History is of use. Knowing what has happened in the past is essential for taking intelligent action that will shape the future for the better. This is true of any field of human endeavor, but it is particularly true of conservation. Many of its enthusiasts are well-intentioned but ignorant of the work and research that has gone on before. Now the Ronald Press in New York has published Origins of American Conservation ($4.50), edited by Henry Clepper of the Society of American Foresters, a book that should give anyone interested in the field a good grasp of the basic history. Various authorities, such as Richard H. Stroud of the Sport Fishing Institute, Clarence P. Idyll of the Institute of Marine Science at Miami and James B. Trefethen of the Wildlife Management Institute, offer concise sketches of developments in the major fields of natural resources.
America's historical record in resource use is not a good one. We grew rich in the past at the risk of impoverishing the future. The myth was that our riches were inexhaustible, and catch phrases coined in the early days of settlement—"rivers teeming with salmon," "endless forests" and "uncounted buffalo"—haunt us today. It was not until the late 19th century that some Americans began to realize that resources could be wiped out, land depleted and streams ruined.
Conservation in the United States owes its impetus to perceptive citizens, not to state or government officials. The father of the movement was George Perkins Marsh, a Vermonter, whose book Man and Nature, published in 1864, stressed the vital function of forests as checks against erosion and flood control. Other scientists followed his lead, often in cooperation with sportsmen who had seen the ravages firsthand. Spencer Fullerton Baird led the U.S. Fish Commission in the 1870s. A. K. Fisher and C. Hart Merriam advocated laws for bird protection. Out of their efforts grew what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A gifted forester, Gifford Pinchot, got the ear of Theodore Roosevelt, and Roosevelt made conservation part of the national vocabulary. As the movement got under way, there were new leaders and new thinkers, such as Dr. Hugh H. Bennett, articulate and persuasive, who alerted the people and Congress to the dangers of soil erosion.
Today, thanks to the efforts of the Fishers, Marshes, Bairds, Pinchots, Merriams and Bennetts, conservation has become a major public concern. Origins is a stimulating and informative guide that puts it all in perspective and gives the reader hope.