Skip to toolbar

Natural Enemies: Growing Views on Conservation

Page 2 of 3

The emergence of the middle class in the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) brought widespread social, political, and environmental movements to the American political landscape. The ideology of the middle class stressed science, professional expertise, and education.

During this period, John Burroughs became one of the foremost authors of nature writing, pushing the genre to its peak of popularity. Burroughs extolled Emerson’s work, stating that it was Emerson who opened his eyes to nature. However, Burroughs vociferously objected to being considered a disciple of Thoreau. He believed Thoreau’s romantic “associations with Nature vulgarize it and rob it of its divinity”.1

The cerebral quality of the Transcendentalist essays sometimes made them inaccessible to wider audiences. Burroughs’ approach to nature writing broadened its appeal. Utilizing close observations that led to large meanings, Burroughs’ unsentimental prose launched millions of readers into “nature to be soothed and healed, and to have [their] senses put in order”.2  One of the most popular writers in the United States, Burroughs directly impacted the national dialogue on conservation. He also influenced one of conservation’s loudest political proselytizers, Burroughs’s close friend, Theodore Roosevelt.

The growth of conservationism as a movement stemmed from the ecological consequences of American industrialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the U.S. economy expanded, industries dug deep into the cache of natural resources. Logging, coal mining, and ranching stripped landscapes, poisoned the waters, and polluted the air. Americans watched their cities grow, their forests die, and their environments change. The ethics of conservationism revolve around three core principles: that human activity damages the environment; that there is a civic duty to maintain the environment for future generations; and that scientific, empirically based methods should be used to carry out this duty.

In 1897, a philosophical divide between the young conservation movement’s leaders, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, created two often-clashing schools of thought: ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’. Pinchot’s supporters co-opted the term ‘conservation’ and advocated for utilitarian conservation, while Muir’s camp advocated for ‘preservation’.

Utilitarian conservation focused on the economic value of what the land could produce. Pinchot distilled this view of utilitarian conservation into three core principles: development, preservation, and the common good.3 Pinchot defined development as constructing a system to “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;”4 preservation as “the prevention of waste… [as] the first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon;”5 and the common good as the belief that “natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many”.6

Theodore Roosevelt adopted these beliefs in regard to preserving wildlife for hunting, espousing the need to protect wild game from further destruction and eventual extinction.7 Roosevelt used his presidency to further the goals of conservationism by promoting “conservation as national duty,”8 designating nearly 230 million acres of land as bird and game reserves or national monuments, forests, and parks. Roosevelt appointed Pinchot as the chief of the newly created United States Forest Service, giving him the ability to promote as much commercial extraction of lumber as possible from the public lands.9

1 Burroughs, John. The Complete Nature Writings of John Burroughs. Vol. 8. New York: Wm. H. Wise &, 1904. 246

2 Ibid. 245

3 Pinchot, Gifford. The Fight for Conservation. (New York: Doubleday & Page) 1910.

4 Ibid. 45

5 Ibid. 48

6 Ibid. 66

7 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Wilderness Hunter. (New York: Collier & Son) 1893: 455.

8 Theodore Roosevelt, “Conservation as a National Duty” (speech, Conference of Governors, Washington D.C., May 13, 1908).

9 Ashley, Jeffrey S., and Marla J. Jarmer. The Bully Pulpit, Presidential Speeches, and the Shaping of Public Policy. 251