Looking Backward to See Ahead: The Evolution of Environmental Politics and Policy, 1890-1998

By Lester, James P. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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Looking Backward to See Ahead: The Evolution of Environmental Politics and Policy, 1890-1998

Lester, James P., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Sir Winston Churchill once reminded us that "the further backward we can look, the better we can see ahead." This statement is as true in the environmental arena as it is in the more traditional field of history. Environmental politics, policies, and outcomes lie within the realm of conscious and collective human choice.(1) Thus, the intelligence with which such choices are made can be improved by a better understanding of the major actors and environmental issues that have brought us to where we are today.

The history of environmental politics and policy in the United States can be conveniently divided into four periods: the conservation movement from 1890 to 1920, the preservation movement from 1920 to 1960, the environmental movement from 1960 to 1990, and the contemporary period from 1990 to the present.(2)


There were, of course, attempts to protect the environment before 1890. For example, during the first part of the 19th century, the federal government took a number of actions to preserve good mast timber for ships, and President John Quincy Adams' administration even went so far as to establish a management program on forest reservations in 1827.(3) With the exception of the Adams administration, however, no other political administration from Washington to Buchanan showed any foresight in planning for the nation's future needs.(4) In fact, there was not really much effort at all for environmental protection until some time after the Civil War.

The years between 1865 and 1890 are perhaps best characterized as a period of resource exploitation as natural resources were subordinated to the political objectives of industrial development, removal of Native Americans from their lands, homestead settlement, and the promotion of free enterprise.(5) During the reconstruction era after the Civil War, the nation concentrated on rebuilding the South and developing the West. Managers, entrepreneurs, and engineers were more concerned with using resources than with conserving them. By the late 1800s, however, a few political leaders and their advisers began to recognize the need to protect the nation's vast natural resource wealth.


According to historian Samuel P. Hays, "The modern American conservation movement grew out of the firsthand experience of federal administrators and political leaders with problems of Western economic growth, especially Western water development."(6) During the years from 1890 to 1920, rational planning to promote efficient development and use of all natural resources was the essence of the conservation movement.(7)

In the late 1800s, a number of notable federal employees - including W.J. McGee, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, Frederick Newell, and George Maxwell - decided that something needed to be done about conserving natural resources. Together, they formulated four doctrines that later became the creed of the conservation movement:

* Conservation is not the locking up of resources; it is their development and wise use.

* Conservation is the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.

* Federal public lands belong to all the people.

* Comprehensive, multiple-purpose river-basin planning should be used in developing the nation's rivers.(8)

With these doctrines as their guide, federal forestry officials joined hydrographers and campaigned for more rational and efficient use of timber resources. During the 1890s, the organized forestry movement in the United States shifted its emphasis from saving trees to promoting sustained-yield forest management.(9) By 1891, the federal government began setting aside forest reserves within the federal domain, and it authorized selective cutting and marketing of timber in 1897.(10)

Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester of the Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, was an important link between the intellectual and scientific founders of the conservation movement and the president.

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Looking Backward to See Ahead: The Evolution of Environmental Politics and Policy, 1890-1998


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