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

Theodore Basselin, Testimony (1891)


In his testimony before the New York State legislature in 1891, Theodore B. Basselin—a wealthy lumber magnate who had been appointed to New York’s Forest Commission—described the difficulties that government officials encountered in trying to implement new forest-protection laws. Locals long accustomed to cutting timber from public lands did not take kindly to the Forest Commission’s efforts to “educate those people” that “the State had assumed a different line of policy, the protecting of the forest, instead of cutting it off.”

Excerpt from Theodore Basselin's testimony:
[W]e also found that the people around about the borders of this wilderness had been educated from time immemorial, that is, from the first settlement of the country, that what belonged to the State was public property, and that they had a right to go in there and cut as they wanted to; that their fathers and forefathers had been doing that, and that they had a birthright there that no one could question; our endeavor and our efforts were all placed toward trying to educate those people in a different line; the State had assumed a different line of policy, the protecting of the forest, instead of cutting it off; now, in regard to the small depredators along the borders of the wilderness, who had looked upon it as a birthright, it was necessary for us to proceed carefully, as no one knew better than I did what danger an enemy or a man who had a spite could cause to the State by fires….


Basselin, Theodore. Testimony, February 17, 1891, in “Testimony Taken by the Assembly Committee on Public Lands and Forestry Concerning the Administration of Laws in Relation to the Forest Preserve by the Forest Commission, Etc,” Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 114, Issues 74-82, New York State Legislature (Albany, NY: James B. Lyon, 1891).