The Evolution Of The Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850–1920 is an online exhibition from the Library of Congress‘ American Memory series. It documents the historical formation and cultural foundations of the movement to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage, through books, pamphlets, government documents, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and motion picture footage drawn from the collections of the Library of Congress.

The collection consists of 62 books and pamphlets, 140 Federal statutes and Congressional resolutions, 34 additional legislative documents, excerpts from the Congressional Globe and the Congressional Record, 360 Presidential proclamations, 170 prints and photographs, 2 historic manuscripts, and 2 motion pictures.



Concern for the relationship between humans and the natural world has been a definitive element in nearly all cultures. In the United States, however, between about 1850 and 1920, a heightened conservation consciousness first emerged as a complex, broadly popular political and cultural movement, based largely on a growing appreciation among newly-urbanized Americans for the importance of nature as an economic, aesthetic, and spiritual resource, together with a newly urgent conviction that nature’s resources were increasingly imperilled. This movement led to unprecedented public and private initiatives intended to ensure the wise and scientific use of natural resources, and the preservation of wildlife and of landscapes of great natural beauty.

From the vantage point of the end of the twentieth century, it is perhaps natural to regard the development of conservation stewardship as a single discernible movement in American history, one which came of age in the decades between 1850 and 1920, though it has continued to expand and evolve in vital ways in the decades ever since. To the cultural historian probing the components of this movement, however, its unity, and hence its inevitable coming of age in the nation’s consciousness, are far less clear. On the contrary, what is most striking is the eclectic nature of the historical trends and cultural attitudes which coalesced in the development of conservation thought and policy. This collection of materials from the Library of Congress reflects the conservation movement’s complexity and heterogeneity.

At the broadest level, the development of at least three distinct but interlocking imperatives guided Americans’ re-conception of their relation to their natural environment in the 1850-1920 era, forming the basic themes that find endless variation in the materials of this collection:

Scientific and technological concerns, including recognition of the human impact on the natural environment, and faith in the human capacity to manage that impact actively and wisely for human benefit;

Philosophical, ethical, and spiritual values and symbolizations, including those which linked American “nature” to the construction of American national identity and character, and redefined the natural world as a moral and spiritual resource for urban and industrial man;

Aesthetic considerations, including those which celebrated the perception and enjoyment of wildlife, wilderness, and natural beauty as legitimate and necessary recreational resources in American life.

These fundamental preoccupations intersected with a cluster of deep historical transformations–the triumph of large-scale industrialization, urbanization, full-fledged commercial agriculture and natural-resource extraction–all of which amounted to a fourth formative pattern in the culture of the age:

A profound revision in the man-land and man-nature relationships which had subsisted in America since the European settlement.

The development of conservation thought and policy may be traced from these structural and ideological roots as they ramified throughout American life to manifest themselves in a host of related phenomena, including the following:

… a perceived crisis in American national identity and purpose, expressed in part in the popularity of the “Turner thesis” (named for the historian who developed it, Frederick Jackson Turner), which located the source of American identity in the pioneer encounter with the wilderness frontier, and deemed that frontier now “closed”

… expressions of anti-urbanism and anti-modernism among intellectuals and the elite

… the transformation of the old American pastoral/agrarian ideology into the new suburban ideal, with its accoutrements of landscape gardening, country clubs, summer camps, etc.

… the burgeoning interest in camping and “woodcraft” as resources for recreation and character development, especially for boys, and the resulting formation of scouting organizations

… the use of nature as an instrument of education and socialization, as in the urban parks and playgrounds movement, and the movement for “nature study” in schools

… the development of landscape architecture as a profession

… the intellectual mastery of the American landscape and its resources, particularly in the West, attained by the body of explorations and surveys in the later decades of the nineteenth century that brought to a close white men’s centuries-long calculation of the continent

… the use of photography to fix the image and identity of the American landscape, especially in the “wilderness” west, in the post-Civil War years

… the practice of academic (but broadly popular) landscape painting in the second half of the nineteenth century as a self-conscious instrument marrying science, spirituality, and the celebration of the American landscape as the source of the nation’s moral identity

… the development of scenic tourism by railway and (eventually) by automobile, and the growing recognition of its economic importance

… the growth of travel literature celebrating natural beauty and the pleasures of wild places

… a growing body of reflective and analytical writings exploring man’s relationship with nature

… the proliferation of nature essays and nature-based fiction and poetry in popular periodicals and books, with their implicit perception of nature as a locus of moral authority

… the sentimental celebration of nature as a theme in popular music and amateur painting

… the growth of leisure time for the new urban and suburban middle class, a function of the diminished temporal demands of industrially-related as opposed to agricultural labor

… the growth of hiking, mountaineering, angling, and game-hunting as recreational activities, and the proliferation of amateur clubs to sustain them

… upper-class sportsmen’s increasing concern about dwindling game populations, and their readiness to exercise decisive leadership in many aspects of the movement to conserve natural resources

… the growth of “birding” as a popular hobby, and the proliferation of amateur ornithological clubs and bird sanctuaries, whose sponsors also moved quickly into positions of leadership in conservation advocacy

… the consequent origins of what the historian Stephen R. Fox calls the “radical amateur” tradition which led the development of American conservationism into the 1960s

… debate over the use, control, and distribution of the nation’s remaining public lands and their resources

… growing recognition of the disastrous consequences of deforestation, particularly in the eastern United States

… increasing public anxiety over the perceived waste of the nation’s natural endowment

… ascendant confidence in the authority of science to guide human knowledge and action, and in the power of technology to solve human problems

… the creative influence of scientists and engineers on the development of government policy concerning natural resources

… the development of the Progressive Movement, with its characteristic faith in rational public management.

These phenomena unfolded at a time in American history when the now-familiar boundaries between amateur and professional science, between science and religion, and between elite and popular culture were in many ways far less fixed than they have since become. Liberally educated individuals could still speak with authority on scientific matters, scientific investigation could still be construed as a complement to religious faith, and instruments of cultural expression commonly crossed class lines. These factors, too, complexified the historical ferment within which conservationism found its beginnings.



From this milieu emerged the first great public accomplishments of the American conservation movement, a constellation of projects in many areas of the nation’s life, devised on widely varying principles for widely varying ends, that nevertheless succeeded in significantly reorienting public policy and popular awareness toward the imperatives of collective stewardship exercised on a scale unprecedented in the history of the nation and, in some respects, the world. Between 1850 and 1920, American conservationists invented the idea of the national park and developed the national park system, establishing an international model for the preservation of natural beauty and wilderness; they instituted the practice of scientific forestry on a broad scale in North America, adopted the principles of forestry as government policy, established the national forest system, and founded the Forest Service; they undertook large-scale technological management of natural resources as a socially beneficent public objective, notably through irrigation development; they passed state and Federal legislation to protect certain classes of wildlife, and established a system of national wildlife refuges; they participated in the beginnings of systematic effort to control the impact of environmental pollution on human health and welfare, especially in urban areas; they established Arbor Day and Bird Day observances as a means of cultivating widespread conservation awareness and individual conservation effort, especially among school-children; and they supported President Theodore Roosevelt’s identification of conservation as a central object of national policy. Even their divisions became definitive: the controversy over San Francisco’s proposal to dam Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley galvanized public consciousness of conservation issues, and crystallized the tension between utilitarians and preservationists that has defined the terms of conservation debate into the late twentieth century.

For all its complexities and contradictions, for all its bargains with greed and expedience and its failures of will or of vision (all of which are, of course, easier to discern in the luxury of historical hindsight), the early American conservation movement left a formidable legacy. At a time of revolutionary change and conflict in American society, conservationists reasserted the moral obligation human beings have to one another in their use of the natural world, and established that obligation as a primary principle of the nation’s public life. At a time when fewer and fewer of their fellow-citizens found their identity in the soil, conservationists reconfigured the character of Americans’ moral relationship with nature. Most fundamentally, perhaps, those who shaped the early American conservation movement recovered for their nation the abiding truth that what is human and what is natural are parts of a single whole, and devised a repertoire of formal structures and cultural strategies for giving that insight creative and enduring form. The materials in this collection are one measure of that achievement.