American Environmentalism: Values, Tactics, Priorities

By Joseph M. Petulla | Go to book overview

2
Traditions of Conservation

GIVEN the frenetic pace of American economic development, it is not surprising that individuals or cultural groups should rise to challenge what was considered to be the wanton destruction of the natural environment or at least the unseemly waste of natural resources.1 The leveling of forests hardly went unnoticed by those who loved, and came to need more and more, a walk in the woods and also by those leaders of the nation who were gripped by fear of timber famine. No one in colonial times denied that trees were often an obstacle to settlement; it was the speed of their demise that shocked great numbers of Americans and foreign travelers alike. Yet for a hundred years before and after the Revolution Americans were cutting down trees with increasingly efficient methods and tools. By the twentieth century, the gasoline engine and portable chain saws signaled the possibility of massive forest harvesting--and with it, complete destruction of a natural resource that at one time had seemed inexhaustible.

A score of travelers to the North American colonies during the 1700s had already complained about American waste of soil and land. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, marveled over how little care was given the soil. He wrote of "careless agricultural practices . . . owing to a slight respect for natural history." George Washington was embarrassed by the way his fellow farmers ("if they can be called farmers," he complained) treated the land, but he admitted that land was cheap

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1
J. M. Petulla, American Environmental History: The Exploitation and Conservation of Natural Resources ( San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser, 1977).

-24-

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