The Early Conservation Movement
Central Question: Was it successful for everyone?
Most begin by describing how industrialization marred the environment and wasted natural resources. They then describe how President Theodore Roosevelt secured new laws that gave the federal government power to curb environmental abuses and manage natural resources. [...] »
Historians describe the conservation movement as significantly more diverse, both geographically and politically, than textbook accounts suggest. They tend to emphasize the movement’s strong ties to the larger Progressive movement, explore conservation’s national scope, and highlight the work of local grassroots leaders. Historians have also emphasized the significant human costs and unintended environmental consequences of key conservation policies. [...] »
Sources show how conservation laws designed to protect wasteful and damaging uses of natural resources created entirely new categories of crime. They redefine traditional “pioneering” activities such as carving farmland out of the public domain, building log cabins, and hunting animals for food as the crimes of squatting, timber theft, and poaching. They also reveal how conserving Yosemite and the Grand Canyon for public enjoyment carried significant costs for Native Americans who called these places home. [...] »
Textbooks celebrate the conservation movement as an unalloyed success: New forestry laws prevented widespread clear-cutting, erosion, and fires. Game preservation laws protected wildlife from overhunting. Reclamation laws reformed the haphazard use of scarce water resources in the American West, enabling agricultural expansion. Preservation laws protected areas of scenic beauty from privatization and tacky commercial development. Yet historians have depicted the conservation movement much more broadly—and have assessed its legacy more critically. Why?