“The Giveaway Era”

During the 1800s and the early 1900s, the land and natural resource policies of the United States were essentially “giveaway” programs designed to increase Westward expansion and build the wealth of the U.S. by extracting its seemingly limitless natural resources. Much sooner than anticipated, policymakers began to recognize that the land and resource give away programs had subsidized the widespread “settling” of the wilderness and if continued, these programs would quickly lead to the spoilage and privatization of precious national treasures and valuable public lands. Beginning in the late 1800s a new land ethic began to emerge in the policy decisions regarding public lands and natural resources: conservation of resources for future generations.

The rise of the Conservation Movement


A number of the giveaway era laws were repealed and Congress began passing land management laws that demonstrated this change of policy. The Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 set forth a policy of conservation and best use practices for the Western United States. Championed by Theodore Roosevelt, the act created what would become the Bureau of Reclamation and established an ethic of retaining the West’s waters for irrigation agriculture and human development. A year later, Theodore Roosevelt visited the vast lands of the West he had heard so much about. On his way to tour Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks with Sierra Club founder John Muir, Roosevelt stopped at the Grand Canyon, addressing a crowd: “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

Five years later, Teddy Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument. Although he felt a connection and appreciation for wilderness land, Roosevelt believed that successful western development depended on conservation of natural resources by wise-use, achieving the maximum possible benefit for mankind from them. In 1913, at the urging of the U.S. Forest Service leader Gifford Pinchot and despite outcries from the Sierra Club, Roosevelt signed approval to build a dam on the Tuolomne River, flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. When the Sierra Club, led by John Muir, lost the battle to save Hetch Hetchy, the club declared that they would not let any other nationally preserved lands be touched by similar development.

“You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

Teddy Roosevelt

The Echo Park Victory and the Damming of Glen Canyon

Echo park

The Sierra Club fought and stopped a proposal to dam the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument as part of the Colorado River Storage Project in the early 1950’s. The alternative to the Echo Park and Split Mountain Dams accepted by the Sierra Club was a 710 foot dam in Glen Canyon on the Colorado River. After the passage of the CRSP in 1956, David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said Glen Canyon Dam would become “America’s most regretted environmental mistake.” A strong fight was mounted against the construction of the dam, but it was too late. The damming of Glen Canyon became a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. When proposals were brought forth to dam Marble and Grand Canyons soon afterwards, the Sierra Club doubled its efforts to stop the dams in a brilliant organizational effort that banded Americans together to save their national treasures and included ads in the New York Times. The actions of the Sierra Club moved environmental efforts to the front of media attention, helping to change the public perception of environmental groups from fringe organizations to a major political force.

A resistance to governmental thinking was growing amongst groups other than environmentalists at the same time. In 1960, the Multiple Use/Sustained Yield Act was passed stating that the Secretary of Agriculture must manage the renewable surface resources of the national forests for the needs of the American public. This meant cooperating with interested state and local governmental agencies and others in developing and managing the national forests. States began looking forward to finally managing their own public lands that had been under federal control since they had joined the Union. The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act dashed those hopes, declaring that public lands would remain in federal ownership in perpetuity. This was the final straw to formalize the Sagebrush Rebellion that had been rising as resistance to government management of public lands spread throughout the West. Ranchers, loggers, miners, and others using the BLM managed lands felt that their public lands would be better managed in state domain. Several western states boldly passed legislation to reclaim millions of acres of public lands within their respective borders. Photo: Echo Park by Martin Litton

The rise of the Modern Environmental Movement

The 1960s in America had marked a decade of social change; women’s rights, racial equality and the environmental movement all came to the forefront as citizens demanded reform in the way society viewed those issues. Although the Vietnam War is not listed in any Environmental Movement timeline, it contributed to the mistrust in government that still exists today among many citizens. This citizen mistrust led to the end of accepting governmental action automatically as the best solution and to increased public vigilance of land management decisions and much more public involvement in the decision-making of governmental agencies.

The 1970s marked the passage of a large body of legislation aimed at environmental quality, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Providing various procedural and substantive protection for natural resources, the legislation passed in the 1970s provided new means for checking damaging actions to the environment caused by industry and governmental actions.

The Carter administration and Congress placed vast tracts of land in parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and other categories that banned or inhibited commercial development. Although later administrations have more or less supported preservation and conservation, public pressures have kept the environment in the forefront of politics as economic development continues to apply pressure on the natural resources of the country. News of global warming followed by a drought period and unusually high temperatures in the late 80’s created a particularly large resurgence in environmental concern amongst media and the public. The advent of the internet as a communications tool has increased the availability of information about environmental issues as we become more aware of the implications of our actions as a society.

One of the major remaining roadblocks to comprehensive and progressive environmental protection is the division of environmental issues along political lines. Every time the balance of power shifts to the other major political party, a lot of time seems to be spent undoing the progress accomplished by the previous administration.

History of the Environmental Movement in the US — Timeline


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