About the Author

Christopher Wells is an assistant professor of environmental history at Macalester College. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and specializes in environmental history, the history of technology, and U.S. cultural and intellectual history.

The Early Conservation Movement

Conservation and Environmental Change

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?

What Textbooks Say

Most textbook discussions of conservation 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.

. . . [T]he conservation movement was significantly more diverse, both geographically and politically, than textbook accounts suggest.

To illustrate a key tension-dividing conservationists, most textbooks describe the competing influence of two men who influenced Roosevelt’s thinking. John Muir, a famous writer and wilderness advocate, took Roosevelt camping in Yosemite in 1903, where they discussed the value of wilderness and the need for government protections. By contrast, Gifford Pinchot—one of Roosevelt’s trusted advisers and the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service—advocated managing natural resources to conserve them for future generations. Roosevelt chose Pinchot’s hands-on “conservation” over Muir’s hands-off “preservation,” and vigorously built the government’s capacity to manage timber, wildlife, and water resources more sustainably. This approach to conservation’s history captures several important truths. First, it highlights how new legislation and policies gave federal agencies and administrators the power to curb destructive practices and to manage natural resources. Second, it highlights the powerful influence of individuals like Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot, who helped shape national debates and priorities. Third, it describes some of the environmental issues that motivated the conservation agenda, particularly in the West and on public lands.

Conservation in Context

Yet the conservation movement was significantly more diverse, both geographically and politically, than textbook accounts suggest. First, conservation was deeply enmeshed within the larger Progressive movement of the time. Progressives favored dropping older laissez-faire practices in favor of a more active federal role in managing the economy. They also sought to limit some of the harsher effects of industrial capitalism. The impulse to protect natural resources from waste, destruction, and despoliation at the hands of unregulated economic enterprise reflected this much broader push to reign in the many abuses of unfettered industrialization. Second, conservation activity flourished in areas not directed by the federal government, tied to federal legislation, or led by national figures. Textbooks focus overwhelmingly on federal activities in the American West, for example, but the conservation movement was national in scope, drawing support and generating activity in other regions of the country. Conservationists in industrial cities—many of whom were women—launched vigorous campaigns to limit air pollution. They also championed improved “municipal housekeeping” through activities like sewer installation, street sweeping, regular garbage pickup, and better street lighting (see Primary Source Mildred Chadsey, "Municipal Housekeeping" [1915]).

Human Costs

In addition to being much broader in scope than textbook accounts portray, the conservation movement also placed unequal and sometimes severe burdens on certain groups. Conservation laws that criminalized some uses of natural resources, for example, imposed harsh limits on socially and economically marginal segments of the population. Cutting down trees on public land to build log cabins became “timber theft.” Burning forests to clear land for agriculture or underbrush to attract game became “arson.” Hunting game for meat, except under carefully regulated conditions, became “poaching.” Not surprisingly, poor rural Americans often objected to conservation laws for cutting off access to natural resources that had long been a central (and celebrated) component of frontier life (see Primary Source Theodore Basselin, Testimony, 1891). According to these critics, conservation laws seemed designed to take from poor rural folks in order to benefit wealthy urban sightseers and sport hunters.

. . . [T]he conservation movement also placed unequal and sometimes severe burdens on certain groups.

Officially protecting public lands also had harsh effects on Native Americans, particularly when the boundaries of new national forests, parks, and monuments placed their traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering territories off limits. In some cases, as in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the new boundaries encompassed established Indian towns and villages, and insensitive officials used conservation laws to restrict Indian mobility, to alter traditional subsistence practices like hunting, fishing, gathering, and burning forest undergrowth, and even to evict Indians entirely from their homes (see Primary Source Captain Jim, Letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs [1915]). Dam and irrigation projects in the American West also came with a price. Justified as a way to transfer the public domain to individual farm families, it was land speculators and established landowners—not new settlers—who reaped the most significant rewards from federal reclamation projects. When settlers did come, looking for an “irrigated Eden,” they often found instead a bureaucratically managed “hydraulic society” that served the “haves” much better than the “have-nots” (see Primary Source Thomas Means, “Discussion of Irrigation” [1909]).

Unintended Environmental Consequences

In addition to their human costs, conservation practices also had unanticipated ecological consequences. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, applied scientific principles to manage forests in ways they hoped would improve their health and ensure a sustained maximum yield of wood products. Yet even seemingly well-founded practices sometimes produced ecologically destructive results. In the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington, for example, fire-suppression policies designed to prevent the needless waste of lumber irrevocably altered ecosystem dynamics in unexpected ways, making the forests more susceptible to disease, insect infestations, and catastrophic fires.

In addition to their human costs, conservation practices also had unanticipated ecological consequences.

Scientific game management practices designed to protect animals from the fate suffered by once-vast flocks of passenger pigeons and herds of bison also ran into problems. Game managers who killed off predators to ensure robust animal populations for hunters, also encountered problems. In the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve, for example, predator control caused deer populations to skyrocket in the early 1920s. Large herds overbrowsed their range, caused ecological damage, and ultimately undermined their own subsistence, causing mass starvation and a population collapse (see Primary Source “Report on Kaibab Deer Problem” [1931]). Game managers also learned that park boundaries did not always line up with the seasonal grazing ranges of animals. When they erected fences to keep elk and bison inside parks, they created unexpected problems during harsh winters, when limiting animals’ mobility threatened their very survival.

Conservation’s Legacy

Lessons from the conservation movement continue to animate modern-day environmentalists. Conservation illustrated the power of strong federal laws to protect nature, but also highlighted the capabilities of grassroots organizations. In addition, the conservation movement’s human costs underlined the need for socially equitable environmental policies, while conservation’s unintended environmental consequences have inspired environmentalists to emphasize more ecologically informed practices.