3. 1895 to 1970: The Conservation Era
From Theory to Practice
The 1920 U.S. Census showed that for the first time, more Americans lived in urban areas than in small towns or farms. As it became the new norm, urban life encouraged new kinds of thinking about the environment. Scientists and philosophers began to consider the ethical and environmental aspects of large urban areas, an industrial economy, and growing consumer spending. When the century began, only a few voices questioned the need to cut trees for newspaper, strip hillsides for coal, and foul harbors with sewage. By mid-century, these voices had become a loud chorus, and in the 1960s they coalesced into a political movement.
An early proponent of everyday environmentalism was Albert Schweitzer, a physician and missionary who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in Africa. Schweitzers ethnical system was organized around the German word Ehrfurcht, which connotes awed humility in the face of a vast and mysterious power. Right conduct for a human being, he wrote in 1915, means showing equal reverence for all forms of life, and giving "to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives his own." When Schweitzer encountered a worm washed onto the pavement by a rainstorm, he would carefully place it back in the grass. He would not eat meat or kill any living thing unless it was absolutely necessary, and then only with compassion for the life that had to be sacrificed. He saw humans as a component of a great web, and argued that each part of the web of life demanded equal respect.
Schweitzer was also one of the first writers to place environmental ethics within Christian doctrine. His writings inspired Christians in the US as they joined battles against nuclear weapons and pollution in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, Christians in the "eco-justice" movement were the intellectual grandchildren of writers like Schweitzer and John Burroughs. They argued that wild nature had a right to exist that was independent of mans interests, and that pollution was both unjust and disrespectful of Gods creation.
Natural scientists also advanced these views, although their motivation may have been professional. Some of the leading scientist-activists came from New York. One was C.C. Adams, an ecologist from the New York State Museum who spoke out for the rights of predators.
The federal Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS) had adopted a policy of exterminating predators early in the century. Professional hunters from the BBS spread across the West, setting thousands of poison traps for coyotes and shooting wolves, cougars, and eagles on sight, to reduce the loss of livestock. This was in keeping with the Gifford Pinchot ideal of maximum production from public land, and it also matched Pinchots conservationist disregard for aesthetics and other non-economic concerns. The policy was challenged in 1923 by the American Society of Mammologists, and for the next 25 years the Society waged a running battle with the government to spare the predators. C.C. Adams, a prominent animal ecologist, led the effort.
"We are probably the richest nation on earth," Adams wrote in 1924. "What would be the cost of maintaining one hundred mountain lions in North America? Would it stagger American civilization? We have millions of acres in National Forests, in the Public Domain, and in National Parks. Some of these could be managed in such a fashion that some of the animals could be preserved and eat deer meat!" The killing of predators in National Parks was halted in 1936, although extermination efforts on some federal lands continued into the 1970s.
The steady intrusion of human influence into natural areas was a major challenge to ecologists, whose research was often ruined by pollution or development. The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1911, split over this problem. Some early members were not willing to involve a scientific organization in political fights over land. Others were willing, and the leader of the activist wing was a former farm boy from Chemung County.
In 1917, Victor Shelford became chair of the ESAs Committee for the Preservation of Natural Conditions. In 1926, the committee published The Naturalists Guide to the Americas, an attempt to catalog all the known patches of wilderness left in the New World. In 1946, after the ESA dissolved the committee, Shelford founded the Ecologists Union, whose 158 charter members vowed to take "direct action" to save threatened areas. In 1951, the group incorporated and re-named itself The Nature Conservancy. Shelford remained active in the group until his death in 1968.
Other New Yorkers pioneered techniques the Conservancy has used to protect millions of acres. In the early 1940s, a University of Rochester ecologist named Dick Goodwin and friends became concerned about Bergen Swamp, a threatened wetland about 20 miles east of town. Goodwin had no funds to survey the property, so he did it himself. Then he talked to the landowners until he persuaded a farmer to sell the first five acres for $125. Bergen Swamp is now a 2,000-acre preserve. Goodwin became President of the Nature Conservancy in 1956. In 2000, the group honored him as "father of the land deal."
The Conservancys first land deal happened in New York. In 1955, members and friends purchased 60 acres of the Mianus River Gorge in Westchester County with a $7,500 loan from the group. This was the first use of the Conservancys revolving Land Preservation Fund, which proved crucial to the organization's success. New York foundations were also instrumental in the early years. In 1966, the Ford Foundation made it possible for the Conservancy to hire its first full-time President. In 1968, Ford guaranteed a $6 million line of credit to the Land Fund, which allowed the Conservancy to purchase and hold land for later sale to the US Government an important technique that came to be known as the "government co-op."
As ecologists looked for new ways to preserve the environment, universities themselves also began playing a direct role in environmental affairs. In 1914, the federal Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension system. University-sponsored agents were soon spreading across the country to share the findings of agricultural research with farmers. In New York, Cornell Cooperative Extension agents taught farmers how to control erosion, protect drinking water supplies, and improve sanitation. The father of the national system was Cornell professor Liberty Hyde Bailey, who lead the "Country Life Movement" to improve rural living conditions.
Bailey was a prominent horticulturalist whose influence went far beyond his field. Another part of the Country Life Movement encouraged farm children to study the natural world around them, just as John Burroughs and Victor Shelford had done. Bailey brought John W. Spencer, a Chautauqua County fruit-grower and writer, to Cornell to organize Junior Naturalist Clubs. Pamphlets with titles like "How a Squash Plant Gets Out of Its Seed" and "A Childrens Garden" were soon being mailed from Cornell to schools all over the country. Ever since, Ithaca has been a national center for the nature education movement.
In 1914, Bailey wrote a small book called The Holy Earth that placed him squarely in the "biocentric" tradition. Bailey argued against abusing Gods creation and for a sense of "earth righteousness" in society, so that people would "put our dominion in the realm of morals. It is now in the realm of trade." The long-term success of this book persuaded millions of readers of the moral rights of nature. Forester Aldo Leopold acknowledged Baileys influence on his enormously influential moral argument for nature, A Sand County Almanac, which was released in 1948. The Holy Earth was also re-released in an inexpensive paperback edition in 1943 by the Christian Rural Fellowship, and was distributed worldwide.