Lecture #12: The Conservation Vision

Suggested Readings:

Samuel Hays, Conservation and The Gospel of Efficiency (1959)

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th ed. (2001)

John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) Available for free download here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32540 and here: https://archive.org/details/myfirstsummerins00muir

John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) Available for free download here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18359

Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (2008)

George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature, or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action 1864 Available for free download here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37957 and here: https://archive.org/details/manandnatureorp00marsgoog

David Lowenthal, George Perkins Marsh: Prophet Of Conservation (2000)

Char Miller, Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2001)

Gifford Pinchot Fight for Conservation (1909) Available for free download here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11238 and here: https://archive.org/details/fightforconserva00pinc

William L. Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley (1982).

Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986, 1993)

Mark Fiege, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West (1999)

For a excellent web resource on the Progressive conservation movement , see http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amrvhtml/conshome.html


I. John Muir: Domesticating the Sublime

The story of the progressive conservation movement has often been narrated as a conflict between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, following the classic account in Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind. Makes for dramatic storytelling, but also misleads in important ways. This week's assignment for discussion section, David Stradling's Conservation in the Progressive Era: Classic Texts, is a wonderful collection of primary documents that will give you the resources to critique some of the problems with the classic version of this Muir-Pinchot dichtomy that I'll use to organize today's lecture.

Muir was born in Scotland in 1838, migrating to central Wisconsin in 1849 at the age of 11. He helped his family start farming on lands near present-day Waterloo. There were tensions between Muir and his devout Calvinist father. The boy loved to read and was mechanically gifted, famous for carving self-designed clocks from wood (one of which, housed in a glass case on the first floor of the Wisconsin Historical Society, is among that institution's greatest treasures). In 1866, he suffered a severe machine accident while working in a factory in Indiana. It almost blinded him. When he recovered his vision in one eye, he swore off industrial labor, walking to the Gulf of Mexico and eventually making his way to California, where he visited Yosemite for the first time in 1868. He began writing about the Sierra Nevada for Overland Monthly and other magazines. In 1892, he helped formed the Sierra Club.

Wikipedia gives an extended account of Muir's life if you're interested in learning more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir

The climax of this story is generally told as the struggle to save Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite Nat Park from a dam that would provide water for drinking and fire-fighting for San Francisco. It caused national controversy, but the dam was finally approved, to Muir's great consternation, in 1913. Muir died a year later, in 1914.

The Stradling reader has several excellent documents laying out the nature of the conflict over Hetch Hetchy, so please read those careful. Further background information can be found in the Wikipedia for this valley (and controversy): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hetch_Hetchy

Muir can be seen as the chief 19th-century celebrator of romantic wilderness, depicting sublime landscapes that were far more beautiful than terrifying. You might want to revisit the excerpt of his that we included in our packet of readings on romanticism: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_romanticism_rdgs.pdf

II. Gifford Pinchot: Nationalizing Conservation

Gifford Pinchot was so effective as publicist that he often self-consciously exaggerated his own role in shaping the conservation movement during the Progressive Era.

George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature, first published in 1864, is among the pivotal texts of U.S. conservation. I often pair it with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949) in shaping environmental politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marsh's core argument, based on his reading of the histories of ancient Mediterranean civilizations, was that deforestation caused by human beings had disastrous environmental consequences: erosion, watershed deterioration, decline of agricultural lands, etc.

For more on Marsh, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Perkins_Marsh

Marsh's arguments were used to support the preservation of Adirondack Park in upstate New York in 1892 as "forever wild" to protect water supplies for New York's rivers, cities, and, not least, the Erie Canal. Efforts to protect the Adirondacks represented a convergence of romantic sublime/picturesque values with hunting and utilitarian conservation (suggesting that the conflicts epitomized in the Muir/Pinchot dichotomy may not be in such stark tension as is sometimes suggested).

There is more on the Adirondack Park here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adirondack_Park

Early federal bureaucrats who defended conservation included Wisconsin's Carl Schurz (Secretary of the Interior from 1877-81) and Bernard Fernow (Forestry Bureau Chief, USDA, from 1886-98) Both represented longstanding forestry traditions in Germany and Europe more generally from which US conservationists borrowed heavily.

In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act gave the President the power to set aside national forest reserves, administered by the Department of Interior, to protect watersheds and urban water supplies along the lines articulated in Marsh's Man and Nature.

Gifford Pinchot was born to a very wealthy family in Connecticut in 1865, unusual because his father suggested he think about forestry as a career (when few other Americans had even heard of such a profession) at an early age. He earned his BA from Yale in 1889, spent a year learning forestry at the French forestry school in Nancy, and then managed the forest lands on George Washington Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, starting in 1892, as his first practical experience managing timber lands.

In 1898, Pinchot was appointed chief of the USDA Forestry Division. In 1900, he persuaded his father to found the Yale Forestry School to help train young scientists to work for this newly energized agency. In 1905, he persuaded Theodore Roosevelt to transfer federal forest reserves from Interior to USDA, creating the new US Forest Service with Pinchot as the first Chief Forester:

For more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Forest_Service

Pinchot's friendship and alliance with Theodore Roosevelt was the key to his success: from 1901-10, acreage in the forest reserves (now renamed national forests) rose from 51 to175 million acres. Most famous episode came on March 4, 1907, when Roosevelt was forced to sign away his power to create new forest reserves without specific congressional authorization. Before he did so, he and Pinchot identified 16 million additional acres to set aside before the budget bill was signed. These were nicknamed the "midnight forests": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midnight_forests

For more on Pinchot, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifford_Pinchot For more on Theodore Roosevelt, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Roosevelt

III. The Search for Efficiency

Pinchot's 1910 book, The Fight for Conservation is a key document outlining the philosophical underpinnings of Progressive Era conservation. In it, he extended Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian doctrine to declare that the goal of conservation was to serve "greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time." You'll read excerpts of the book in Stradling's reader this week, but if you'd like to read further, you can download the entire volume here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11238 and here: https://archive.org/details/fightforconserva00pinc

The central commitment of Progressive conservation as defined by Pinchot was to

  • efficient use of natural resources;
  • ending waste;
  • technical rule by scientific experts;
  • suspicion of corruptions that seemed to attend democratic process;
  • intense nationalism;
  • enthusiasm for strong centralized government.

For Progressives like Pinchot, nature existed explicitly for human use. Its development represented the highest good as long as it was well managed.

Conservation for Pinchot and Roosevelt (who was also drawn to hunting and wilderness parks) was ultimately a question of values: defending the national good.

IV. Western Reclamation: A Progress from Desert to Garden

Progressive conservation to some extent embodied an irreducible tension between two impulses, both with romantic roots: the search for encounters with wild or picturesque on the one hand, and, on the other, the search for human improvement in the garden of progress.

The "greatest number" -- largest human populations -- were located in cities, so the countryside should to some extent serve the needs of those cities.

Nowhere was this more true than in the American West, where largest urban populations were typically located in coastal areas where, except in the Pacific Northwest, water was scarce.

Transporting water to San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire led ultimately to the confluence of political forces that authorized the construction of a dam and reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley, within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park.

Hetch Hetchy was paralleled (without anything like the scale of national controversy) by the drama over the fate of the Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct: Fred Eaton, William Mulholland, and J. P. Lippincott surreptitiously set out to acquire property in Owens River valley east of the southern Sierra Nevad Mountains, overcoming valley opposition to construct an aqueduct completed in 1913. (This story served as the basis for the highly fictionalized account in the classic film Chinatown.) The aqueduct became one of the chief sources of water for Los Angeles...and essentially ended the Owens Valley as a major farming area.

For further details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_Aqueduct and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owens_Valley

The dramatic increase in water supplies in southern California became the basis for accelerating urban growth, with massive boundary expansions for Los Angeles via annexation of adjacent rural territories. The delivery of water to desert areas produced rich new agricultural and suburban residential areas. Railroads and land developers promoted new settlements, and the Colorado Desert was renamed the Imperial Valley, now one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the world.

There's an alternative romantic icon at work here: the garden in the desert, progress made possible by engineering technologies.

Among the chief visionaries advocating for the revolutionary transformations that could be achieved via irrigation in the arid West was William Ellsworth Smythe, whose 1900 book The Conquest of Arid America was the most important tract promoting government support of irrigation. It's available online, and is well worth perusing: https://archive.org/details/conquestaridame00esmgoog

Celebration of irrigation represented a prophetic impulse: Salt Lake Valley was seen as a modern-day exemplar of Palestine, the cactus desert transformed into a garden.

All of Progressive conservation came together in the image of an irrigated garden: racial nationalism, imperial conquest, technical progress reclaiming waste, making desert bloom, nature & humanity in landscape without contradiction ... "man's partnership with God."

This movement found political expression in Francis G. Newlands' Reclamation Act of 1902, which provided federal financial support for irrigation of homestead-scale family farms, with a revolving fund intended to finance by investments in new irrigated farms.

The Truckee-Carson project in Newlands' home state of Nevada was launched in 1905 as the first fruit of this new act, but it was plagued with problems. Boulder Dam in 1936 would carry irrigation to a whole new scale that we'll briefly survey in a later lecture.