The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview
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XIX

Saving the Remnants of Our
National Resources -- Conservation

UNTIL THE LAST DECADE of the nineteenth century it was commonly thought that the chief duty of the Commissioner of the General Land Office was to parcel out the public domain as fast as possible. Now and then, of course, a lone voice proclaimed the need of conserving the nation's resources, but this advice was largely unheeded because Americans lived under the misguided idea that the assets of nature were unlimited in the richest nation on earth.

The first attempt to save some of nature's bounty for all the people was made in 1832, when Congress established a reservation of four sections in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. These sections contained a group of hot springs, and it was thought proper that the ownership of these curative waters should be retained by the public for the good of the people rather than pass into private hands for commercial exploitation. Another reserve was made -- for the preservation of wildlife and natural curiosities -- in the Yosemite Valley in California in 1864. Congress ceded this area, including the giant sequoias, to California on condition that it be maintained as a reserve by the state -- the Yosemite Grant. The words of the act as signed by Abraham Lincoln well state the purpose of the national park of later day: "The premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation . . . inalienable for all time." In 1890, after the development of the national park concept, Congress responded to the pleas of John Muir and other public-spirited naturalists by setting aside the Yosemite National Park, a large area of mountains and forest land completely surrounding the Yosemite Grant. The anomaly of a national park enclosing a state park, together with a degree of friction in administration, caused Congress in 1906

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