Origins of Conservation

By 1900, some American scientists, political leaders, and business elites were becoming concerned about the depletion of the nation's forest, soil, mineral, and water resources.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans tended to view their natural environment as something to be mastered and exploited.  This attitude not only encouraged the westward movement and the settlement of the nation from ocean to ocean; it also led to the free use of natural resources.

Prior to the rise of the conservation movement, Americans cut forests, leaving denuded landscapes in the wake of timbering operations. Farmers grew crops until the soil could no longer nourish them, used water resources freely without much thought to conservation or purity, and eagerly looked to the discovery and exploitation of mineral resources.

These traditions began to change as the nation industrialized and urbanized. As early as the late eighteenth century, planters such as George Washington were experimenting with crop rotation and trying to discover soil conservation and restoration techniques. By the nineteenth century, growing cities developed waterworks to supply clean water. Gradually some Americans were developing an awareness of the importance of the conservation of natural resources.

Conservation emerged as a form of applied science. Conservation leaders came from fields like forestry, agronomy, geology, and hydrology. Leaders from these scientific fields brought their expertise into federal resource policy, especially during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

The conservation movement of the early twentieth century was different from the environmental movement of the late twentieth century. The conservation movement arose at the beginning of the century, while the environmental movement arose after 1950. The conservation movement was also different than the preservation movement. Conservation involved the scientific planning of the use of natural resources, while preservation involved keeping natural areas pristine and wild.

Lumbering practices were an important concern of the conservation movement.

Conservation Timeline