Chapter Five – Conservation and Preservation
Part of figuring out what a National Park should be, and how America should treat all its wild places and its natural resources, required figuring out both conservation and preservation.
They are not the same thing.
“Conservation” means using natural resources wisely.
“Preservation” means leaving nature just as it is.
It didn’t have to be one or the other, but America had to decide how much of each it wanted, and which was more important.
For President Roosevelt, “conservation” was the very most important. The country was growing, and needed farms to feed people, and timber, metal and coal to build and fuel the nation.
“Conservation” meant making wise decisions about how to use our natural resources to get those things.
“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the nature resources of our land,” he said in a speech, “but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
A farmer would be a poor father if he ruined the farmland he should one day pass on to his children, the president said. The nation must also take good care of its natural resources and, like the farmer, make a living, but also make good choices for the future.
And the government should help, for the good of the entire nation. That might mean building a dam so that the water from melting snow would not run straight from the mountains to the ocean each spring.
With a dam, there could be water all year long for farmers’ crops and so that growing cities would have drinking water. A conservationist would try to place that dam where it would do the least harm, but that might still mean flooding a beautiful canyon, which would make preservationists angry.
Conserving water also meant not carelessly cutting trees, because cutting down too many trees caused erosion, and it also harmed the water supply.
Forests held water in their thick, deep soil, not just for the plants and animals there, but, as it slowly trickled through the soil, into creeks and then into rivers, for everyone further downhill.
A preservationist would want to leave the forest just as it was, and would be upset with any cutting.
A conservationist, however, would want people to have lumber to build with and so there could be paper for books, magazines and newspapers. A conservationist would want to be careful how many trees were cut, and how they were removed, so the forest would not be damaged more than was necessary.
However, when it came to foolish, wasteful use of natural resources, the conservationists and preservationists stood together.
In fact, just a month before he traveled with his fellow birdwatcher, John Burroughs, to Yellowstone, President Roosevelt had made one of the biggest moves ever for preservation.
In the late 1800s, elegant plumes became very popular for women’s hats. The hats were beautiful, but the plumes came from egrets and other birds, and the more popular the hats became, the more birds were killed.
Soon, bird lovers became extremely upset and some even formed a club, with the support and approval of Theodore Roosevelt, to help protect the birds. They named their club after the famous painter of birds, John J. Audubon, and the Audubon Society began to campaign for laws to protect the beautiful egrets and other plumed birds.
One of the places where plume hunters were killing birds was on Pelican Island in Florida, and a group of bird lovers came to visit Roosevelt at the White House. They wanted more protection for the island’s birds, but worried that it would take too long to pass a law, and that some in Congress would object to the idea.
Roosevelt listened carefully, then turned to one of his advisers.
“Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation?” he asked. The island was already owned by the government, so the adviser answered that there was nothing standing in Roosevelt’s way.
“Very well then,” Roosevelt said, “I so declare it!”
Pelican Island became the nation’s first national wildlife refuge. Later, Roosevelt would “so declare it” 50 more times to protect birds with national refuges.
Roosevelt was also interested in preserving places like Mesa Verde in Colorado, where ancient dwellings were being damaged by souvenir hunters and those who wanted to take away the pottery and other artifacts to sell.
He worried, too, about the Grand Canyon, where greedy companies were building hotels right on the edge of the canyon, ruining the natural views, and others even talked about digging mines.
After the trip to Yellowstone, Roosevelt would let John Burroughs go back to New York, but he would travel on. He went to see the Grand Canyon, and also visited John Muir in California’s Yosemite Valley, which was a state park at the time.
Muir was a preservationist and he often disagreed strongly with Roosevelt, the conservationist. But they spent three pleasant days camping and the president once more made sure they went nearly alone, without reporters and others, so they could enjoy the quiet of nature.
Later, he would help make Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks, as well as pass the Antiquities Act, which helped to preserve Mesa Verde and several other important historic and scientific areas.
Next: The Circle of Life.
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson; illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin
Project funded by the New York State United Teachers, New York Newspapers Foundation and the Wyoming Press Association.
Anyone interested in the corresponding curriculum guide, audio podcasts, graphic organizers and student contest, visit www.nynpa.com/nie/nieserial.html.