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Over the years the study of the conservation movement has become an increasingly important dimension of the larger Progressive Era history of the United States. Our understanding of the conservation movement in the latter half of the twentieth century has been shaped largely by the reinterpretation of the Progressive period by Samuel P. Hays in Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency and his study of the environmental movement, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985. This later work on the environmental movement also offers the reader a comparative perspective on the meaning and significance of conservationism and environmentalism. For Hays, conservationists were Progressives without peers, educated in scientific management and committed to eliminating the wasteful use of the nation’s resources -- land and forests, water, wildlife, and urban blight and disorder.
Recent books that reinforce this conception of progressive reformers include The Birth of City Planning in the United States, 1840-1917 by Jon A. Peterson. It focuses on the birth of city planning and its missions of sanitary reform, creating urban parks, promoting the City Beautiful campaigns, and professionalism and efficiency. Edited by David Stradling, Conservation in the Progressive Era: Classic Texts is a series using the writings of some of the leading figures in the conservation movement, including Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir. These texts provide readers with the opportunity to learn about the philosophical, economic, and public policy positions of these significant conservationists. In addition, the Pioneers of Conservation Series presents biographies and primary writings of leading conservationists including Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell, edited by William deBuys and Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism by Char Miller. For additional primary source readings, Harold K. Steen, ed., The Conservation Diaries of Gifford Pinchot is insightful. For a biography that combines conservation and regional planning, Larry Anderson’s Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail is a comprehensive account of one of the movement’s more creative public figures. For an illuminating essay on MacKaye, read Paul Sutter’s “A Retreat From Profit.”
For conservationists, nature was not the 'web of life' it would become for their successors, the environmentalists in the post World Qar II era, it was a collection of resources to be rationally exploited. As an example, the reckless clear-cutting of old growth forests that appalled conservationists was replaced by the concept of "sustained yield" even though the practice of selective cutting and replanting remained somewhat problematic throughout the century. For a comprehensive study of forests and logging, Michael Williams, Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography provides a panoramic perspective on the nation’s forests from the pre-colonial period to the modern era. Geography, history, and technological changes in the forest industry make this volume valuable background for understanding the utilitarian conservation of forests. Also, Richard C. Davis, editor of the Encyclopedia of American Forest and Conservation History provides a wealth of information about the history of conservation and its impact on the nation’s forests. Short essays by scholars, foresters, and conservationists provide excellent introductions to a range of related topics. On forestry and loggers, two books by Thomas R. Cox, Mills and Markets: A History of the Pacific Coast Lumber Industry to 1900 and This Well Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests From Colonial Times to the Present and William G. Robbins, Lumberjacks and Legislators: Political Economy of the United States Lumber Industry, 1890-1941 break new ground on the growth of the lumber industry and on the efforts of lumbermen to eliminate competition by using the progressive ideas of order and stability. Clearcutting the Pacific Rain Forest: Production, Science, and Regulation by Richard A. Rajala combines social class with the environmental and political issues of cutting in the Douglas fir regions.
Some historians have noted that studies that focus on the conflicts between conservationists and laissez-faire capitalists fail to address equally important competition between conservationists and preservationists during the Progressive era. In much the same way that Hays's Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency broke new ground on the centrality of conservation for historians of the Progressive Era, Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind examined the concept of wilderness and its importance to understanding the American character. In his exhaustive essay, "Historiographical Essay American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field," Richard White pointed out that: "Wilderness has become the highway to the American psyche most favored by intellectual historians." A most provocative debate ensued among three environmental historians (Samuel P. Hays, Michael P. Cohen, and Thomas R. Dunlap) in response to William Cronon’s essay titled, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”
The lives of preservationists, those men and women who argued for protecting nature and its resources in the condition in which they were found, became subjects favored more by historical biographers than the lives of conservationists. The superb biography by Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement chronicles Muir’s life, the development of his preservationist philosophy, and his verbal battles with Pinchot over plans to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in order to provide water to San Francisco. For the most recent analysis of this struggle see The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and The Birth of Modern Environmentalism by Robert W. Righter, God’s Wilds: John Muir’s Vision of Nature by Dennis C. Williams explores Muir’s relationship with science and faith.
Wallace Stegner’s now-classic biography of John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian is an illuminating account of this important American explorer. Recently published, Donald Worster’s A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell is an excellent new biography. Two excellent works have been published on the life and times of Aldo Leopold, conservationist turned preservationist by Susan L. Flader, Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests and Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Leopold himself has become an icon in the post World War II environmental movement but his roots were planted firmly in its predecessor, the conservation movement. Educated at the Yale School of Forestry, founded with Pinchot family wealth, Leopold became a leading early proponent of the scientific management of forests and wildlife. These outstanding biographies describe and analyze the major intellectual and personal transitions in Leopold’s life, transitions which he gave glimpses of in his short essays published posthumously as Sand County Almanac.
An extension of the preservationist theme in the conservation movement literature is the early history of national parks, national wildlife refuges, and zoological societies. As recently as July, 1996, David Quammen in a New York Times article titled: "National Parks: Nature's Dead End," argued that the conservationist practice of defining acceptable boundaries for wildlife in game parks and refuges was leading to their extinction. Progressive Era control, order, and stability lead to wildlife decline and death. Similar criticism of the conservationists' expansion of the national park system is found in Alfred Runte's National Parks: The American Experience challenged the wilderness myth and asserted that in the early history of the national park system Congress placed only worthless lands into it. Although those historians who wrote about the later development of the park system endorsed the “worthless land” thesis, few could deny that many of the system’s early supporters claimed that the parklands were indeed without valuable resources.
Once marketable natural resources became an issue, then the worthless land argument disappeared and was replaced by the struggle between older economic and newer preservation values. This struggle is the subject of Susan R. Schrepfer's The Fight to Save the Redwoods: A History of Environmental Reform, 1917-1978. Efforts to develop coherent park plans are thwarted by economic interests as Robert Righter demonstrates in Crucible for Conservation: The Creation of the Grand Teton National Park and Kay Franklin and Norman Schaeffer argue in Duel for the Dunes: Land Use Conflict on the Shores of Lake Michigan. Inquiries into the development of the nation’s park system represent a growing body of literature on the conservation movement. For additional monographs on the topic see: A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement by Mark W. T. Harvey, Nature’s Army: When Soldiers Fought for Yosemite by Harvey Meyerson, Crater Lake National Park: A History by Rick Harmon, Yellowstone: The Creation and Selling of an American Landscape, 1870-1903 by Chris J. Magoc, and Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature by Mark Daniel Barringer.
Preserving wildlife is the topic of Saving America's Wildlife, a definitive study by Thomas R. Dunlap that covers the history of conservationist efforts to clear the land of predators and create order out of the chaotic world of wild animals and yet prevent the destructive extermination of wild game by pioneers, farmers and market hunters. Three important essays by Dunlap in the Pacific Historical Review on government-sponsored extermination policies, outgrowths of earlier conservation era practices, are examined in "Values and Varmints: Predator Control and Environmental Ideas, 1920-1939," "American Wildlife Policy and Environmental Ideology: Poisoning Coyotes, 1939-1972," and "Wildlife, Science, and the National Parks, 1920-1940."
John F. Reiger's revised and expanded 3rd edition of American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation poses a direct challenge to the Hays thesis about the desire of elites, in this instance, upper class conservationists, to create an orderly, resource-based society out of the chaos they witnessed in laissez-faire capitalism run amuck. For Reiger, long before the advent of the Progressive Era, many of the nation’s sportsmen directly challenged the recklessness of market hunters whose practices resulted in the extermination of the passenger pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the near disappearance of the plains buffalo. The establishment of the Boone and Crockett Club by elite New York sportsmen and the founding of the city’s Zoological Society by them as a safe haven for endangered species in the early years of this century represented milestones in conservation before the official beginning of the movement.
James B. Trefethen's An American Crusade for Wildlife, Gerald Goddard, (editor), Saving Wildlife: A Century of Conservation, and the conservationist, William T. Hornaday's Thirty Years War for Wildlife, originally published in 1931 and reprinted in 1970, provide excellent histories of human efforts to preserve, protect, and assist in the propagation of various species of mammals, foul, and fish. In Wild Animals and American Environmental Ethics, Lisa Mighetto describes the development of changing ethical values about wildlife including nineteenth century crusades against cruelty toward animals and conservationist policies of establishing preserves and refuges for wildlife. More popular accounts of the history of wildlife in America, including the conservation movement, are found in Hal Borland's The History of Wildlife in America and Peter Mattheissen's Wildlife in America. Since writing laws to protect animals was different from enforcing existing laws, Thomas A. Lund's American Wildlife Law covers the period from the colonial period to the present examining the varying impact of local, state, and federal statutes. On specific species see the following excellent monographs: The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History 1750-1920 by Andrew C. Isenberg, In the Absence of Predators: Conservation and Controversy on the Kaibab Plateau by Christian C. Young, and Wolf Mountains: A History of Wolves Along the Great Divide by Karen Jones.
The struggle to locate and deliver pure water to the nation’s burgeoning urban population during the early twentieth century and dispose of wastewater and human waste became a passion for urban Progressive reformers committed to human hygiene and health. Progressive Era sanitary engineers and public health officers replaced the existing somewhat primitive urban infrastructures of the nation's cities with modern sewerage disposal and treatment facilities. Nelson M. Blake's Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States is dated and covers a much longer urban water supply history than the Progressive Era but its treatment of urban water reformers is instructive. By far and away the best collection of essays and research on urban water reformers is Joel A. Tarr's The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective. The volume covers much more than the efforts of reformers to provide pure and wholesome water to cities a nd to dispose of industrial, human, and animal wastes. Smoke pollution is viewed as evidence of wasteful industrial practices to be controlled and abated by progressive reform. Although its coverage extends beyond the chronology of this essay, The Sanitary City by Martin V. Melosi is a comprehensive and insightful study of efforts by reformers to create a healthy and efficient urban environment for its residents.
Water in the arid western United States embraces a number of important conservation era topics from dam building, irrigation, and drinking water to disposal. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History, Revised Edition by Norris Hundley, Jr. along with his The Colorado Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West remain important texts for readers grappling with the complicated issues confronting users of western water. Donald J. Pisani’s second volume in a three-part trilogy on western water titled Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902-1935 is significant for its divergence from the familiar theme of controlling federal power. In his analysis, federal authority was fragmented and weak. For an opposing point of view, namely that federal and corporate power produced the dam system to promote agribusiness and urban expansion, see Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. Western water development stimulated by the passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902 is another historical example of Hays's Progressive conservation by exercising bureaucratic control of raging western rivers. Damming and diverting them eliminated the waste of precious water flowing into the sea and turned some of the arid and semi-arid desert to productive agriculture. Municipal control of water is the central theme of Abraham Hoffman's Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy and William L. Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley. The role of women in Progressive Era conservation and sanitary reform is developed in Carolyn Merchant's essay titled "Women of the Progressive Conservation Movement: 1900-1916." Robin Doughty in Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation expanded on the critical role played by elite women to ban the domestic and international millinery trade in feathers for women's hats and clothing. In the urban sanitation and public health dimensions of the conservation movement, the important public role of women, particularly national women’s clubs, in lobbying municipal governments to protect the citizenry from contaminated water and to control the spread of infectious decease is presented in a number of important essays including Suellen M. Hoy's "'Municipal Housekeeping: The Role of Women in Improving Urban Sanitation Practices, 1880-1917", Nancy Tomes, "The Private Side of Public Health: Sanitary Science, Domestic Hygiene, and the Germ Theory, 1870-1900", and more recently Elaine M. Koerner, "Guardian Angels or Agitators?: A Century of Women at the Helm of Grassroots Environmental Activism."
The conservation movement's influence in changing the political culture of the nation and reshaping its political structures was far reaching. In repeated struggles between private interests and public authority over control of municipal water, sewerage disposal, the hunting of wild animals and game, and the clear-cutting of old growth forests, conservation era policies informed public practice and personal behavior. At every level of government major changes occurred. Seemingly small examples of conservation legislation and their systematic enforcement such as the issuance of hunting licenses, the designation of hunting seasons, and the collection of state and federal taxes on the sale of arms and munitions, were all successful efforts in bureaucratic control, order, and regulation inspired by early twentieth century conservationists. And they changed the public behavior of the nation's citizens.
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