When the enchanting notes of a wood thrush reached my ears as I woke up this morning, I smiled. Nice as it is to hear birdsong in our own woods and plant native trees on our own property, I wonder about mankind’s role in nature. Can we keep using our natural resources wisely and sustainably while at the same time protecting and treasuring our wild natural lands?
I take comfort in thinking about how two leading fathers of American conservation dealt with this problem. During the 1890s, America faced an environmental crisis similar in many ways to our situation today. Our country had nearly ended its westward expansion. Corporations bought up huge tracts of land for timber and mining. What was left of the unclaimed land set aside for farming and homesteading had become overrun with grazing cattle and sheep. Big game animals were a rarity, and our remaining forests were in real danger of destruction. Something had to be done.
In 1896 the National Academy of Sciences sent a team of commissioners on a four-month tour of the Western United States and asked for their recommendations. Among these commissioners were two young men, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.
Muir was a preservationist who believed forests were sacred and had to be protected from logging, grazing, and mining. Pinchot was a conservationist, believing that forests needed to be used, sustained, and managed as a natural resource. Despite their widely differing viewpoints, the two men befriended each other during this glorified camping trip, fishing together on Lake McDonald on land that would become Glacier National Park in Montana. Muir and Pinchot agreed that wild natural areas like Lake McDonald should be permanently protected.
The result of the Commission was a congressional bill that would preserve national wilderness areas, combined with a system of forests protected by the government but open to every American’s use. This bill failed to pass but ultimately led to the creation of the US Forest Service as a separate branch of government under the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot became the first chief of the US Forest Service in 1905 under President Grover Cleveland. With Pinchot’s guidance, America’s national forests were managed and cared for by the federal government. Timber was used like any other crop, not preserved as if in a museum.
Muir and his supporters believed the proposed Forest Service didn’t do enough to protect America’s pristine wild lands. They won a victory in 1899 when Mount Rainier in the state of Washington became a National Park. Muir, an avid writer and naturalist, went on to create the Sierra Club, an organization dedicated to preserving our nation’s wilderness areas.
Muir and Pinchot’s friendship fell out in 1908, when the City of San Francisco was granted the authority to dam the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy valley, located in the heart of Yosemite National Park in California. The city needed the dam to provide water for its growing population. Pinchot lobbied in Washington, D.C. for the dam’s use. Meanwhile, Muir wrote fiery articles from the state of Washington in Harper’s Weekly and Atlantic magazines condemning the destruction of public lands. Pinchot won out and the dam was built in 1913.
Today the US Forest Service and the National Park Service combine the legacies of tree-loving preservationists and user-friendly conservationists. On US Forest Service Land, the interests of lumber and mining companies are balanced along with recreational use by hunters, hikers, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, in line with Gifford Pinchot’s thinking. The National Park Service follows John Muir’s preservation theory, protecting natural wonders like Sequoia trees for all to enjoy.
I can picture Muir and Pinchot in my mind, fishing companionably together. And I can also think of them seated by a campfire on the lake shore, heatedly discussing things late into the night. The same tension and tug-of-war between viewpoints continues to play out today, but I hold out hope that we can continue to listen to and respect each other, to seek out the common ground that supports a path to preserve and protect nature and still respect and encourage wise use of our natural resources.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer