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Lessons from the Past

Old conservation models provide new insight into community-based land management.


In a recent seminar, a political scientist commented that when he was in graduate school in the late 1960s, the students read Marx. For an alternative viewpoint, they read Lenin. While his comment drew the anticipated guffaws, it also inspired his audience to consider the narrow scope of the ideas that inform discussions about natural resource conservation and management.

In environmental education and even in popular environmental discourse, we consult Pinchot. For an alternative viewpoint, we consult Muir. Although these environmentalists appear to have different priorities, both Muir and Pinchot consistently agree about many aspects of natural resources management.

When we focus on Pinchot and Muir, we typically fail to recognize that their opinions were actually a small part of the rigorous debate taking place in the 19th and early 20th centuries over resource management. Today, the frequently witless public and professional discourse about resource management may have its roots in this truncated spectrum of thought. As the 21st century fast closes in with a new set of environmental challenges, we would do well to broaden our perspective by extending the spectrum to include major conservationists overlooked or misrepresented by a Muir-Pinchot axis.


Gifford Pinchot and John Muir were fundamentally committed to federal ownership and management of resources. Both were convinced that local users of natural resources were greedy, ill-informed, and not to be trusted making decisions for what were inevitably national properties.

Gifford Pinchot is widely viewed as the founding father of the United States Forest Service, but his role in conservation is far broader. The privileged son in a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Pinchot enjoyed a brief but spectacular period of federal service. He became Chief of the Division of Forestry in 1898 and the most visible member of a group of scientific forestry advocates then establishing control over the forest reservations authorized in 1891. Pinchot became Theodore Roosevelt’s closest advisor and defined the Progressive era conservation movement.

The Progressive era proposed basing public decisions on science and establishing expert government agencies to conduct the public’s business impartially and according to principles of conservation that would prevent waste. For Pinchot it was an elemental aspect of conservation that "destruction of forests, injury of waterways, and waste of nonrenewable mineral resources" would "damage the general welfare" and were a "strong reason for government control."1

Pinchot was equally emphatic about berating large businesses and the evils they create when they dominate politics. "The conservation issue is a moral issue," he said. "For whose benefit shall our natural resources be conserved—for the benefit of us all, or for the use and profit of the few?" Pinchot argued that all monopoly is based on "the unregulated control of natural resources and natural advantages, and such control by the special interests is impossible without the help of politics."2

Explorer and naturalist John Muir was one of the few major figures in turn-of-the-century conservation who never held a federal position. During the last decades of the 19th century he wrote prolifically about America’s wildlands and influenced generations of preservationists with his impassioned pleas on behalf of nature, most especially the Yosemite Valley.

Muir was a firm believer in federal control, both of protected lands and of public forests. In an article written in 1897, he claimed:

All sorts of local laws and regulations have been tried and found wanting, and the costly lessons of our own experience, as well as that of every civilized nation, show conclusively that the fate of the remnant of our forests is in the hands of the federal government, and that if the remnant is to be saved at all, it must be saved quickly.3

Although he spoke disparagingly of wilderness tourism early in his career, Muir eventually came to support the kind of visitation necessary to achieving political support for park designations. While he clearly viewed tourists with contempt, he thought they were necessary to create a constituency for conservation.

Muir did not envision a role for local people in land management, however. "The dawn of a new day in forestry is breaking," he claimed, "and every acre that is left should be held together under the federal government as a basis for a general policy of administration for the public good."4

Muir vehemently denounced miners and loggers and was not pleased with Pinchot’s efforts to secure livestock operators’ support for transfer of the forest reserves to the Department of Agriculture by opening the reserves to sheep and cattle.

Early allies in the quest for federal land reservations, Muir and Pinchot had, by the end of the century, split bitterly.5 However, on the basic question of who ought to be in charge of the nation’s forests, neither wavered in his advocacy of federal control.


Long before federal conservation agencies existed in the United States, private groups formed to preserve properties that seemed valuable and threatened. Their experience demonstrates, among other things, that national treasures can be privately owned and privately managed without much assistance or support from the federal government.

One of the very earliest efforts to protect a national resource was initiated by a southern woman, Ann Pamela Cunningham. In 1853, Mount Vernon, the once stately home of the first president, was nearly in shambles. John Washington, a descendant of George Washington, owned the estate, but he did not have the capability or desire to maintain it.

Alerted to the plight of Mount Vernon by her mother—who suggested that the women of the United States might be better able to protect the homestead than the men had been—Cunningham built an organization to preserve the property. From the first, she envisioned it as a private campaign, allowing only as much government involvement as was legally necessary; her goal was to control the property, not just to cause it to be protected by others.

Beginning with a few members and $293, Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union in 1854. Influential newspaper editors and writers became interested in her cause and helped to spread the word by reprinting her articles and letters on the subject. The association rapidly grew from its southern base into a national organization that transcended the regional differences that were increasing as the Civil War neared. In 1858, John Washington agreed to sell Mount Vernon to the association. Two years later, in 1860, the property had been fully paid for, the association was out of debt, and repairs were well underway.

The association set up headquarters in the home and, under Cunningham’s leadership, established a caretaking regime that protected Mount Vernon during the Civil War and its aftermath. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association maintained itself throughout the bitter struggle as a national organization and was positioned to hold its first national meeting in 1866. During the ensuing decades, the Ladies’ Association grew in national stature.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association proved to be a model for future preservation efforts throughout the nation. The preservation of Valley Forge, the Hermitage, Monticello, and dozens of other historical sites was designed after the Mount Vernon experience, and many of the founders of the association became leaders in these efforts.6


John Wesley Powell was another conservationist who abjured federal management of natural resources. During the 1860s and 1870s, Powell led expeditions through the West to explore and map the uncharted regions. Such expeditions were a major element in the emergence of science as a basis for government policy, and Powell was among the first generation of scientists to assume leadership in the government agencies that blossomed after the Civil War. The expertise he gained in his travels allowed him, in March 1881, to assume the directorship of the U.S. Geological Survey. He served for 13 years, until he retired in 1894. Powell also served as director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology from 1880 until his death in 1902.

Powell’s best known work, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States with a More Detailed Account on the Lands of Utah (1878), combines detailed descriptions of the climate and geography of the western states with clear and original ideas for their organization and governance.

Powell was among the first to note that the arid West could not be settled in the same manner as the East and Midwest. In place of the largely unsupervised land grab that had characterized the pre-Civil War disposition of the public domain, Powell advocated orderly classification of the remaining territory into irrigable lands, timber lands, and pasture lands. He also advocated sufficient investment in the irrigable lands so as to make them successfully habitable by settlers. His priorities were to equitably distribute arable land and water and to protect and use the forests, grasslands, and mineral deposits.

Powell did not regard the magnitude of the looming tasks as an indication that they would require government control. He wanted government to make the disposition process orderly. However, control over the resources, in Powell’s vision, was to be lodged in the communities whose lives depended upon them. Building on the experience of both the Utes and the Mormons, Powell became a major architect of community-based resource development:

In the name of the men who labor, I demand that the laborers shall employ themselves, that the enterprise shall be controlled by the men who have the genius to organize, and whose homes are in the lands developed, and that the money shall be furnished by the people, and I say to the Government: Hands off!7

Powell suggested that the irrigable arid lands be divided into semiautonomous hydrographic districts, structured around local water sources. Communities sharing a common water source were to be entrusted with the responsibility of its use:

How these waters are to be caught and the common source of the wealth utilized by the individual settlers interested therein is a problem for the men of the district to solve, and for them alone.8

Powell recognized that the government had roles to play in the management of western lands. In Powell’s view, the federal government would be limited to a supportive administrative role. It would allocate land to the watershed districts; classify its use, and retain ownership only of nonirrigable lands. It would also be in charge of interstate allocations and litigation.

Most of the responsibilities were reserved, in his scheme, to locally chosen district governments. These local governments would establish courts for the adjudication of questions of resource use. They would establish and enforce protection measures for common and private property. They could also tax themselves as they wished or borrow money using district resources as collateral. Powell’s trust in the ability of citizens to manage local natural resources extended to capital management. "These district communities, he said, "will speedily understand how to attract capital by learning that honesty is the best policy."9 Powell believed that communities of local resource users, aided and supported by government institutions, would always be better equipped to manage their land than any federal bureaucrats.


Another conservationist and opponent of the growing federal programs in resource management was the founder of the Great Northern Railroad, James J. Hill. Hill believed in local control and sustainable use of natural resources. Hill’s position was quite different from most other conservationists and his emphasis was on free markets and responsible corporations.

Hill’s interest in conservation originated in concern for the nation’s food supply. Because his business was based on the transport of agricultural products, he was in a good position to observe fluctuations in the grain markets. Falling grain yields in the Great Plains sparked his concern for the nation’s agricultural policies, and by extension, for its use of water and land resources.

Like Powell, Hill believed that the federal government was the wrong body to manage natural resources. "The machine is too big and too distant," he said of the federal government, "its operation is slow, cumbrous and costly." Conservation, to Hill, did not mean absolute restriction of access to resources, but rather "the freest and largest development of [natural resources] consistent with the public interest and without waste." The resources, he believed, existed for the enjoyment and sustainable use of the people in the states.

Hill viewed agricultural land management as the premier issue of conservation; land mismanaged, he believed, might lie forever fallow, a tragic loss. Also an advocate of scientific inquiry, Hill used his sizable financial resources for agronomy research and dissemination of his findings to farmers. He believed that sound farming methods would both increase yields and conserve the quality of soil, ensuring that agricultural land would remain healthy and fertile.

He hired a university agronomy professor, Dr. Frederick Crane, to undertake soil analyses for farmers in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana. Using his own greenhouse as a laboratory, Hill paid farmers to cultivate experimental plots on their own land, following Dr. Crane’s instructions. The experimental plots were a tremendous success, yielding 60 to 90 percent more than the conventionally farmed acreage, and Hill became more convinced than ever of the importance of scientific farming and proper resource use.

Hill’s reputation as a conservationist grew over the years. In 1908, President Roosevelt invited him to a governor’s conference on conservation of natural resources, and appointed him to a lands commission. While Hill was never an enthusiastic commissioner, preferring action to discussion, he did make his views on conservation known. In a speech about natural resources management at the National Conservation Congress in St. Paul in 1910, Hill asked:

Shall we abandon everything to centralized authority, going the way of every lost and ruined government in the history of the world, or meet our personal duty by personal labor through the organs of local self-government, not yet wholly atrophied by disuse? Shall we permit the continued increase of public expenditure and public debt until capital and credit have suffered in the same conflict that overthrew prosperous and happy nations in the past, or insist upon a return to honest and practical economy? This is the battle of the ages.10


Aldo Leopold began his career as a supervisor in the Gila National Forest after the debates about the existence of both the federal reserves and the U.S. Forest Service had been resolved. Although he is widely lionized for efforts that led to the designation of the first Forest Service wilderness area, that was not a major element of his work or thought. His career is a monument to research as the basis for management legitimacy. But Leopold’s science was initially defined by his commitment to producing game species favored by hunters.11

The mature Leopold was considerably different. He left the Forest Service in midcareer; after many years in research, teaching, and working to restore a family property in the upper Midwest, he developed a completely different view of conservation priorities. He no longer favored federal programs that managed land to produce huntable deer and turkey. He came to believe that it was more important to preserve the diversity and interactions of an ecosystem.

Leopold’s mature years were characterized by a growing awareness that government ownership and management of resources were not an adequate basis for conservation.

Increasingly, Leopold realized that the answer to conservation challenges "if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner."12

His reliance on personal ethics has an element of the community-based thinking frequently associated with Powell and Cunningham. Leopold’s community, however, emphasizes the ecological community of soil, water, plants, and animals, a community of which humans are but a part. While he distrusted the motives and behavior of human participants in this larger community, noting that "they show little disposition to develop the only visible alternative: the voluntary practice of conservation on their own lands," he nonetheless asserted that "an ethical obligation on the part of private land owners is the only visible remedy." Leopold’s notion of a land ethic was simply stated, if difficult to put into operation: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of a biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."13


As the 20th century draws to a close, our commitment to centralized government management of public lands has become increasingly problematic. As the ecological permeability of ownership and political boundaries becomes increasingly an issue, federal budget limitations also make it apparent that the government is simply unable to protect or manage its holdings without local cooperation and involvement. It seems reasonable, then, to seek other models.

The fundamental tensions that exist in the conservation movement between local and national priority setting, and between individual and community experience and scientific expertise are reemerging to define the debate.

Today, local communities, long the stepchild of public resource management, are attempting to reverse nearly a century of Progressive era presumptions against local participation, with three kinds of assertions. First, as the beneficiaries of generations of experience dealing with drought and flood, they claim a knowledge superior to that of scientists who gather data in the field for a season or two and return home. Second, they claim an equal or superior right to make decisions affecting them, because they bear the heaviest consequences of those decisions. Third, and quite related, they claim that local, face-to-face dialogue about alternatives and consequences is democratic in a way that decisions made by outsiders can never be.14

National environmental groups reject most or all of those positions and tend to view local decision-making processes as antithetical to the national consensus that they claim to represent. From the 1960s through the 1980s, these groups argued against basing resource management on maintaining commodities and enhancing public participation. As a result they secured for themselves a major, if not dominant, place at the table. These same organizations are now hostile to beyond-the-beltway dialogue and have returned to the science fold. They now promote ecosystem management that would return them to their turn-of-the-century role as arbiters of conflict based on their claim to the "best science."

Yet another group in the debate over resource management—the economists—tends to ignore equity issues and embraces instead an entirely economic definition of efficiency. In the absence of scientific or political consensus, economic efficiency provides a standard for allocation that can be applied across the board to all resources, including those for which no effective market exists. To economists, essential elements of effective policy reform are incentives that discourage waste and subsidies and encourage efficiency. In their point of view, the more we rely on market mechanisms, the better our resource management will be.


While we are accustomed to thinking of Muir and Pinchot as defining the extreme ends of the conservation debate, in fact they do not encompass the possible solutions to current and pressing natural resource conservation problems even at the most basic level.

In an effort to find alternative approaches that might be more harmonious with current efforts of local groups to wrest some control over their environment, it may be time to take another look at conservation models that do not depend on federal ownership and management of public lands. Leopold, of course, deserves, and is receiving, newfound scrutiny. But Cunningham, Powell, and Hill also deserve a second reading for the insight they provide on community-based land management.n

Sally Fairfax and Lynn Huntsinger are professors in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California in Berkeley, California. Carmel Adelburg, a graduate of the College of Natural Resources, attends law school at the University of California, Davis.

1. Gifford Pinchot, Breaking New Ground (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947), p. 506.

2. Gifford Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation (New York: Doubleday,1910), p.133.

3. John Muir, Atlantic Monthly (80) (August, 1997), pp. 145-157.

4. Ibid.

5. The bitterness of the animosity that arose between the two is reflected by the fact that Muir, a major figure in the conservation movement, was excluded from the 1908 Conservation Conference held at the White House, for which Pinchot controlled the guest list.

6. Charles B. Hosmer, The Presence of the Past: A History of the Preservation Movement in the United States before Williamsburg (New York: Putnam, 1965), pp. 41-50. See also Edward P. Alexander, Ann Pamela Cunningham and Washington’s Mount Vernon: The Historic House Museum (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1983), pp. 179-204.

7. J.W. Powell, "Institutions for the Arid Lands," Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (40), pp. 111-116, 1890, quoted in Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell, George Crossette, ed. (Boston: David R. Godine,1970), p.45.

8. Ibid.

9. J.W. Powell, "Institutions for the Arid Lands," p. 48.

10. James J. Hill, Speech, St. Louis Missouri, September 9, 1910.

11. See Susan Flader’s Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1974).

12. Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballentine Books, 1974), p.138.

13. Ibid, pp. 250-251.

14. Kemmis, Daniel, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).

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