[Chapter 25 of The Age of the Consequences]
“All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom, each returns to its origin . . . This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.” —Lao-Tsu
The First Wave
In the fall of 1909, twenty-two-year-old Aldo Leopold rode away from the ranger station in Springerville, Arizona, on his inaugural assignment with the newly created United States Forest Service. For this Midwesterner, an avid hunter freshly graduated from the prestigious Yale School of Forestry, the mountainous wilderness that stretched out before him must have felt both thrilling and portentous. In fact, events over the ensuing weeks, including his role in the killing of two timber wolves—immortalized nearly forty years later in his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” from A Sand County Almanac—would influence Leopold’s lifelong conservation philosophy in important ways. The deep thinking would come later, however. In 1909, Leopold’s primary goal was to be a good forester, which is why he chose to participate in a radical experiment at the time: the control and conservation of natural resources by the federal government.
Beginning in 1783, the policy of the federal government encouraged the disposal of public lands to private citizens and commercial interests including retired soldiers, homesteaders, railroad conglomerates, mining interests, and anyone else willing to fulfill America’s much-trumpeted manifest destiny. However, this policy began to change in 1872, when President Ulysses Grant signed a bill creating the world’s first national park—Yellowstone—launching the U.S. government down a new path: retention and protection of some federal land on behalf of all Americans.
In 1891, four years after Leopold’s birth, this trend accelerated when Congress created the national forest reserve system, which protected large swaths of valuable timberland from development. These reserves were renamed national forests and were dramatically increased in size in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, who burned the midnight oil with Gifford Pinchot, his visionary secretary of agriculture. Three years earlier, Roosevelt had created the first national wildlife refuge—Pelican Island—in southern Louisiana.
These parks, forests, refuges, and monuments (the latter created by the Antiquities Act of 1906) were part of an audacious conservation philosophy that emphasized state and federal control and scientific management of natural resources. For Pinchot and other leaders in the budding conservation movement, the need for a new approach could be summed up in one word: scarcity. Take timber, for instance. Appalled by the razing of the great white pine forests of the upper Midwest by private industry after the Civil War, Congress created the forest reserve system and gave it the mission of conserving valuable timberlands for future national needs.
It was a mission vigorously supported by Pinchot, who believed that a nation’s natural resources should serve the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. This new conservation philosophy was captured in the U.S. Forest Service’s first field manual: “Forest Reserves are for the purpose of preserving a perpetual supply of timber for home industries, preventing destruction of the forest cover, which regulates the flow of streams, and protecting local industries from unfair competition in the use of forest and range. They are patrolled and protected, at Government expense, for the benefit of the Community and home builder.”
Reversing resource scarcity and arresting the associated land degradation would now be the job of government.
Meanwhile, scarcity of a different sort motivated John Muir, an itinerant mountain lover and amateur geologist from Scotland. Worried about the loss of wildness and beauty to development, Muir campaigned vigorously for the creation of national parks and monuments, adding his voice to what quickly became a chorus of support for the protection of wilderness, wildlife, and natural wonders for nonutilitarian purposes. It worked. The national park system expanded from two dozen units in 1916—the year Congress created the National Park Service—to over four hundred only eight decades later. The federal role in the West continued to expand after World War II, when the vast public rangelands were organized into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In 1964, Congress added an additional layer of protection with the passage of the Wilderness Act, which ensured that roadless areas on public lands would remain “untrammeled” for generations to come.
It was all part of the first wave of conservation, which I’ll call federalism.
These were heady days for professionals such as Leopold, but also exciting times for day-trippers and vacationers across the nation, newly liberated by rising affluence and declining prices of automobiles. Recreation quickly took its place alongside resource protection as part of the mission of federal land agencies. Starting in the 1920s, America embraced its parks and forests with fervor as citizens hit the roads in rising numbers. In the process, a benevolent and ever-helpful “Ranger Rick” became synonymous with the U.S. government in the public’s eyes.
Meanwhile, the nation’s embrace of the great outdoors had an important collateral effect: federalism as a conservation philosophy began to extend beyond land ownership and management to the belief that governmental regulation of the environment was needed in order to protect citizens from harm. Thanks to pressure from activists, more and more regulatory work was assigned to the federal government over the decades, culminating in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1969 and a raft of historic environmental legislation in the early 1970s.
Federalism, it seemed, was destined to keep rolling ashore.
Today, however, it is clear that this first wave of conservation has faded. In retrospect, its apogee as an effective conservation strategy in the West was reached in the early 1950s, just prior to the eruption of major controversies involving the government’s dam-building program on the Colorado River and its over-harvesting of timber on our national forests—controversies that began to sour the public on some of our federal agencies.
This souring mood grew during the 1960s and 1970s as activists fought the government over hard-rock mining, cattle grazing, and endangered species protection on public lands, causing many urban residents to shift their view of federal agencies from the good guys to the bad guys. It was a shift shared by many rural residents, who began to view the government as captive of urban interests, environmental activists especially. As a result, federal employees began to find themselves in the crossfire of an increasingly rancorous struggle between activists and rural residents across the West. It added up to one conclusion: federalism as an effective conservation strategy was fading away. Clear cut on national forest in Oregon
That’s not to say the idea of public land staled—the democratic ideal represented by public ownership of Western lands is still strong. What has changed is the government’s ability to do conservation effectively. It has faded in recent years for a variety of reasons, including shrinking budgets, reduced personnel, increased public demands, a bevy of conflicting laws and regulations, and the rising hostility of political interests. But the conservative and conformist nature of bureaucracies had a role too. Over time, a resistance to innovation grew among the agencies, as did a certain degree of arrogance. Toss in a lack of synchronicity with the times, as public opinions changed and new ideas came along, and by the 1970s, the result was increased ineffectualness.
Not that federalism didn’t try to evolve with the times. Over the years, it embraced a variety of new conservation concepts, including wilderness protection, sustained yield, adaptive management, endangered species protection, an ecosystem approach, and so on. But none of them altered the fact that what had once been federalism’s chief asset—its role as a buffer between nature and its exploiters—had by the 1970s become its chief liability: it now stood between the land and innovation.
I experienced this firsthand with Quivira’s work with federal land agencies, including our promotion of progressive livestock management, our direction of riparian restoration projects, and our operation of the only public lands grassbank in the West (where Quivira became a Forest Service livestock permittee). I’ll cite three examples. First, it became clear that the default position of agencies on anything out of the box was “no”—no to this idea, no to that activity; no, you can’t do this; no, you can’t do that. Getting to “yes” wasn’t impossible with the agencies, but their regulatory mandates, musical-chair personnel changes, and ever-rising workloads make getting to “yes” a time-consuming, expensive, and very frustrating process for potential partners. It is much simpler for the federal agencies to say “no.”
Second, there were few positive internal incentives for agency employees to try anything new. In fact, disincentives abounded, including the perpetual threat of lawsuits by watchdog groups. Innovating within the system is rarely rewarded and sometimes punished. Thinking out of the box might mean getting pushed out of your job. There is less stress for employees if they act by the book—which often made partners feel like they were talking to a stone wall.
Third, there is a culture of command and control within the federal agencies, the Forest Service especially, that discouraged partnerships and innovation. Agencies often have the last word on a project, and they know it. This means that when they enter into a collaborative effort, the partnership is unequal. The agencies have the ability to shut things down, and all it takes is one person in a position of power. Throw in the inevitable change of leadership among line officers every three to four years, and the risk of “no” rises substantially. For example, of the approximately twenty Forest Service employees involved in the creation of the grassbank in 1998, nineteen had moved to new jobs within five years, essentially orphaning the project from the government’s perspective.
It all adds up to an ineffective Status Quo on public lands today. The trouble is that in the twenty-first century, the Status Quo isn’t really an option anymore. Managing land for climate change, for instance, will require rapid, flexible, and innovative responses—a tall order for federal agencies. To their credit, agencies sense this and are trying to find ways to respond, but reform, innovation, and breaking gridlock look largely out of their reach now. Perhaps federalism will reinvent itself, gather strength, and rise again as a new wave of conservation. I hope so. There is still a big need for federal oversight and expertise, and the idea of public land ownership is an important one in a democracy.
The Second Wave
The next wave of conservation in the American West is what we today call environmentalism. The early stirrings can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century as the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution began visibly to impact the natural world, especially wildlife populations. Early prophets included Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir. A vocal advocate for federalism, Muir also played a key role in the development of the second wave when he founded the Sierra Club in San Francisco in 1892. Initially a hiking and camping association for outdoor enthusiasts, the Sierra Club quickly drew activists into its fold, no doubt inspired by Muir’s relentless campaign to protect Yosemite National Park from a proposed dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley (a dam that Gifford Pinchot enthusiastically supported). Although Muir lost the fight, his defeat propelled the Club and other budding conservation organizations to become vigilant in defense of the nation’s parks, forests, and refuges—and to keep a watchful eye on the federal agencies entrusted to protect them.
As the nation’s love affair with the great outdoors took off, conservation groups swelled with new members and advocates, beginning a period of vigorous activity, including a highly public fight in 1955 to stop another dam project, this one located in Echo Park, deep inside Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. Led by the Sierra Club’s president, David Brower, an avid mountain climber, the conservation community set itself squarely against Congress and the federal government in a high-stakes showdown. It won. The dam was never built. Riding the momentum of this victory, the second wave swelled in 1963 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which propelled activists into the arena of human health and industrial pollution, transforming the conservation movement into what today is simply called environmentalism.
There are two principle reasons why this movement grew large and effective: (1) it built on the strengths of federalism while confronting its weaknesses, and (2) it synchronized itself with the rapidly changing times, including changing demographics, embracing new ideas and values, and putting them to work effectively.
Although the early phase of the second wave was consonant with the goals of federalism, especially the push to create new parks and monuments, as early as the 1930s, it started to have doubts about governmental effectiveness. Led by Aldo Leopold, who had left Forest Service employment in 1924, conservationists began to question the ability of agencies in the wake of the Dust Bowl to implement what Leopold later dubbed a “land ethic.” Some government programs worked, but many did not, especially after the positive incentives they employed (direct payments to landowners, technical assistance, etc.) ended. That left many agencies holding the “stick” approach to conservation, rather than the “carrot.” However, Leopold came to believe that both approaches were ineffective in the long run because a land ethic needed to come from the heart, not a bureau. He urged the conservation movement to lift its sights to change America’s ethics, not just its policies.
Activists responded vigorously to Leopold’s call, and environmentalism swelled, especially as America’s economy rocketed into the stratosphere after World War II. They began by pushing federal agencies to adopt higher environmental standards. Activists raised alarms, for example, when the Forest Service embarked on a vast timber-cutting program in the 1950s that included widespread clear-cuts. They also criticized the BLM for its poor oversight of livestock grazing and hard-rock mining on public lands and they maintained their struggle with the Bureau of Reclamation, winning a widely publicized fight to stop two dams in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They also criticized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its inadequate oversight of endangered species, and they even turned up the heat on the National Park Service, which they thought was dragging its feet on wilderness designation.
In this work, the second wave both shaped public opinion concerning environmental protection as well as followed its lead. In the mid-1960s, a series of natural disasters and slow-boil crises caught the public’s attention, including smog in big cities, toxic-waste dumps, oil spills, rivers catching on fire, urban sprawl, and a growing concern about nuclear power. The consequence of this rising concern was the passage of a raft of federal legislation in the early 1970s aimed at ensuring clean air, clean water, endangered species protection, wild and scenic river designation, and an open planning process for the management of public land.
Environmentalism also tapped into changes on the economic front out West, as recreation and tourism became significant engines of prosperity—a development that would eventually be called the “New West.” It was a booming amenity-based economy that emphasized recreation (hiking, fishing, biking) over traditional forms of work (mining, logging, farming, cattle ranching). However, the denigration of work in favor of play, especially on public lands, led to numerous clashes with rural residents, many of whom staunchly opposed this new economy. Feelings on both sides hardened during the 1980s, causing environmentalists to dig in and redouble their efforts, which proved successful on many fronts.
In reality, it was a sign of the wave’s inevitable fading.
Today, despite environmentalism’s continued hard work, high profile, and large memberships, it is clear that the movement is no longer an effective conservation strategy in the West. Two important metrics support this observation: (1) the continued steady decline of animal and plant species populations and their habitats around the planet, and (2) a steady loss of interest in nature and outdoor activities among Americans, especially the younger generation, a trend with alarming ramifications for both nature and people—a condition that author Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Environmentalism didn’t cause these two developments, of course, but it has become increasingly ineffective at reversing, or even curbing, them.
There are three primary reasons why.
The first is author and farmer Wendell Berry’s long-standing criticism that environmentalism never developed an economic program to go along with its preservation and health programs. It had no economic retort, in other words, for industrialism. It never truly confronted our economy, the source of most environmental ills, and without an effective alternative, the average American had no choice but to participate in a destructive model of economic growth. I saw this played out during my time in the Sierra Club, where I learned that most activists considered environmental problems to have environmental solutions, ignoring their economic sources. This meant we spent too much time and energy on symptoms instead of causes. Aldo Leopold flagged this problem decades earlier when he cautioned us against trying to “fix the pump without fixing the well.” We didn’t heed his advice, and for fifty years, we focused our attention on the pump while the well began to run dry.
Many environmentalists might argue, in contrast, that they did have an economic agenda: tourism and recreation. This is true—and for a while, the benefits of both looked generous. But over time, recreation and its associated side effects—congestion, exurban sprawl, transitory populations—began to take on darker hues and may have even made the situation worse. As the twenty-first century progresses, with its concerns about climate change, carbon footprints, oil depletion, food miles, and sustainability in general, an economy based on tourism looks increasingly shaky.
Second, environmentalism is ebbing because it left the land behind. The movement lost the feeling of “the soil between our toes,” as Leopold put it, meaning it lost an intimate understanding of how land actually works. As a result, it lost what Leopold described as the role of individual responsibility for the health of the land. “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” he wrote, and “conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” But by losing the feel of soil between our toes, the movement missed the opportunity to understand, and thus preserve, land health—the foundation on which all health depends.
For example, I learned early in my work with Quivira that while activists and others could recognize poor land use, such as overgrazing, and rightly worked to correct it, they lost an understanding of good land use, particularly those for-profit activities such as logging and ranching that could be conducted sustainably. Instead, as the movement drifted away from land, it began to equate non-use with the highest and best use of land, especially on the public domain. The exception was recreation, of course, though it has become increasingly clear that as far as twenty-first-century challenges go, play can’t handle the weight.
Third, the environmental movement never really walked the walk of a land ethic. While trumpeting Leopold’s famous call to enlarge our ethical sphere to include plants and animals, environmentalists ignored his insistence that people and their economic activities be included too. “There is only one soil, one flora, one fauna, and one people, and hence only one conservation problem,” Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac. “Economic and esthetic land uses can and must be integrated, usually on the same acre.” Or this from his essay, “The Ecological Conscience”: “A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people.”
A land ethic encompassed it all. But environmentalists didn’t heed Leopold’s advice. Instead, many engaged in a form of environmental isolationism. Work was segregated from nature, and nature was largely confined to parks, wildernesses, refuges, and other types of protected areas. Not only was there no attempt to integrate people into nature economically under this preservationist paradigm, but an energetic effort was made by some activists to curtail certain land uses, such as ranching, whether they maintained the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community or not. The land, in their minds, had to be saved apart from the people, and their pitch to the public emphasized dehumanized landscapes—pretty pictures of wild country and charismatic wildlife. In general, while activists were quick to invoke Leopold in their campaigns to save this or that, they ignored his holistic view that “bread and beauty grow best together.”
In its time, environmentalism accomplished an astonishing amount, and the world has benefitted immensely from its diligent efforts. As with federalism, however, it reached its “bloom” and began to fade away.
For more on Courtney’s writing see: http://www.awestthatworks.com
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