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National Treasures

Human beings evolved in the Old World, a fact that more than once would have sudden and drastic consequences for the New. Thus the world they encountered in North America was unlike anything they had ever seen. The greatest temperate forest in the world, teeming with life, stretched almost unbroken from the Atlantic seaboard to well west of the Mississippi. The grasslands that filled the Great Plains in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains also abounded with animal life as millions of bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer roamed it, as did their associated predators, the wolf, the mountain lion, the bear, and the jaguar.

When the new settlers arrived, they did not see the beauty or abundance of the wilderness that greeted them. Far from it; they regarded it as barren and threatening because the ancient paradigm that dated to the dawn of civilization still molded their thinking. Thus they regarded their first task in the New World to be a re-creation of what they had known in the Old, an environment shaped by the hand of man, for man’s benefit.

But while they sought, as nearly as possible, to re-create the Europe they had left behind, converting the “remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness” into a “second England for fertilness,” there was one way in which the New World was utterly unlike the Old: it possessed an abundance of land so great that it seemed to the early settlers, and to their descendants for many generations, to verge upon the infinite. “The great happiness of my country,” wrote the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, “arises from the great plenty of land.”

Because the supply seemed without end, the value placed on each unit was small. It is only common sense to husband the scarce and let the plentiful take care of itself. Caring for the land, an inescapable necessity in Europe, was simply not cost-effective here. After all, the settlers could always move on to new, rich land farther west. For three hundred years they did exactly that, with ever-increasing speed.

Americans also developed other habits in the early days that stemmed directly from the wealth of land and scarcity of the population. Today, when American archeologists investigate a site, they know that the place to look for the garbage dump is on the far side of the fence or stone wall that was nearest to the dwelling. In Europe that was likely to belong to a neighbor; in America it was often wilderness and thus beyond the human universe. This out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude would have no small consequences when technology increased the waste stream by orders of magnitude.

The early settlers, while they greatly altered the landscape of the Eastern seaboard, clearing whole stretches of the primeval forest and converting the land to fields, pastures, and meadows, did not greatly diminish the biological diversity. They opened up the best land for farming but left untouched the steep or rocky areas as well as, to a great extent, the wetlands and mountains. Indeed in some ways the early settlers increased the diversity by expanding habitat for such grassland species as bluebirds, ground hogs, and meadowlarks. The ecosystem as a whole remained intact.

As early as the 1850s it was clear to the more thoughtful that something precious and irreplaceable was rapidly disappearing. The wilderness that had helped define the country seemed ever more remote. It was now recognized the natural world could provide refreshment whose need was becoming more and more keenly felt.

Urban parks, such as New York City’s incomparable Central and Prospect parks, were intended to provide the population with a taste of nature that many could now obtain no other way. But these parks were, like the aristocratic gardens created in eighteenth-century Britain, wholly man-made and no more truly natural than a sculpture is a rock outcropping.

Movements began to take hold to preserve portions of the fast-vanishing wilderness itself. As early as the 1830s the painter George Catlin put forward the idea of a wild prairie reservation, a suggestion that, alas, was not implemented before nearly all of the country’s prairie ecosystem was destroyed. But the movement took root, and in 1864 the first act of preservation was undertaken when ownership of the Yosemite Valley and a stand of sequoias was transferred from the public lands of the United States to the state of California.

In 1872 the first national park in the world was created when reports of the splendors of Yellowstone were delivered to Congress. James Bryce, British ambassador to the United States, called the national parks the best idea America ever had. Certainly they have been widely copied around the world. Today American national parks protect 47,783,680 acres, an area considerably larger than the state of Missouri. States, too, began to set aside land to protect what was left of the wilderness. New York turned five million acres—15 percent of the state’s land area—into the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, to remain “forever wild.”

In the 1870s Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, began moving for the preservation of federally owned forests. Born in Europe, where forests had long since become scarce and thus precious, and where forest-management techniques were far more advanced than those in this country, Schurz and many others helped create a new concern for America’s fast-dwindling woodlands. By the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency, almost sixty million acres were in the forest reserve system.

Today hundreds of millions of acres in this country enjoy various levels of protection from development, and more are added every year. But while the parks and reserves created by this movement are national treasures that have greatly enriched the quality of life, their creation was predicated on the part of the ancient paradigm that still survived. That part held that the natural world and the human one were two separate and distinct places. And it was still thought that each had little effect on the other.

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.

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.

His audacity was what made many of Theodore Roosevelt’s landmark conservation achievements possible. In his second term he rewrote the rulebook on presidential power by placing his signature on sweeping Executive Orders and proclamations, rejecting his timid predecessors’ “narrowly legalistic view” that the President could function only where a statute told him to, and he plumbed the Constitution to find powers for himself. His glory was that he dared to use his pen to change the face of his country’s landscape.

Before he left office, he had replaced a century-old policy of land disposal with a new policy of setting land aside for conservation. As a result of decisions he made, the lands designated as national forests increased from 42 million acres to 148 million, and 138 new forest areas were created in twenty-one Western states. With additional strokes of his pen, he carved out four huge wildlife refuges and set up fifty-one smaller sanctuaries for birds, to protect what he called “the beautiful and wonderful wild creatures whose existence was threatened by greed and wantonness.” With another flourish he established eighteen national monuments, including four—Grand Canyon, Olympic, Lassen Volcanic, and Petrified Forest—so majestic that Congress subsequently converted them into national parks.

Most people know that the National Park Service cares for national parks, a network of nearly 400 natural, cultural and recreational sites across the nation. The treasures in this system -. the first of its kind in the world -.have been set aside by the American people to preserve, protect, and share, the legacies of this land. People from all around the world visit national parks to experience America's story, marvel at the natural wonders, and have fun. Places like the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Gettysburg are popular destinations, but so too are the hundreds of lesser known yet equally meaningful gems like Rosie the Riveter in California, Boston Harbor Islands in Massachusetts, and Russell Cave in Alabama.

John Steele Gordon / Stewart L. Udall. The American Environment / How the Wilderness Was Won. American Heritage. October 1993; Volume 44, Issue 6 / February/March 2000; Volume 51, Issue 1.


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