The History of Conservation

Conservation Movement in the United States of America


A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

John James Audubon

John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) makes for a great starting point in the History of Conservation. His successful quest to paint the birds of America meant he was in the field, observing birds in their natural habitats. His insight of declining populations of birds and foresight meant he could accurately predict future declines. More importantly, and what makes him a great candidate for the “Father of Conservation” is that he knew society and government needed to act, to conserve.

1847 – George Perkins Marsh gives a speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. In this speech, Marsh discusses the negative impact humans are having on forests and the land in general and that a conservationist approach is needed to manage the land.

1849 – United States Department of the Interior created

1852 – Elias Lyman Magoon publishes The Home Book of the Picturesque, arguing the importance of nature as moral, spiritual and patriotic inspiration. This becomes a vital theme of conservation.

1854 – Walden published by Henry David Thoreau

1864 – Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action by George Perkins Marsh

1865 – John Burroughs publishes his first nature essay, “With the Birds,” in the Atlantic Monthly.

1869 – John Wesley Powell leads his first expedition through the canyons of the Colorado (published in 1875 as Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries).

1871 – Clarence King publishes Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
John Burroughs publishes Wake-Robin
Henry George publishes Our Land and Land Policy, National and State

1872 – Congress passes “An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,”, establishing Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming as the first National Park in the US and the world. (See the Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park for the Year 1872
J. Sterling Morton of the State Board of Agriculture, Nebraska observes “Tree-Planting Day” on April 10 which will become Arbor Day

1873 – Forest and Stream magazine first published – George Bird Grinnell

1875 – American Forestry Association created

1876 – John Muir publishes “God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests?”
Appalachian Mountain Club established

1877 – Carl Schurz begins a four-year term as Secretary of the Interior, leading to the creation of Federal Forest service and forest reserves.

1878 – John Wesley Powell publishes Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.

1883 – American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) created

1887 – George Bird Grinell and Theodore Roosevelt create the Boone and Crockett Club

1889 – William Temple Hornaday publishes The Extermination of the American Bison

1890 – Sequoia National Park and Yosemite and General Grant National Parks are established in California
John Muir publishes in Century magazine: “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park.”

1891 – Congress passes the Forest Reserve Act, repealing the Timber Culture Act of 1873 and empowering the President to create “forest reserves” (later known as national forests) by withdrawing land from the public domain – this begins the foundation for the National Forest system.
President Benjamin Harrison issues a Presidential Proclamation setting aside a tract of land in Wyoming as the nation’s first forest reservation.

1891-1902 – Charles Sprague Sargent publishes his fourteen-volume The Silva of North America; A Description of the Trees Which Grow Naturally in North America Exclusive of Mexico, the seminal work of American dendrology.

1892 – John Muir creates the Sierra Club, dedicated to the preservation of wilderness
President Benjamin Harrison issues a Proclamation setting aside a tract of land in Alaska as a forest and fish culture reservation (known as the Afognak Forest and Fish-Culture Reserve), unofficially the first national wildlife refuge.

1894 – Congress passes the National Park Protective Act
John Muir publishes his first book, The Mountains of California

1896 – The Massachusetts Audubon Society is founded with the goal of protecting birds. This provides the model for other Audubon Societies across the nation. (See 1905 for National Audubon Society.)

1897 – Congress passes the Forest Management Act, or Organic Act, making explicit the purpose of Forest Reserves (later National Forests) as resources for lumbering, mining, and grazing.

1898 – Ernest Thompson Seton publishes his best-selling Wild Animals I Have Known, not always scientifically accurate but always a source for inspiration for how humans and wildlife live together.

1899 – The Harriman Alaska Expedition explores coastal Alaska – this expedition has many notable conservationists including “the Johns” Muir and Burroughs.

1900 – Lacey Act is passed, which outlaws the interstate shipment of any wild animals or birds killed in violation of state laws.

1901 – Theodore Roosevelt becomes the 26th U.S. President after the assassination of President McKinley
John Muir publishes Our National Parks

1903 – Theodore Roosevelt designates Pelican Island on Indian River, Florida, as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. This is the first of fifty-three wildlife sanctuaries Roosevelt creates while President and forms the basis for what will become the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Mary Austin publishes The Land of Little Rain, a classic celebration of the desert country of California.

1905 – The National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals is founded in New York. This later becomes the National Audubon Society of today.
Nathaniel Southgate Shaler publishes by Man and the Earth

1906 – Congress passes the American Antiquities Act giving Presidential authorization to establish national monuments that preserve historically valuable or objects of antiquity or scientific interest. This hallmark act will be challenged numerous times because of the power it gives the President.
Theodore Roosevelt begins using the Act immediately, declaring Devils Tower (Wyoming) as the first National Monument.

Gifford Pinchot attempts to get a bill passed that would place the national parks under the Forest Service so that they may be open for resource development. However, this backfires because of preservationist campaigns led by Representative John Lacey, leading to a separate bureau to administer the parks.

1907 – “Forest Reserves” become National Forests

President Roosevelt gives speech stating that “the conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life,” and that his administration has been trying “to substitute a planned and orderly development of our resources in place of a haphazard striving for immediate profit.” This is Roosevelt at his finest: trying to find the best solution between competing interests: preservation vs conservation; the desire for growth but in a sustainable, sensible way.
Ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush publishes Useful Birds and Their Protection – this is the first American work to discuss birds as important for people beyond anything aesthetic.

1908 – The Governors’ Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources is held
The National Conservation Commission compiles an inventory of U.S. natural resources
President Roosevelt appoints a Commission on Country Life to study problems of rural life and recommend measures to remove them.
The Land Classification Board is established within the U.S. Geological Survey to classify natural resources to determine their best use.

1909 – North American Conservation Conference is held
The First National Conservation Congress is convened by the Washington (State) Conservation Association

1910 – Withdrawal Act is passed allowing the President to remove public lands and reserve them for “water-power sites, irrigation, classification of lands, or other public purposes”.
Gifford Pinchot publishes The Fight for Conservation but is also dismissed from government service by President Taft

1911 – John Muir publishes My First Summer in the Sierra

1913 – William Temple Hornaday publishes Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation, devoted to endangered wild animals; the book was written in conjunction of Hornaday’s new organization: Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund
Congress passes the Migratory Bird Act or Weeks-McLean Act, the predecessor to the Migratory Bird Act of 1918; it states that “all migratory and insectivorous birds to be within the custody and protection of the Federal government”.

1915 – Liberty Hyde Bailey publishes The Holy Earth
Bureau of Biological Survey begins large-scale killing of predator animals, such as wolves and coyotes, regarded as injurious to sheep and cattle.

1916 – Congress passes the National Park Service Act, creating the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior with Stephen T. Mather as the first director
Frederic E. Clements publishes Plant Succession: An Analysis of the Development of Vegetation
John Charles Van Dyke publishes The Mountain: Renewed Studies in Impressions and Appearances

1918 – Congress approves the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

1919 – The National Parks Association (renamed the National Parks and Conservation Association in 1970) is founded largely by Robert Sterling Yard and Stephen T. Mather.

1920 – The Ecological Society of America begins publication of its quarterly journal, Ecology.

1927 – U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) assigned Olaus Murie to investigate the Jackson Hole elk herd leading to the publication “The Elk of North America.”

Poisoning and trapping of so-called predators and killing rodents, and the related insecticide and herbicide programs, are evidences of human immaturity. The use of the term ‘vermin’ as applied to so many wild creatures is a thoughtless criticism of nature’s arrangement of producing varied life on this planet.

Olaus Murie

1935 – The Wilderness Society is founded

1949 – Aldo Leopold publishes The Sand County Almanac

1951 – The Nature Conservancy is founded by Richard Pough

1962 – Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring

1964 – Wilderness Act of 1964 passed

1967 – National Park Foundation founded by Lady Bird Johnson and Laurance Rockefeller

1968 – Edward Abbey publishes Desert Solitaire

1973 – Endangered Species Act of 1973 passed

1977 – Wendell Berry publishes The Unsettling of America

1994 – American Bird Conservancy founded by George H. Fenwick

2016 – Dan Flores publishes Coyote America, a comprehensive look in the supernatural and natural history of coyotes and the ongoing, disgusting pursuit to exterminate them.

Much of this information was gleaned from the Library of Congress’s “Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1920
It is our intention to expand on it and review the books, speeches, and other materials mentioned.