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A New Century for Natural Resources Management
By Richard L. Knight, Sarah F. Bates, Vawter Parker
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1995 Island Press
All rights reserved.
The Oldest Task in Human History
Curt D. Meine
The whole world is coming,
A nation is coming, a nation is coming,
The Eagle has brought the message to the tribe.
The father says so, the father says so.
Over the whole earth they are coming.
The buffalo are coming, the buffalo are coming,
The Crow has brought the message to the tribe,
The father says so, the father says so.
Sioux Ghost Dance Song (1890)
We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.
Aldo Leopold (1938)
One way to understand the roots of conservation in the United States is to examine the documentary evidence from official meetings, policy decisions, and legislative actions that took place a century ago. Another way is to examine the evidence outdoors, in situ, in the landscapes we inhabit, in the places we are.
Most of the tangible links to conservation's origins have disappeared. The bones of the myriad bison were long ago hauled off the plains to meet their ends in glue pots and gardens. The plumes of the egrets have gone the way of all fashion. The remains of the last passenger pigeons roost beneath bell jars, growing fustier with every passing decade. The topsoils of the midwestern prairies rest in downstream mucks; the plants that made them—and that they made—have lost their claim on the horizon, and do well to hold on in their graveyard and railway refugia.
Some objects, however, remain to bear witness. Walk among the aspen, balsam fir, paper birch, and bracken fern forests in the upper Great Lakes and you will find them: the old stumps of the fallen white pines. Some hunker down in the shade of sugar maples (to become, with a minor leap of imagination, bears). Others stand out, weathered gray, in grassy openings. Their insides have rotted away, moss, lichen, and insects doing the work of the ages. Only the outer annual rings of punky wood remain, disintegrating easily in the human hand. Many of the stumps are charred about their sides—reminders upon reminders, signs of the fire last time.
The epoch of white pine logging reached its climax in northern Wisconsin and adjacent Michigan in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The seeds from which those trees sprouted had sifted to earth two, three, even four centuries before that. Who knows how deep their roots went. White pine sometimes followed white pine on the same site, the roots reinhabiting tried-and-true pathways carved through glacial soil, boulder fields, and bedrock by their patient ancestors.
An early forester, writing in 1898, described the effects of one brief generation of lumbering on northern Wisconsin. "Nearly the entire territory has been logged over. The pine has disappeared from most of the mixed forests and the greater portion of pineries proper has been cut.... Nearly half of this territory has been burned over at least once, about three million acres are without any forest cover whatever, and several million more are but partly covered by the dead and dying remnants of the former forest.... Here are large tracts of bare wastes, 'stump prairies,' where the ground is sparsely covered with weeds and grass, sweet fern, and a few scattering, runty bushes of scrub oak, aspen, and white birch". By the time those words were written, the smart lumbermen of the white pine states had already shifted their attention and capital to the pinelands of the south and the astonishing conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest.
From the standpoint of the culture whose three centuries of expansion brought them down, the extensive stands of Pinus strobus, from Maine to Minnesota, were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, providing the raw material it desired most ardently and insatiably. From the white pine's perspective—if we may grant a perspective to another species—its distribution placed it in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, directly in the path of a gathering force that had little inclination to pause, even to consider the circumstances conducive to its self-perpetuation. As the "inexhaustible" pineries were, in due course, exhausted, pause came of necessity, at least for some people and some forests.
The old stumps will not last much longer. In a few more years, they will have melted back to the soil, reabsorbed by the medium, returned fully to the flow of time and nutrients. For a little while more, they will record the extreme to which a concept of social and economic development was taken, and the moment when a new commitment to "the oldest task in human history" germinated.
* * *
The delirious climax of white pine logging coincided with other indicators of changing times, landscapes, and social conditions. In 1889, weary remnants of the Indian nations across the west undertook the Ghost Dance in a desperate effort to revive their lost world. The dance and the dream came to an end on December 29, 1890, at the Battle of Wounded Knee. The report of the 1890 census, noting that the "unsettled" area of the United States had become broken into isolated fragments, declared that the "frontier of settlement" had closed. Three years later, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner would build on this finding in his seminal discussion of "the significance of the frontier in American history". In the fall of 1890, Congress acted to protect the lands now included within Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. And on March 3, 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act; later that month President Harrison signed into existence the Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve, the nation's first forest reserve and the germ of the national forest system.
A century ago, some of these "current events" were widely reported; others were hardly noticed. A century later, they appear as transition points in a pattern of cultural change. The pattern is still emerging. There is no definitive agreement on its development in the past or its implications for the future, and it contains much room for debate, varied emphasis, and alternative visions. But the changes that began in the 1890s would be fundamental; the basic and tacit assumptions of the preceding era would no longer go unchallenged. Few contemporary citizens, for example, saw the lumber barons' "large tracts of bare wastes" as anything but evidence of the latest welcome advance of civilization. And while deforestation has continued to be visited upon other lands, and the attitudes behind deforestation persist, stumpfields at least are no longer what they were a century ago—a universal emblem of human progress.
The changes of the 1890s did not arrive unanticipated. Although belief in the creed that the stump symbolized had long dominated American society, undercurrents of reaction against it had welled up intermittently, emerging through various cultural channels. Early and mid-18th century poets, writers, and thinkers—most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—articulated an alternative view of the natural world, as a source not simply of material goods, but also of aesthetic satisfaction, philosophical insight, and spiritual solace. Landscape artists of the period, including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederick Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, conveyed a similar view in their light-suffused canvasses. Other adventuring artists—Karl Bodmer and George Catlin prominent among them—gave real faces and lives to the generic "savages" that existed beyond the ken of "civilization." At the same time, a diverse group of proto-conservationists, including George Perkins Marsh, Frederick Law Olmsted, John Wesley Powell, George Bird Grinnell, and Carl Schurz, insisted that the attitudes and policies that had until then guided European settlement and development of the North American landscape required adjustment.
For most of the century, these remained the expressions of a responsive few. As of 1890, there was no coherent body of philosophy, science, history, literature, economics, policy, and law through which the American people could understand and govern their long-term relationship with the natural world, and little evidence that such was regarded as an important social goal. Although there were important antecedents to a coming transformation—among them, the establishment of Yellowstone National Park (1872) and the Adirondack Forest Preserve (1885); the organization of the American Forestry Association (1875); and the founding of the original Audubon Society and Boone and Crockett Club (in 1886 and 1887, respectively)—these were sporadic developments. In 1890, there was no U. S. Forest Service; there was, for that matter, no actual profession of forestry in the United States. Nor were there professions devoted to wildlife or range management, or government agencies overseeing these concerns. There was little public discussion of the responsibility of private citizens and private industry toward the natural objects, processes, and conditions on which their livelihoods, and the well-being of the society, depended. By 1890, however, the doctrine of conquest and the undercurrents of opposition to it had begun to precipitate out the social and political movement that would come to be called conservation.
No one person can be said to have ushered in the new movement. Two figures, however, stand out as exemplars of the impulses that drove it and the tensions that divided it: John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.
In 1889 and 1890, John Muir was primarily occupied with the effort to gain federal protection for the lands surrounding his beloved Yosemite Valley. His success in this endeavor led to the formation of the Sierra Club in 1892, and to Muir's ascendance as the country's leading voice for the protection and preservation of wild nature—a role he would maintain until his death in 1914. Building on philosophical foundations laid by Emerson and Thoreau, but bringing to his arguments a lifetime of experience in wild country, Muir made the public case for preservation on several grounds. Like many who were agitating on behalf of forests, Muir could cite the benefits of forest cover in protecting soils and regulating water flows. However, the protection of forests, and wilderness in general, involved a broader spectrum of values. Muir strongly emphasized the restorative powers of "a little pure wilderness": exposure to original nature provided aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual benefits that could not be gained in urban or even pastoral landscapes. There was in Muir's outlook, too, an abiding sense of the intrinsic beauty and value of all things within "the one great unit of creation." The plunder and waste that went by the name of progress thus constituted nothing less than acts of desecration, attributable ultimately to the hubris of "Lord Man."
As the embodiment of the "romantic-transcendental preservation ethic" (as J. Baird Callicott has characterized it), Muir defined one wing of the nascent conservation movement. What guidance did this ethic offer in the effort to "live on a piece of land without spoiling it"? It said, in effect, that for those remnants of yet unspoiled land, one succeeds in the task by not living on them at all, but rather by setting them aside as places where, in the words of the later Wilderness Act, "man ... is a visitor who does not remain."
At the end of 1890, Gifford Pinchot was returning to the United States, having spent the previous year studying forest management in France, Switzerland, and Germany. Although interest in forestry had been growing in the United States (primarily among scientists) through the 1870s and 1880s, Pinchot was the first American to receive formal training in the field. He returned determined to bring professional forestry to a country where, as he put it, "the most rapid and extensive forest destruction ever known was in full swing". Within 15 years, Pinchot, riding the wave of the Progressive movement with his friend and political patron Theodore Roosevelt, would succeed. With the creation of the Forest Service in 1905, Pinchot established forestry as the locus of conservation within the government and within the public mind.
And what was forestry? "Forestry," he maintained until the end of his life, "is Tree Farming." Its purpose: "... to make the forest produce the largest possible amount of whatever crop or service will be most useful, and keep on producing it for generation after generation of men and trees." "The forest," he added, "rightly handled—given the chance—is, next to the earth itself, the most useful servant of man". This utilitarian emphasis lay at the heart of the "resource conservation ethic" that defined the other wing of the conservation movement, and that Pinchot more than any other individual promulgated and operationalized. Where Muir saw "one great unit of creation," Pinchot found "just two things on this material earth—people and natural resources". "The first great fact of conservation," it followed, "is that it stands for development".
The guiding principle of utilitarian conservation was to manage resources so as to produce commodities and services "for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time." To this end, wild nature was not to be preserved, but actively manipulated by scientifically informed experts to improve and sustain yields. Those yields were to be harvested and processed efficiently, and the economic gains allocated equitably. How, then, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it? By strengthening the oversight role of government, enacting science-based regulations and resource management practices, developing the resources with a minimum of waste, and distributing the benefits of development fairly among all users.
During the 1890s and 1900s, Muir and Pinchot and their respective followers jostled for primacy, with the overarching figure of the day—Teddy Roosevelt—maintaining a precarious position between them. Although the sheer amount of energy and action invested in conservation during Roosevelt's presidential years served to divert attention from the movement's internal tensions, the two approaches to conservation could not and would not coexist for long. The tensions finally surfaced in the much-discussed battle over the damming of the Tuolomne River in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy valley. The battle, waged over a 20-year period, reaching its denouement in 1913, drew the lines uncompromisingly: Hetch Hetchy could not be both preserved as natural parkland and used to store water. And so the controversy begged the ultimate question: what was it to conserve this place—or any place? Was there a conservation movement, or were there in fact two movements, born of related concerns but moving toward radically different ends?
The dam at Hetch Hetchy was built, but the underlying issue remained unresolved. Muir fought against the destruction of wild nature and the attitude that had allowed legitimate use to be perverted into rampant abuse. Pinchot fought against the inefficient use of natural resources, the political corruption that such use often entailed, and the inequitable distribution of wealth and power that had both allowed and followed rapid resource depletion. The preservationists and the utilitarians both opposed the destructive forces of the day, and their goals often overlapped. But their visions could not be accommodated (much less reconciled) until conservation itself was redefined, its scientific underpinnings reformulated, and its social implications reconsidered.
* * *
That process would not begin until the 1930s. In the meantime, activism metamorphosed into administration. The political movement for conservation reform was transformed into the more mundane execution of conservation policy. And as that transformation occurred, Pinchot's vision held sway. By the late 1930s, the principles of utilitarian resource conservation had been applied not only to forests, but to other "useful" components of the landscape: river systems, agricultural soils, rangelands, sport and commercial fisheries, game animals, scenic areas. As new laws, policies, and bureaucracies were created to promote sustained yields of and from these components, resource management became fully institutionalized and professionalized.
The late 1930s stand out as an especially dynamic period in conservation history, as new resource problems arose, new scientific concepts and information emerged, and new thoughts on the social and economic context of conservation took form. In retrospect, World War II and its aftermath altered profoundly the roles of and relationships among the different resource management professions. For these reasons it is worth reviewing the origins and development of the various professions, and their status on the eve of the war.
Excerpted from A New Century for Natural Resources Management by Richard L. Knight, Sarah F. Bates, Vawter Parker. Copyright © 1995 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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