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The Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail . The painting, dated 1869, depicts the westward migration of settlers via wagon trains, on horseback, and by foot. Source: Albert Bierstadt via Wikimedia Commons .

As noted in Resource Efficiency above, industrial activities during this time were responsible for significant environmental degradation. Policy reformers of the day, such as Carl Schurz (as secretary of the Interior) turned their attention in particular to land reforms, which impacted the expansion of railroads, and forest preservation. And yet, industry played an unquestionable role as enablers of societal shifts occurring in America by making goods and services available, increasing the wealth of the emerging middle class, and in particular providing relatively rapid access to previously inaccessible locations – in many cases the same locations that preservationists were trying to set aside. Reading, hearing stories about, and looking at pictures of landscapes of remote beauty and open spaces was alluring and stirred the imagination, but being able to actually visit these places firsthand was an educational experience that had transformative powers. Alfred Bierstadt’s The Oregon Trail (Figure The Oregon Trail ), painted in 1868, depicts the westward migration of settlers via wagon trains, on horseback, and simply walking – a journey, not without peril, that took about six months. The next year saw the completion of the transcontinental railroad , and within a few years it became possible to complete the same journey in as little as six days in comparative comfort and safety.

The movement to designate certain areas as national parks is an illustrative example of the role of industry in promoting land conservation, thereby setting in motion subsequent large conservation set-asides that reached their zenith during the Roosevelt administration. It began, in 1864, with the efforts of several California citizens to have the U.S. Congress accept most of Yosemite , which had been under the “protection” of the State of California as a national preserve. The petition cited its value “for public use, resort, and recreation,” reasoning that already reflected the combined interests of the resource efficiency group, preservationists, and business opportunists. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the landscape architect most well known for the design of New York’s Central Park, and an ardent believer in the ability of open spaces to improve human productivity, oversaw the initial efforts to manage the Yosemite area. Although the effort was infused with renewed vigor after John Muir’s arrival in the late 1860s, it wasn’t until 1906 that the park was officially designated.

In the meantime, similar interests had grown to name Yellowstone as a national park, with the same basic justification as for Yosemite. Since there were no states as yet formed in the region the pathway was more straightforward, and was made considerably easier by the lack of interest by timber and mining companies to exploit (the area was thought to have limited resource value), and the railroads who, seeing potential for significant passenger traffic, lobbied on its behalf. Thus the first national park was officially designated in 1872, only three years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Indeed, in relatively rapid succession the Union Pacific Railroad got behind the Yosemite efforts, and the Northern Pacific Railroad lobbied heavily for the creation of parks at Mount Rainier (1899) and Glacier (1910). By 1916, when the National Park Service was formed, sixteen national parks had been created. States too began to see value in creating and, to a degree, preserving open spaces, as evidenced by New York’s Adirondack Park (1894), still the largest single section of land in the forty-eight contiguous states dedicated to be “forever wild.”

Results of the american conservation movement

With the advent of the First World War, and subsequent political, social, and economic unrest that lasted for another thirty years, actions motivated by the conservation movement declined. The coalition between the resource efficiency group and those wishing to preserve nature, always uncomfortable, was further eroded when it became clear that the main reason Congress was “setting aside” various areas was mainly to better manage commercial exploitation. And yet, the period from 1850 to 1920 left a remarkable legacy of environmental reform, and laid the foundation for future advances in environmental policy. In summary, the conservation movement accomplished the following:

  • Redefined the social contract between humans and the environment, establishing a legacy of conservation as part of the American character, and a national model for the preservation of natural beauty.
  • Invented the concept of national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and other sites for commercial and recreational uses by society.
  • Developed the first scientific understanding of how the environment functioned, integrating the scientific approach to resource management into government policy.
  • Pioneered technological practices to improve resource management.
  • Established the major federal institutions with responsibility for land and resource conservation.
  • Communicated the impact of pollution on human health and welfare.
  • Through publications and travel, exposed many to the beauty of the natural environment and the consequences of human activities.
  • Finally, although sustainability as a way of envisioning ourselves in relation to the environment was still many years away, already its three principal elements, imperfectly integrated at the time, are seen clearly to be at work.

References

Carman, H.J., Tugwell, R.G.,&True, R.H. (Eds.). (1934). Essays upon field husbandry in New England, and other papers, 1748-1762, by Jared Eliot . New York: Columbia University Press.

Chou, P.Y. (Ed.). (2003). Emerson&John Muir. WisdomPortal . Retrieved December 11, 2011 from (External Link) .

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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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