Roots Of Conservation

Early on, the U.S. conservation movement was rooted in a growing recognition of the impact of forest destruction after European contact in the 1600s, when much of the continent was heavily wooded. The establishment of the U.S. Department of the Interior, in 1849, to oversee natural resources on federal lands suggests rising consciousness across the country about how to handle the settlement of western lands, with peripheral concern for the future of the environment. Congressional approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1862, recognized the importance of the government's role in educating farmers about best practices to make their land use operations more profitable; these best practices emerged during the first part of the 20th century as conservation techniques to increase production, preserve soil, and improve water quality.

Logging and mining intensified tremendously during the 1850s and 1860s. Farmers deforested land for market-oriented production to serve the burgeoning urban population. Increasing industrialization demanded timber for railroad ties, coalmine supports, and housing for workers. Federal land sales at bargain-basement prices to corporate interests and land speculators spurred the rapid spread of people across the land, often in company with poor land-use practices. In the widely accepted view of citizens and policymakers, little, if any, value was placed on land in its natural state, so cheap land became a subsidy for natural-resource-based industries that were building national and international markets for their commodities.

Few loggers thought about resource depletion, much less conservation; the supply of wood seemed unlimited. Loggers adopted "cut and run" practices, leaving vast tracts of unused wood to dry out. As a result, huge forest fires destroyed remaining forests and nearby towns. For example, the 1871 forest fire near Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killed about 1,500 people and burned 1.3 million acres. Across the south, forest fires preceded farming as a way of clearing the land. Fires and poor logging practices exposed the forest floor, which eroded, silting and killing waterways and contributing to widespread flooding. Communities were left impoverished as loggers moved from state to state, in search of new forests.

In Europe, regenerative forest practices emerged, in Germany in the 1750s, to counter widespread deforestation that had occurred over centuries. The abundance of forest in the United States slowed the adoption of these conservative practices here until several reports published during the 1860s and 1870s pointed out the risks of natural resource depletion, especially in the nation's forests. The scientific basis for conservation began to emerge in the United States, with the growing recognition that widespread clear-cutting not only threatened future supplies of wood, but also damaged watersheds.

Destruction from poor farming practices matched the damage from over-cutting of timber. Repeated cultivation of tobacco depleted the rich soils of the Virginia Piedmont during the 1700s, followed later by other areas of the south leached by cotton. Throughout the country, thousands of tons of top-soil were blown or washed away from poorly managed farms. The soil fouled streams, caused flooding, and killed wildlife. The worst example of wind erosion occurred during the prolonged drought of the mid-1930s, when the Dust Bowl clouded skies across the country with precious soils stripped from the midwestern wheat belt.

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