elements such as open meadows, lawns, and thick border vegetation. New York City’s Central Park inspired the creation of many other parks and park systems in American cities after the Civil War such as the connected park systems in Chicago, Buffalo, and Minneapolis. Boston’s version was the Emerald Necklace Park System, which Frederick Law Olmsted designed beginning in the 1870s and completed before the turn of the 20th century.
Wildlife Protection in the Late 19th Century: The First State Audubon Societies
In response to the decline in bird populations, a number of new conservation-oriented organizations formed. During the winter of 1874-75, almost 100 sportsmen’s organizations were founded, and by 1878, 308 organizations had declared a commitment to conservation practices. Forest and Stream magazine a sportsmen’s magazine, was a major contributor to a conservation ethic among sportsmen. George Bird Grinnell, who worked for the magazine, wrote an editorial in 1886, which established the first national Audubon society. He invited concerned people to sign pledges that they wouldn’t harm any birds. In the first year, almost 39,000 men, women and children enlisted. The new club was called the Audubon Society, but it grew so quickly that the magazine couldn’t handle the extra work, and was disbanded within two years, a victim of its popularity (Vileisis, 1997).
Ten years later, the first state Audubon Society in the country was founded by two Massachusetts women—Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall, part of Boston’s wealthy society. In January 1896, Mrs. Hemenway heard of the decimation of a Florida heron rookery raided by hunters for the plumes, and was galvanized into action. The first strategy involved bringing together many of Boston’s leading scientists and social leaders together to brainstorm. The participants at the meeting decided that the most effective course of action would be to create a new organization, and they voted that day to establish the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The purpose of the new organization would be “to discourage buying and wearing for ornamental purposes the feathers of any wild bird”. The Massachusetts model caught on, and within two years, Audubon Societies had been established in 15 states. By 1901, 35 states had established Audubon groups. In 1905, National Audubon Society was formed as an umbrella organization to help coordinate state efforts. Over time, Audubon groups shifted to ecological habitat preservation. Massachusetts Audubon Society formally incorporated in 1915, and was enabled to receive and manage property. Land for the first Massachusetts Audubon Society bird sanctuary was donated by George Field in Sharon. There are currently 42 Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuaries statewide.
Conservationists Join Forces to Save America’s Forests
In the last decades of the 19th century, federal and state governments initiated a variety of programs to preserve forests and educate the public about the need for improved forest management practices. Congress passed legislation for the first national forests in March 1891, the Forest Reserve Act. This act allowed the president to create forest reserves by withdrawing forested lands from the public domain. New York led the country in state-level initiatives, where a coalition of scientists, sportsmen, nature lovers and businessmen in 1885 supported legislation that created the first state forest preserve in the United States, 715,000 acres of forested land in northern New York that became the Adirondacks State Park. Initiatives to create state forests in western states and New England followed within a few years, which was a trend that continued through the first several decades of the 20th century.