Nineteenth Century Trends in American Conservation

"View of the Water Celebration, on Boston Common, October 25th 1848." As an early example of “utilitarian” conservation, regulations protected the land from overgrazing by restricting the number of cattle each family could graze on the Common.
"View of the Water Celebration, on Boston Common, October 25th 1848."
As an early example of “utilitarian” conservation, regulations protected the land from overgrazing by restricting the number of cattle each family could graze on the Common.

Lithograph by P. Hyman and David Bigelow, National Archives

By: Ann E. Chapman

Conservation thinking has evolved over centuries, often as a response to the profound land use changes that shaped the American landscape after the arrival of European colonists in the 1600s. Since that time, deforestation, urbanization, and industrialization all produced profound environmental changes that spurred conservation ideas and practices. At the national level, environmental historians have identified three major historic strands of conservation thinking and action that provided historic foundations for the contemporary environmental movement. These are utilitarian conservation (natural resource management), preservationist conservation (preserving scenic nature), and wildlife habitat protection.

Utilitarian and preservationist conservation ideas, which developed by the first half of the 19th century, provided major, and different, arguments for a variety of large open space conservation initiatives in the second half of the 19th century, culminating in the creation of the first national and state forests. Many of the protected open spaces that we have today—and to a large extent, the arguments that we still use to conserve and protect natural places for their scenic, recreational, or habitat values—have been inherited from one or more of these three traditions.

American Conservation Ideas Prior to 1870:

Early Utilitarian Conservation Ideas and Practices
The roots of utilitarian conservation arose from colonial agrarian traditions that viewed nature as a source of natural resources for housing, food, clothing, and income to be bartered or sold. Management of natural resources in a way that we now call “sustainable” required regulation to prevent overuse or misuse of resources. In New England, the first, very limited, examples of natural resource management involved community or Commonwealth regulations to prevent overuse or misuse of shared resources such as meadows, pastures, swamps and woodlots. At their best, these colonial conservation ideas included a belief in democratic access to land, coupled with shared responsibility.

Although colonial ordinances attempted some protection of natural resources, they were quite limited in nature. Over time, population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and a shift to a market-driven economy put increasing pressure on remaining natural resources. By the middle of the 19th century, many Eastern forests had been depleted. Fish and wildlife populations had also dropped dramatically as the results of habitat loss, over-fishing, and hunting. The settlement of the American West also set off a massive transformation of landscapes there with a rapid depletion of forests, soil erosion, and loss of wildlife that alarmed many people. While State Horticultural Associations promoted experimentation with new crops and better crop management in the first half of the century, few understood that environmental damage, such as erosion, might have permanent consequences.

Early 19th Century Conservation and the Romantic Movement: Promoting New Attitudes toward Nature
The idea that nature is only a commodity to be used (albeit wisely) was challenged in the first half of the 19th century by American Romantic and Transcendental writers like William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. These famous writers, who all had Massachusetts roots, celebrated American nature and the restorative effects of “wildness” on the human spirit. The work of European Romantic writers and Transcendental philosophers such as Coleridge and Kant heavily influenced the American Romantic movement. The American Romantic movement promoted the scenic and aesthetic aspects of nature as important to people’s physical and spiritual health and communing with nature as communing with God.

European writers and artists in the 18th and early 19th centuries developed Romantic ideas to celebrate the aesthetics of nature. They recognized distinct categories of scenic nature. Terms like “beautiful,” “picturesque,” and “sublime” were used to describe landscape types, all of which were expected to elicit uplifting—though differing—emotional responses in people. “Beautiful” landscapes were typically scenes of pastoral nature, including elements such as gentle rolling hills, cultivated farm fields, meadows, and tended gardens—landscapes largely shaped through the presence of humans. Pastoral nature was expected to have a soothing effect on people. “Picturesque” landscapes included more wild natural elements—the scenery was irregular in pattern, with exaggerated vertical and horizontal elements. Mountains, valleys, and forests were typical aspects in picturesque landscapes, which might also include signs of human presence (cities could also be considered to contain picturesque elements). Picturesque landscapes were stimulating and provided a sharp contrast to urban living. “Sublime” landscapes, on the other hand, were exaggerated in scale—monumental peaks, vast caverns, thundering cataracts, even violent weather effects like thunderstorms characterized sublime landscapes believed to be shaped only by the hand of God. Sublime landscapes were expected to elicit emotions such as awe and even terror.

Both European and American scenery provided ample examples of beautiful and picturesque scenery—but the American wilderness was something that Europe, with all of its refinement and culture, lacked. American wilderness, celebrated in 19th century writing, art, and photography, soon became an icon of American identity. In the northeastern United States, these romantic depictions of nature were popularized in the mid to late nineteenth century by the works of the Hudson River School landscape painters, including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederick Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Eastern American wilderness areas like Niagara Falls, and later western landscapes like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, first inspired writers and artists and eventually tourists to visit these scenes as stops on the American Grand Tour. The over-commercialization of sites like Niagara Falls in response to 19th century tourism became a major concern and spurred efforts to preserve scenic wilderness areas. During roughly the same period, urban preservationist initiatives led to the creation of pastoral country parks in or near many American cities. Both of these preservationist initiatives were outgrowths of Romantic ideas of nature that led to an increasing interest on the part of the public to visit scenic natural areas.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California.
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California.

Early Ecological Conservation Ideas and the Watershed
The area of land where the water that is under it or drains off of it and goes into the same place is a watershed. There are approximately two thousand watersheds in the continental United States. A watershed can be large or small, but it ties communities together with the common goal of protecting water supplies. In 1864, Vermont native George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, which provided a sobering analysis of the consequences of deforestation. In his book, Marsh discusses the secondary consequences of clear-cutting forests and over-grazing, which includes soil erosion and watershed changes such as spring floods and summer drought, as water that was previously absorbed by forests escapes without the trees. Furthermore, he argued that there was also an adverse effect on wildlife. Fish died in response to the increased silt in the water and the temperature changes resulting from deforestation and erosion.

A key idea that came out of Marsh’s work--that forests were important for watershed protection--provided a strong rationale for forest conservation initiatives in the latter half of the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries. These ideas are an example of early ecological thinking, since Marsh recognized that species existed in an interconnected web, and that changes to one part of a system (such as cutting timber) would affect living things in another part (streams dry up or become filled with silt, and fish die). His ideas are the foundation for many of our 20th century ecological initiatives to preserve natural habitats. Marsh’s thinking resonated with Frederick Billings (1823–1890), who purchased Marsh’s boyhood home in Woodstock, Vermont and applied his philosophy to the adjoining forest and farm beginning in the 1870s. Following Billing’s death, Laurance Rockefeller (1910–2004) purchased the property and advanced Marsh’s vision and his own family’s legacy of large-scale landscape conservation. Today, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park includes one of the oldest managed forests in the United States.

The Conservation Movement Matures: Conservation and Preservation Initiatives in the Second Half of the 19th Century

Preservation of Scenic Wilderness Areas

The Romantic ideas spurred an appreciation of American wilderness as national icon. A rise in nature tourism, beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, helped create public support for the protection of the first scenic American wilderness areas as national and state parks in the 1860s and 1870s. John Muir, who arrived in the Sierras in 1868, was awestruck by the wild landscape. He soon became the nation’s most influential advocate for the preservation of wilderness as national parks. A fan of both Emerson’s and Thoreau’s writings, Muir was a compelling writer and was able to translate abstract Transcendentalist principles about nature as a spiritual resource into moving appeals for pragmatic programs designed to permanently protect scenic wilderness areas as national parks. Muir also created a powerful political advocacy group. He founded the Sierra Club in 1892 with a mission of preserving Yosemite and other wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Creating National Parks
Efforts to preserve spectacular western landscapes gained momentum in the last quarter of the 19th century, well before the creation of the National Park Service. In 1864, the Federal government took a step toward preserving public lands as parks for the benefit and enjoyment of the public when it gave Yosemite Valley to the State of California to use as a state park. The magnificent Yellowstone country in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho became the first federally designated national park in 1892. Yellowstone National Park provided a model for the entire world. The Federal government designated other national parks -- Sequoia, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, and Glacier in the 1890's and early 1900's.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Courtesy of Chris Devers, Flickr's Creative CommonsMt. Auburn Cemetery. Courtesy of Chris Devers, Flickr's Creative Commons
Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Courtesy of Chris Devers, Flickr's Creative Commons

Preserving Nature Nearby: Urban Conservation and the 19th Century Parks Movement
Closer to most peoples’ homes, initiatives to preserve open space in or near urban areas led to the establishment of large designed country parks. By the second half of the 19th century, increasingly industrialized eastern cities were growing at a dramatic pace. The rural open spaces that once existed near cities like Boston were rapidly transforming into cities themselves in order to accommodate dramatic population increases. Desires to protect public water supplies and more open space near cities led to the 19th century urban parks movement and the creation of large “country” parks in or near many urban areas during the second half of the 19th century. Based on Romantic principles, these parks took their inspiration from similar designs produced by English landscape gardeners in the 18th century. They were often several hundred acres in size bringing rural scenery to the city and featuring pastoral elements in park design to elicit soothing emotions as a needed contrast to the stresses of urban living. Design elements typically included broad meadows and natural picturesque features such as rocky outcroppings and woodlands—carefully used to screen out city buildings from view. Paths or roads provided places for strolling or horseback riding.

The prototype for the country parks was the rural or garden cemetery. The first of these cemeteries to be built in the United States was Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Watertown and Cambridge, Massachusetts, which dates from 1831. Rural cemeteries became such popular destinations for recreational excursions that landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing, William Cullen Bryant, and others lobbied for the creation of a large rural park in New York City. A group of New York’s leading citizens picked up the idea in the 1850s acquiring a tract of over 700 acres in the northern part of the city. After winning a design competition, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his colleague, architect Calvert Vaux, were hired to design the large park. The park design included pastoral elements such as open meadows, lawns, and thick border vegetation. New York City’s Central Park inspired the creation of many other parks and park systems in American cities after the Civil War such as the connected park systems in Chicago, Buffalo, and Minneapolis. Boston’s version was the Emerald Necklace Park System, which Frederick Law Olmsted designed beginning in the 1870s and completed before the turn of the 20th century.

Wildlife Protection in the Late 19th Century: The First State Audubon Societies
The late 19th century also produced the beginnings of a third major rationale for open space preservation: wildlife habitat protection. As the 19th century progressed, wildlife habitat was dramatically reduced by loss of habitat from deforestation and wetland filling, combined with over-hunting. New markets for wildlife made killing wildlife a financially profitable venture for hunters, who took advantage of improved transportation methods like railroads to gain access to previously inaccessible areas. The lack of legal protection for wildlife led to the slaughter of many species, some of which were hunted to extinction or near extinction. Wildlife like passenger pigeons and buffalo, which had been extremely abundant, were hunted to extinction (or nearly so). Migratory birds were especially impacted, since there was a huge market for the feathers of birds such as egrets, used to create women’s fashionable hats. In the 1880s, the millinery industry used wings, quills and feathers of birds such as woodpeckers, terns, grebes, cedar waxwings, robins and blue jays showed up on hats. A decade later, the most popular plumes were egret, heron, birds of paradise, pigeons and sea birds. Hundreds of thousands of birds were being killed each year for their feathers, which were worn in their hats (Kastner, 1994; Vileisis, 1997).

In response to the decline in bird populations, a number of new conservation-oriented organizations formed. During the winter of 1874-75, almost 100 sportsmen’s organizations were founded, and by 1878, 308 organizations had declared a commitment to conservation practices. Forest and Stream magazine a sportsmen’s magazine, was a major contributor to a conservation ethic among sportsmen. George Bird Grinnell, who worked for the magazine, wrote an editorial in 1886, which established the first national Audubon society. He invited concerned people to sign pledges that they wouldn’t harm any birds. In the first year, almost 39,000 men, women and children enlisted. The new club was called the Audubon Society, but it grew so quickly that the magazine couldn’t handle the extra work, and was disbanded within two years, a victim of its popularity (Vileisis, 1997).

Ten years later, the first state Audubon Society in the country was founded by two Massachusetts women—Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall, part of Boston’s wealthy society. In January 1896, Mrs. Hemenway heard of the decimation of a Florida heron rookery raided by hunters for the plumes, and was galvanized into action. The first strategy involved bringing together many of Boston’s leading scientists and social leaders together to brainstorm. The participants at the meeting decided that the most effective course of action would be to create a new organization, and they voted that day to establish the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The purpose of the new organization would be “to discourage buying and wearing for ornamental purposes the feathers of any wild bird”. The Massachusetts model caught on, and within two years, Audubon Societies had been established in 15 states. By 1901, 35 states had established Audubon groups. In 1905, National Audubon Society was formed as an umbrella organization to help coordinate state efforts. Over time, Audubon groups shifted to ecological habitat preservation. Massachusetts Audubon Society formally incorporated in 1915, and was enabled to receive and manage property. Land for the first Massachusetts Audubon Society bird sanctuary was donated by George Field in Sharon. There are currently 42 Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuaries statewide.

Conservationists Join Forces to Save America’s Forests
One of the consequences of industrialization, urbanization, and westward settlement was a dramatic reduction in America’s forests. Alarmed by the rapid clearing of forested land, and persuaded by Marsh’s work, which depicted the undesirable consequences of poor forestry practices, American scientists and naturalists decided to do something about it. They first lobbied for a survey of the fast-diminishing American forests. The Massachusetts Board of Agriculture hired botanist and horticulturalist Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the newly established Arnold Arboretum in Boston, to prepare a survey on the status of remaining Massachusetts forests, published in an 1876 report. Soon afterwards, the Interior Department commissioned Sargent to survey the status of remaining forests in the United States. Results of the survey, Report on the Forests of North America, appear in a report in 1880 as part of the U.S. Census. The report surveyed over 400 varieties of trees, noting their taxonomy, distribution, and current use. The report concluded with warnings about the rate of depletion of the nation’s forests.

In the last decades of the 19th century, federal and state governments initiated a variety of programs to preserve forests and educate the public about the need for improved forest management practices. Congress passed legislation for the first national forests in March 1891, the Forest Reserve Act. This act allowed the president to create forest reserves by withdrawing forested lands from the public domain. New York led the country in state-level initiatives, where a coalition of scientists, sportsmen, nature lovers and businessmen in 1885 supported legislation that created the first state forest preserve in the United States, 715,000 acres of forested land in northern New York that became the Adirondacks State Park. Initiatives to create state forests in western states and New England followed within a few years, which was a trend that continued through the first several decades of the 20th century.

Last updated: July 7, 2020