How The Wilderness Was Won


One of this century’s profound cultural transformations began in the 1960s, when ecological thought took hold and fostered a new seriousness toward earth stewardship. But what happened then was really a transition. Present-day environmentalism represents an elaboration of core ideas developed far earlier by American conservationists, especially the seminal concepts and plans of the two Presidents Roosevelt and their allies. They prepared the way so that Americans later confronted by increasing threats to earth’s ecosystems could erect a sophisticated superstructure on ramparts already standing.

Movements that foster ideas that shape the fabric of American thought usually evolve in reaction to abuses that constrict the lives of citizens or threaten the nation’s future. The conservation movement came into existence in the first years of this century in response to the unprecedented plunder of public resources in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.

In the forefront of that pageant of destruction and waste was a rapacious lumber industry. Having begun in Maine and swept westward to California’s towering groves of redwood trees, the newly mechanized industry clear-cut the bulk of the country’s longleaf pine forests and left blackened wastelands in its wake.


Elsewhere, as the killing power of rifles increased, whole species were slaughtered on a scale the world had never seen. That decimation came to a climax on the Great Plains, where in the space of little more than a decade the vast herds of buffalo—the wildlife wonder of this continent—were nearly exterminated by “market hunters.” In other regions hunters who worked for commercial enterprises conducted relentless raids on edible birds, on fur seals, and on shore and migratory birds whose feathers were in demand. These endless hunts and those conducted for sport exterminated several species of bird and drove kingfishers, terns, eagles, pelicans, egrets, and herons to the brink of extinction.

The slaughters evoked angry protests from some Americans. In 1877 Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz tried to start a campaign to halt the unfettered felling of the nation’s timberlands. A German emigrant familiar with the forestry practices of his homeland, Schurz issued a report in which he denounced lumbermen who were “not merely stealing trees, but whole forests.” But his plans to initiate scientific management of the nation’s resources were thwarted by Congress, and two decades would pass before growing public protest gave reformers an opportunity to push for laws and policies that would change the course of our history.

The man who became the leader of the nascent conservation movement was President Theodore Roosevelt. As a young rancher in what is now North Dakota, Roosevelt had learned what happened when nature’s iron laws were ignored. He was a natural-born reformer, and when an assassination catapulted him into the White House in 1901, he was ready to lead a crusade for land policies that would alter the values and attitudes of the American people.

Theodore Roosevelt’s audacity made many of his conservation achievements possible.

The President began by declaring in his first State of the Union address that resource issues were “the most vital internal problems of the United States.” A politician who wore his convictions on his sleeve, he spoke out against “the tyranny of mere wealth” and galvanized a cadre of young foresters by exclaiming, “I hate a man who skins the land.”

Roosevelt chose for his chief adviser on resource issues the dynamic thirty-six-year-old chief of the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot had little power as the head of a tiny new bureau, but his vigorous ideas about land stewardship won him a preferred place at the new President’s council table. Roosevelt’s crusade needed a motto, a slogan, and Pinchot and his friends soon coined a word that expressed the bundle of ideas the President was considering. Pinchot and his fellow forester Overton Price had been discussing the fact that government-owned forests in British India were called Conservancies, and this resonant word was enlarged into the nouns conservation and conservationist.

Roosevelt and Pinchot had to confront an unsympathetic Congress, and they knew from the outset that to do so they must sell conservation to the American people as well. Roosevelt welcomed this challenge, for he was a superlative teacher and saw himself as the trustee of the nation’s resources.

The policies and programs that Roosevelt and Pinchot implemented over the seven years of Roosevelt’s Presidency focused on specific issues. They converted idle forest “reserves” into a functioning system of national forests to be managed by a corps of trained foresters. The President won over hostile Western congressmen by supporting a new federal program to build dams and homestead-style irrigation projects in arid parts of the West. He also issued orders that stopped extravagant giveaways of public resources and simultaneously challenged a balky Congress to enact laws that hydropower sites and mineral resources be developed only under federal licenses and leases.