3. 1895 to 1970: The Conservation Era
Gifford Pinchot was groomed to rule the Adirondacks. The son of a wealthy New York merchant, he made it his lifes work to bring the ideas of science and business management to public land. As Theodore Roosevelts Secretary of the Interior, and later as governor of Pennsylvania, Pinchot managed public land as if it were a factory that produced essential goods like lumber, forage, game animals, and drinking water. Like any business manager, he was obsessed with efficiency, profit margins, and long-term yield. But when he tried to apply these ideas to the Adirondacks, New York would not let him.
Pinchots life course was set when he read Marshs Man and Nature while a student at Yale, and he continued his education in the professionally managed forests of Germany and France in 1889-1890. He returned convinced that Americans could manage their dwindling natural resources as Europeans did; instead of cutting trees once and then abandoning the land, they could cut carefully to yield a steady supply of goods. One of Pinchots first jobs in America was writing a forest management plan for Ne-ha-sa-ne, the Hamilton County estate of William Seward Webb. In 1897 he published his first book, a small manual called The Adirondack Spruce that became a back-pocket bible for loggers.
The states constitutional clause that prohibited logging in the State Forest Preserve was a major irritation to this Ivy League forester. Pinchot called the Forever Wild clause a "sentimental horror" enacted by people with good intentions but little knowledge. It was, he said, like "the case of a farmer who should refuse to cultivate his farm on the ground that he distrusted his own fitness and integrity." Although he supported several attempts to repeal the clause, public sentiment for the logging ban grew stronger and it survived each attempt. A conclusive defeat for the pro-logging forces in 1915 settled the issue.
Public forests in the Adirondacks were spared because three powerful groups wanted them uncut. The first and most important group was wealthy hunters, anglers, and vacationers from New York, Albany, and Boston. Adirondack visitors were appalled by the fires and devastation caused by cut-and-run logging. Since 1917, public lands in the state have been managed with their needs in mind. White-tailed deer, beaver, and other game animals have been re-introduced. Boat launching sites have been been maintained and channels dredged for fishermen; trails have been cut to mountain summits and pristine lakes. Timber cutting can co-exist with hunting, fishing, hiking, and trapping, but only if it is done in moderation. Persistent reports of abuse and corruption in the State Forest Preserve soured relations between urban sportsmen and rural loggers between 1895 and 1915, leading to the lockout.
The second group was much less numerous than sportsmen, but they became more and more influential as the century wore on. Ecologists practiced a new form of biological science that studied wild land in terms of inputs and outputs, as if nature was a physics problem or an economic system. New York produced several men who used early ecological ideas as a springboard for activism. In the 1920s, C.C. Adams of the New York State Museum advanced the view that the best way to protect wild mammals was to leave their habitats undisturbed. In 1917, the activist wing of the Ecological Society of America formed a Committee for the Preservation of Natural Conditions and elected Victor Ernest Shelford, a native of Chemung County, as its chair. The group became independent in 1946 and was re-named The Nature Conservancy in 1951. The Conservancys first land acquisition, in 1955, was in Westchester County.
Scientists and sportsmen began the century united in defense of the wild, but the relationship grew more strained as the scientific wing turned to activism. The question of whether or not to support hunting on wildlife preserves caused a major rift in the National Audubon Society in the 1930s. The debate continues to this day, with some New York environmental groups flatly opposed to hunting, others seeking compromise, and the State attempting to mollify both hunters and wildlife-watchers.
Other early 20th Century defenders of natural New York were middle-class Americans who went into the wild in a new way. Automobile touring exploded in popularity after the First World War. "Tin can tourists," so named because they cooked dinner on campfires next to their cars, moved quickly from a fad to an important source of jobs and consumer spending. The tourists went to see natural wonders all over the state, from Ausable Chasm and Whiteface Mountain to Watkins Glen, the Genesee River Gorge, and Niagara Falls. When they got home, they voted to protect the land for public use while making it more accessible to cars.
Before Robert Moses became the great builder of New York City, he lead a state government initiative to upgrade state parks for the new generation of recreationists. Automobile touring continued to grow during the Great Depression because it was a relatively inexpensive way to take a holiday. The parks themselves were strengthened by an infusion of New Deal laborers. By 1940, many New Yorkers were driving long distances to spend time in "natural" settings that were, in truth, intensively managed for swimming, picnicking, camping, and boating.
Many of New Yorks environmental stories are about urban and middle-class people advancing their interests in rural areas. The one urban interest that has consistently spurred quick action is clean water. In 1905, New York City needed more drinking water than its Croton reservoirs in Westchester County could hold. It spent massive sums to create a huge system of reservoirs and tunnels beginning in the Catskills, and in the process forced hundreds of residents off of their land. When the tunnels were filled in 1927, the City had a permanent reason to further restrict growth in the huge region that gave it pure water.
Another compelling reason for environmental action is a threat to public health. Concern over foul smells and dead fish in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound peaked in the 1930s, leading the federal government to establish an interstate sanitation commission for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. When the first waste treatment plant opened on Coney Island in 1935, New York State permanently entered the business of controlling water pollution.
World War II introduced several new factors to environmental affairs in New York. For example, the first widespread use of a pesticide DDT occurred when the US military needed to control disease-carrying insects near troops in tropical jungles. The chemical worked miracles, so it was soon applied in marshes and wetlands across America. In 1948, a scientist named Dennis Puleston began studying damage to reproductive systems of birds in eastern Long Island. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote about the connection between DDT and bird deaths in Silent Spring, drawing heavily on Pulestons research.
The wars environmental legacy included atomic weapons, and with the Bomb came knowledge that humans could destroy their planet. The legacy also included nuclear power, and with it came the knowledge that industrial wastes could contaminate an area for centuries. The wars legacy also included the Baby Boom, a huge generation of 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. The baby boom lead to a boom in suburban housing in the 1950s, and once-compact urban areas began sprawling into the countryside. Another war the cold war lead Congress to create the National Defense Highway System. Now known as the Interstate Highway System, these roads greatly reduced the travel time between a city job, a suburban home, and a rural campsite.
Gifford Pinchot saw the environment as a factory that produced resources for public benefit. His idea became the consensus view in the United States by 1920, but views changed further as the 20th century evolved. In the 1940s and 1950s, business and government leaders began using technology to push the nature factory harder and harder. Farms were drenched with fertilizers and pesticides to make more food. Automobiles and industrial plants produced millions of tons of toxins and released them into the air and water, trusting nature to absorb them. Park managers cut more trails into the woods and built more campsites on lakeshores, trusting nature to clean up after the visitors once they went home.
Early challenges to this worldview came in 1926 and 1930 when two New Yorkers Victor Shelford and Bob Marshall separately released inventories of the last remaining wild places on the continent, and argued for their preservation. The challenges reached the courts and legislatures in 1945, when activists in the Adirondacks began a ten-year grassroots campaign to stop a dam on the Moose River. In1948, the president of the New York Zoological Garden voiced a growing skepticism for technology and growth: "The grand and ultimate illusion," wrote Fairfield Osborn, "would be that man could provide a substitute for the elemental workings of nature." In the 1950s, researchers found traces of stronium-90 from atomic tests in baby teeth and mothers milk. In the early 1960s, photographs taken from space gave the mass media a powerful image of earth as a finite, self-contained ecosystem.
Much more than their parents, baby boomers realized the immediacy of environmental problems. When the oldest members of this generation turned 18, in 1964, they became powerful and blunt advocates for change. Earth Day was a coming-out party for the new generation of environmental activists. It also served notice that the older, growth-and-production philosophy was evolving into a view of nature that emphasized cautious development, the measurement and control of environmental impact, and setting limits.
- Conservation Vs. Preservation
- The Wilderness Lobby
- Showdown At Moose River
- Audubons Pioneer Activists
- From Theory to Practice
- Robert Moses and Franklin Roosevelt
- Pollution Control: Water, Air, and Land