Resources 1984 – F. Emergence of a National Conservation Philosophy

Historic Resource Study, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 1984

VI. Steps Leading Toward Establishment of Crater Lake National Park

F. Emergence of a National Conservation Philosophy

By 1864 three scientific thinkers–Henry David Thoreau, the Massachusetts naturalist-poet-philosopher; George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont lawyer and scholar; and Frederick Law Olmsted, a Connecticut man who was superintendent of the Central Park project in New York City–had intelligently and cogently advocated the need for conservation and the preservation of natural resources. Their writings were the foundation upon which all subsequent conservation proponents built their arguments. Olmsted, in particular, was interested in the concept of great “public parks” and was responsible for launching a movement to combat the ongoing commercial exploitation of Yosemite Valley, whose giant sequoias were being senselessly cut. As a result of strong pressure exerted on Congress by a handful of men to preserve the valley and at least one grove of trees (both of which were on federal property), the federal government passed a law in 1864 signed by President Abraham Lincoln that granted Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the state of California. This was the first time that any government had set aside public lands purely for the preservation of scenic values–a true landmark in conservation history even though it had resulted in creation of a state park rather than a truly “national” one. [10]

The “public park” idea involving preservation of important natural features and their management for the benefit of the people circulated widely throughout the East and Midwest between 1864 and 1879. In 1870 the Washburn-Langford-Doane exploring expedition to Yellowstone returned, its members awestruck by the geysers, hot springs, and other thermal features of the area. They had been so impressed, in fact, that it had been tacitly decided among the group that there should be no private ownership of any part of the region, but that instead it should be set aside as a national park. Another expedition to the same place in 1871, led by United States Geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, accompanied by a group of scientists, photographer William H. Jackson, and the two artists Thomas Moran and Henry Elliott, surveyed the area and later published detailed geological and descriptive reports in the form of a government document. It and earlier published reports on the wonders of Yellowstone were accorded considerable publicity in the daily newspapers and in magazines, and an enthusiastic public also suggested that Yellowstone should be kept in the public domain. As President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Park bill into law on March 1, 1872, its importance derived from the fact that this still unfamiliar concept of a public park had now been introduced on the national level; because Yellowstone was located in the Territory of Wyoming, the park was under the immediate administration of the federal government, not of a state. A precedent had now been set for areas to be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement . . . and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The Yellowstone Park Act also empowered the secretary of the interior to provide for the “preservation from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.” He was also directed to protect fish and game from wanton destruction. [11]

Meanwhile, wholesale devastation of timber reserves continued. In 1876 the position of forestry agent in the United States Department of Agriculture was established to investigate timber consumption and problems involved in trying to preserve forested lands. Other federal employees were also working to awaken public interest in the natural resources of the West. Important at this time was the work of Hayden’s Geological and Geographical Surveys of the Territories of the United States and John Wesley Powell’s United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, plus that of Lt. George Wheeler’s Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian. These three survey units not only set high standards for scientific work, but also contributed toward the appreciation by the general public of the diversified character of the Far West. These three groups were ultimately incorporated in 1879 into a single organization known as the United States Geological Survey, under the Department of the Interior, which was authorized to conduct all surveys of a scientific character performed by the federal government. A further milestone in this year was reached when Congress gave the president power to reserve forests from sale, an authority Grover Cleveland later exercised to greatly benefit Crater Lake. Because there was no provision for managing or protecting these reserves, however, fire and theft continued to take their toll. [12]


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