America Matters Earth Day

What do you picture when you think of America’s National Parks and Forests? Many likely envision wild places teaming with hippies trying to become one with nature. These parks do attract outdoorsy types, but the truth is they are so much more. America’s public lands are a place for citizens of all kinds to escape the daily grind, they  protect our country’s most important historic sites, and act as stores of valuable natural resources.

How did America come to manage public lands in such a diversity of ways?

Concern surfaced between the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s about  noticeable changes to the American landscape and dwindling natural resources during the industrialization and rapid westward expansion . These concerns grew into the conservationist movement led by many prominent Americans including Ferdinand Hayden, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Roosevelt. While those in the movement all agreed that nature should be protected, they often clashed over the methods and goals of such protection.

Individuals like Hayden and Muir, rapt by the beauty and solitude of the western landscape, felt nature should be preserved for the sake of preserving nature. That is, the inherent value of wild and untouched wilderness was in and of itself enough to justify protecting land. Hayden, upon returning from the first successful geological survey of the area now known as Yellowstone National Park, was so concerned it would be damaged and degraded he convinced Congress and President Ulysses Grant to create America’s first national park in 1872.

Others in the movement, however, felt that forests should be conserved for the benefit and profit of Americans. Pinchot in particular, advocated for science- and economic-based methods of forestry to minimize waste and maximize yield of resources from forests and other lands. President  Roosevelt generally sided with this faction of the conservation movement, leading to Pinchot’s appointment as the first U.S. Chief Forester in 1905.

From these two opposing factions was born the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the National Park System (NPS), established in 1905 and 1916 respectively. Their missions and goals clearly reflect the beliefs and attitudes of these early conservationists:

The USFS manages “lands of many uses” with the mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” This means that a wide diversity of activities take place in National Forests including hiking, hunting, fishing, and extraction of resources such as minerals, trees, and water.

In contrast, the NPS “preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources … for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The main goal of the NPS is to keep America’s wilderness wild and protect national historic sites, including the White House. Therefore, while citizens can still enjoy and visit National Parks and Historic Sites, activities are usually more restricted than at National Forests.

Earth Day America Matters

Public lands are a uniquely American idea, and one that attracts millions of citizens and international visitors each year who come to use and enjoy these national treasures. Today, national public lands cover 278 million acres of American soil and contribute $45 billion to the U.S. economy. These numbers would surely be much higher if the lands managed by state, county, and city governments were also included. Because of the hard work of early conservationists, we now enjoy vast wildernesses and abundant resources like clean water.

Ken Burn’s fans will know that the NPS is often referred to as “America’s Best Idea,” after historian Wallace Stegner remarks that the national parks are “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

The duality of the USFS and NPS is also great example of how discussion and compromise, especially when we disagree, makes our nation stronger and benefits ALL Americans for many generations. Now more than ever, when it seems Americans are strongly divided, we should look to these early conservationists as an example of how to work together in unity. Imagine the magnitude of issues we could solve if we listened and compromised as was done to establish America’s public lands.  

On this Earth Day, let us appreciate Americans of previous generations who had the foresight, and willingness to compromise, to protect and manage public lands in such a way that hippies can commune with nature, families can enjoy summer campouts, hunters can bring home deer to eat, ranchers can graze their cattle, and companies can harvest trees.

Earth Day America MattersLog stacks along the forest road at sunny day

If you would like to know more about the USFS and NPS visit their websites at: