Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American
Conservation Movement, 1847-1920 comprises public domain material from the Library of
Congress. UMGC has modified this work.
Documentary Chronology of Selected Eventsin the Development
of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1920
The Falls of Niagara–From the Canada side, Currier & Ives, c1868. LC-USZC2-3376
Congress passes “An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters
of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,”, thus establishing Yellowstone National Park,
Wyoming, the first in the history of the nation and of the world; the Report of the
Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park for the Year 1872, published the
following year, provides a portrait of the new park at its birth.
At the initiative of J. Sterling Morton of the State Board of Agriculture, Nebraska observes
“Tree-Planting Day” on April 10, inaugurating the tradition which soon becomes known
as Arbor Day. By 1907, Arbor Day is observed annually in every State in the Union,
most importantly in the nation’s schools, where (as revealed in works such as the 1893
booklet Arbor Day Leaves), it provides several generations of young Americans with
their most significant training in conservation principles and practice.
In a reflection of strong popular interest in American scenery, including wilderness
scenery, the Appleton Company publishes Picturesque America; or, The Land We Live
In, ed. William Cullen Bryant, a massive 2-volume work containing reports and
descriptions of scenic places along with superb engravings based on the work of noted
artists; the work circulates widely, creating enduringly influential popular images of some
of the nation’s most famous scenic spots.
Under the influence of Marsh’s Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by
Human Action, Franklin B. Hough reads a paper at the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, in Portland, Maine, entitled “On the Duty
of Governments in the Preservation of Forests;” this inspires the Association to prepare
and submit a Memorial on forest preservation to Congress, which initiates Congressional
interest in forest protection.
Initial publication of Forest and Stream magazine, which–especially under the leadership
of George Bird Grinnell, senior editor and publisher from 1880 to 1911–becomes the
major American sportsmen’s magazine by the turn of the century and a forum for
Congress passes “An Act to encourage the Growth of Timber on western Prairies”, known as
the Timber Culture Act, granting settlers 160-acre plots if they have cultivated trees on
one-fourth of the land for ten years; the act reveals the growing public concern with
conservation of forest resources, though it ultimately proves unenforceable and is
repealed in 1891.
Scribner’s Monthly publishes reports from the Western expeditions led by Nathaniel P.
Langford, Ferdinand V. Hayden, T.C. Evert, John Wesley Powell, and others; these
greatly stimulate interest in the natural beauties of the West.
Typifying the increasing popular interest in wild nature as a resource for human recreation,
Scribner’s Monthly publishes articles advocating the virtues of family camping in various
spots throughout the country.
American Forestry Association founded by concerned botanists and horticulturalists;
before c.1900, it emphasizes appreciation and protection of trees rather than forestry as
an economic problem.
Congress passes “An act to protect ornamental and other trees on Government reservations
and on lands purchased by the United States, and for other purposes,” forbidding the
unauthorized cutting or injury of trees on government property.
John Muir publishes “God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests?,” one of
his earliest pieces of published writing, in the Sacramento Record-Union; in it, he suggests
the necessity for government protection of forests.
The Appalachian Mountain Club is founded in Boston, emphasizing a sense of stewardship
toward the New England mountain wilds as part of its organizational philosophy; it is one
of the nation’s first and most important private conservation-related organizations.
After Congress allocates $2,000 in a Department of Agriculture appropriations bill for
“some man of approved attainments” to report to Congress on forestry matters, Franklin
B. Hough is appointed first Federal forestry agent, with the task of gathering statistics
about the state of the nation’s forests.
Carl Schurz begins a four-year term as Secretary of the Interior; under his leadership, the
Department of the Interior takes an active interest in conservation issues for the first time,
and Schurz himself advocates far-sighted conservation policies, such as the creation of
forest reserves and a Federal forest service.
Congress passes “An act to provide for the sale of desert lands in certain States and
Territories,” known as the Desert Land Act, offering claimants up to 640 acres at $1.25
an acre if they have irrigated them.
John Wesley Powell, then the geologist in charge of the U.S. Geographical and Geological
Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, publishes Report on the Lands of the Arid Region
of the United States, a pioneering work recognizing the West’s unique environmental
character, advocating irrigation and conservation efforts in it, and calling for the
distribution of Western lands to settlers on a democratic and environmentally realistic
Franklin B. Hough begins to issue a landmark four-volume Report upon Forestry to
Congress, the first fruit of the Federal government’s nascent forestry activities and a
wide-ranging survey of information and issues pertinent to the management of the
Congress passes a sub-section of an appropriations bill officially establishing the U.S.
Geological Survey as a bureau of the Interior Department, with responsibility for “the
classification of the public lands.”
Congress authorizes the appointment of a Public Lands Commission to review Federal
public land policy; members include John Wesley Powell, Clarence Dutton, and Clarence
King. The Commission spends several months travelling in the West, surveying land use;
late in the year, it submits a Report to Congress expressing differing views among the
Commissioners on how to rationalize land policy, however all its recommendations are
ignored by Congress.
The American Forestry Association and the American Association for the Advancement
of Science advocate designation of Western timberlands as permanent public
At the direction of the New York State Legislature, a commission led by State Survey
Director James T. Gardner and Frederick Law Olmsted prepares a Special Report… on
the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls, advocating State purchase, restoration
and preservation through public ownership of the scenic lands surrounding Niagara Falls.
Accompanied by a Memorial to the governor signed by more than a hundred prominent
citizens, this Report defines the direction of the public campaign to save the beauties of
Division of Forestry provisionally established in the Department of Agriculture, with
Franklin B. Hough as its first chief; until the Pinchot era, its role is largely confined to
dispensing information and technical advice. The remaining volumes of the Report upon
Forestry are issued until 1884 under Hough and his successor, Nathaniel H. Egleston.
In this and the preceding year, the campaign to save Niagara through the creation of a
state-owned reserve is energized by the publication in New York and Boston newspapers
of a series of letters calling attention to the dangers threatening Niagara’s scenery; the
1882 letters, by Jonathan Baxter Harrison, also circulate in the form of a pamphlet
entitled “The Condition of Niagara Falls, and the Measures Needed to Preserve Them”.
Clarence Edward Dutton publishes “The Physical Geology of the Grand Canon District”
in the Second Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, a precise and
beautifully discerning account of a remarkable natural region which demonstrates the
exceptional scientific and even literary merit of many of the government-sponsored
scientific survey reports published in this era.
American Forestry Congresses meet in Cincinnati and Montreal.
The Wheelman, a magazine for enthusiasts of the new bicycling craze, begins publication;
it subsequently publishes a number of articles urging the enjoyment of bicycle touring to
wild and scenic spots, reflecting the growing interest in nature-based recreation in America.
George Perkins Marsh dies in Italy, where he has been serving as U.S. Minister since
1861; his grave is in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. At the time of his death, he is
working on additional revisions to the latest edition of Man and Nature (which he had
retitled The Earth as Modified by Human Action).
The American Ornithologists’ Union, a professional society of biologists who study birds,
founded in New York City; like the first Audubon Society (founded in 1886 by George
Bird Grinnell, though it lasted only two years), this reflects the growing concern with
birds and bird protection in American culture.
Undertaking his research under the influence of Marsh’s Man and Nature, Charles
Sprague Sargent, the visionary director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum,
publishes a Report on the Forests of North America (Exclusive of Mexico) as part of the
Tenth Census; in addition to important scientific information, this influential work warns
of the need to reform destructive timber management policies.
New York State establishes the Adirondack Forest Preserve, stipulating that it “shall be
kept forever as wild forest lands”: a milestone in conservation legislation.
Formal opening (July 15) of New York State Reservation at Niagara, including a speech
by James C. Carter, later published in pamphlet form, which links the spiritual importance
of scenery to a philosophy of public preservation; the Reservation is a precedent-setting
attempt to preserve scenic beauty while accommodating natural-resource use, and the
capstone of a citizen campaign of conservation advocacy.
In an appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture, Congress creates the Division
of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, and grants the Division of Forestry permanent
status within the Department; C. Hart Merriam heads the Economic Ornithology Division,
and Bernhard E. Fernow is Forestry Division chief.
Exemplifying the significance of sportsmen as conservationists, George Bird Grinnell
and Theodore Roosevelt found the Boone and Crockett Club, which plays a major role in
associating big-game hunters with the conservation movement; the Club eventually
publishes several volumes of writings on hunting and conservation, including American
Big Game In Its Haunts: The Book of the Boone and Crockett Club, in 1904.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux prepare a detailed plan for the restoration of
the landscape immediately surrounding Niagara Falls; published as a Supplemental
Report of the Commissioners of the State Reservation at Niagara, the plan shows how the
challenges and paradoxes posed by scenic preservation and the accommodation of visitors
in a carefully-conserved natural setting intersected with those of the emerging profession
of landscape architecture, of which Olmsted was the nation’s greatest practitioner.
Charles Sprague Sargent founds and directs Garden and Forest, a literate, thoughtful, and
informative weekly which does much to foster awareness of and interest in American
forests, trees, horticulture, landscape design, and scenic preservation during the ten years
of its publication.
In an early act of wildlife conservation, Congress passes legislation granting the Seal
Rocks off Point Lobos to San Francisco in trust for the people of the United States, on
condition that the city “shall keep said rocks free from encroachment by man, and shall
preserve from molestation the seals and other animals now accustomed to resort there.”
William Temple Hornaday publishes The Extermination of the American Bison, a report
to the Secretary of the Smithsonian which had originally been printed in the Smithsonian’s
annual report for 1887, severely criticizing the near-extermination of bison in the West,
and advocating protection of what remained of the herds.
Congress passes “An act to provide for the protection of the salmon fisheries of Alaska,”
the first of several such Federal statutory attempts to protect this economically valuable
Editorials by Robert Underwood Johnson in Century magazine help turn public opinion
in favor of Federal forest conservation.
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