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The reasonable use of the Earth's natural resources is the focus of conservation, to maintain the environment to meet human needs while insuring consideration for aesthetics, wildlife and recreation. Timber, fuels and ores have, and still are, being depleted so rapidly that the need to conserve them has become crucial. Conservation seeks to prevent the waste of natural resources, control pollution and maintain a quality environment for future generations.

Among the most valuable of these resources are forests, holding watersheds essential to water and soil conservation. They shelter many forms of wildlife, contain landscapes of incredible beauty, supply lumber for construction, cordwood for fuel and pulp for paper. Forests also provide the raw materials used in many synthetic products considered essential for modern life, including fibers, plastics, and medicines.

The Early Conservation Movement

By 1885, the year Gifford Pinchot decided upon a career in forestry, much of the Eastern forests had been burned to create farmlands, plundered of wood for construction and fuel, and, in many cases, wasted away through carelessness.

Then, in 1901, President McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt became President. Through a twist of fate, “that damned cowboy”, as one Senator put it, was in the White House. And though many people were concerned with the destruction of America’s forests and resources, this new President would serve as the catalyst to action. The Conservation Movement had begun. Roosevelt would lead the charge and Gifford Pinchot, his able Chief Forester, would take the heat.

In those days, most Federal lands resided in what was called the Public Domain, lands eventually to be sold for revenue to run the government. But Roosevelt, Pinchot and others felt if all the valuable forested lands fell into private hands, those hands would belong primarily to lumber barons and other so-called plunderers. Besides, predictions estimated that at the rate of logging then sweeping across the United States, the nation's timber supply would dry up in sixty years. So, Roosevelt, with the help of Pinchot and his forestry bureau, quickly began setting aside millions of acres as Forest Reserves. By the time the President was finished, nearly 234 million acres had been withdrawn.

photo of Gifford Pinchot speakingPulling vast areas from the Public Domain did not sit well with many westerners who felt those lands of right belonged to them, or at least to their states, and not to a bunch of easterners in Washington. When Pinchot visited the west to make his case, as he often did, he never knew if a handshake would greet him or a bullet. He attended angry public meetings to boos and catcalls. Despite the hecklers, his charismatic and straight forward style was persuasive and begrudgingly respected. He believed the states, with their rag-tag land management departments, could not run the reserves effectively, that only a Federal program could truly and equitably best serve the common good. In the end, many original detractors came around to his point of view.

Conservation never has been an easy sell. The word itself is confusing. Many incorrectly think of it as preservation, to save everything undisturbed. Pinchot and Roosevelt defined it as the wise use of the Earth's natural resources, so that renewable ones, like timber, could regenerate, and nonrenewable ones, like coal, could be prudently utilized to last as long as possible. The central idea was to scientifically manage natural resources for the present and the future. That's why the Forest Reserves, now called National Forests, were originally established. Unlike the National Parks--basically managed for preservation and recreation--trees are cut, minerals are mined, cattle are grazed on National Forests--examples of uses that arouse controversy in some quarters today. Yet private lands alone cannot meet the needs of the growing and consuming American public.

This is not to say National Forests have no recreational, aesthetic or preservationist values; they do. More recreation occurs on the National Forests than all other government lands combined, including the National Parks. The largest wilderness system in the world can be found in the National Forests, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery. Keeping these "intangible" values in balance with commodity uses is the challenge, and the latter has sometimes, unfortunately, won out in favor of the former.

Later Events

Conservation in the United States began as a movement to save the country's vanishing forests and the variety of resources within them. But over time the concept broadened. Many environmental groups formed to lobby the government and help bring about necessary changes.

Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Conservation Service implemented reforestation and erosion control to combat a severe drought in the Plains states. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 regulated livestock on public lands to prevent overgrazing and soil deterioration.

President Harry S. Truman began a national program to control water pollution. Later legislation required states to set standards for clean natural waters. Efforts to save native wildlife from extinction were aided by the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, a far-reaching measure and supported by President Richard M. Nixon, emphasized recycling and advocated attempts to equalize population and resource use. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was formed to promote and enforce environmental quality.

In 1970, the Greenpeace Foundation was established with special emphasis against radioactive and toxic waste dumping, nuclear weapons and acid rain.

The worldwide recession of the early 1980s had an unfavorable effect on national conservation programs because environmental restrictions were viewed as hindrances to economic recovery. Despite a less than favorable record on the environment, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan supported bills to expand the federal wilderness system by more than 8 million acres.

In 1990, President George Bush's administration pushed through legislation that amended the Clean Air Act of 1970, putting greater emphasis on reducing acid rain, fossil fuel emissions and ozone depletion.

Into The Future...

Although many issues face the global environment today, probably none is more pivotal than the current population explosion. Some estimates predict the world's population will double in a mere sixty years, placing incredible demands on the planet's already limited capabilities.

Gifford Pinchot believed that an equitable distribution of the world's natural resources provided the key to world peace. If he's right, then the necessity to curb population growth takes on even greater significance. That, in itself, may soon become the greatest issue the conservation movement has yet to face.

USDA Forest Service - Grey Towers National Historic Site
Last Modified: Monday, 16 December 2013 at 14:19:05 CST

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