12 A. Emergence of a National Conservation Ethic

Crater Lake National Park: Administrative History by Harlan D. Unrau and Stephen Mark, 1987


CHAPTER THREE: Crater Lake Administered By The General Land Office As Part Of The Cascade Range Forest Reserve: 1893-1902


The debate over establishment of Crater Lake National Park was part of a larger movement for preservation of natural resources then going on in the United States. By 1864 three scientific thinkers–Henry David Thoreau, the Massachusetts naturalist-poet-philosopher; George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont lawyer and scholar; and Frederick Law Olmstead, superintendent of the Central Park project in New York City–had articulated the need for conservation and the preservation of our country’s natural resources from exploitation by business and settlement. Their writings were the foundation upon which all subsequent conservation proponents built their arguments. Olmstead, in particular, advocated the concept of great “public parks” and was responsible for launching a movement to preserve the giant sequoias in Yosemite Valley from commercial exploitation. As a result of pressure exerted on Congress a law was passed in 1864 that granted Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the State of California as a state park. This was the first time that any government had set aside public lands purely for the preservation of scenic values. [1]

The “public park” concept involving preservation of important natural features and their management for the benefit of the people circulated throughout the East and Midwest from the mid-1860s onward. As a result of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition in 1870 and another expedition led by U.S. Geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden the following year, pressure mounted that Yellowstone should be preserved. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Park bill into law, thus establishing our first national park by virtue of the fact that it was located in Wyoming Territory and hence under the immediate administration of the federal government. A precedent had been established to reserve and withdraw areas from settlement and set them apart as public parks for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The Yellowstone Park Act empowered the Secretary of the Interior to protect fish and game from wanton destruction and provide for the preservation and retention in their natural condition of timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, and scenic wonders within the park. [2]

Meanwhile; wholesale devastation of timber reserves in the West continued. In 1876 the position of forestry agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture was established to study the twin problems of timber consumption and preservation of forest lands. Other federal efforts that contributed toward awakening public interest in the diversified natural resources of the West were Hayden’s Geological and Geographical Surveys of the Territories of the United States, John Wesley Powell’s United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, and Lieutenant George Wheeler’s Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian. In 1879 these three groups were incorporated into the United States Geological Survey and placed under the Department of the Interior with authorization to conduct all scientific surveys performed by the federal government. [3]

During the 1870s and 1880s a group of intellectuals, including scientists, naturalists, landscape architects, foresters, geologists, and editors of national periodicals, refined the basic concepts of conservation. Through their writings and leadership they made progress in reversing the traditional American attitude toward the utilization of natural resources. One of the most articulate and widely read spokesman for conservation and the national park idea was John Muir, a well-educated Scotsman who campaigned for the preservation of the wilderness and federal control of the forests in the West. His chief concerns were the waste and destruction of forests by lumbermen, cattle grazing, and sheepherding. [4]

As a result of Muir’s campaigning, three national parks–Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant–were established to preserve the Sierra forests from timbering excesses and overgrazing. The establishing legislation for these parks passed Congress with little debate, primarily as a result of the fact that “scenic nationalism” and “monumentalism” were not in conflict with “materialism” in these areas by 1890. [5]