A basic example of the ecological principle that one thing always leads to another—and often to something worse—is the impact of human development on the continental water system. When the first Europeans arrived, a man could bend down at almost any spring, lake or river and take a safe, satisfying drink. This began to change as permanent settlements were made and men began releasing their wastes and toxins into the natural water system. As the settlements moved westward, so did water pollution and related problems. As the forests were cut, underbrush cleared and swamps drained, the natural drainage patterns were altered. Massive erosion of topsoil began. Water was retained less easily in the land and for shorter periods of time. Natural reservoirs shrank and in places springs and streams began to go dry. Rivers, lakes and bays began receiving more runoff than they could accommodate. They became turgid, silted, fouled with natural debris and human waste and in consequence more likely to flood. These changes affected the fertility of the land and the interrelationship of flora and fauna.
Two hundred years after the first settlements, water pollution was general. It was found in the metropolises and on backwoods farms. Bad-water diseases—typhoid, dysentery, all manner of fevers and fluxes—were of epidemic proportions. Floods on the order of that which destroyed Johnstown, Pa. were frequent. Erosion, leaching and desiccation of the land were well advanced and would within the next 50 years lead to the greatest single environmental calamity Americans have known—the creation of the Midwest dust bowl.
Increasingly we tried to correct these water problems by turning to technological fixes: deeper wells and bigger dams, more powerful pumps, more intricate sewage systems, reservoirs, irrigation and drainage ditches. These solutions worked to a degree, but often created new problems, and all required increasingly larger investments of other resources, for example, fuels. Also, the more we manipulated the old water patterns, the more they were altered and the more we had to manipulate. Today water management is one of our most expensive and critical national chores, one that we can never neglect or abandon without immediately and dramatically altering the quality of American life. With water management we have a classic tiger by the tail.
By the later decades of the 19th century the end of the American frontier had been reached, and the old method of exploiting the easiest available resources—making a big mess and escaping the consequences by moving on to virgin lands—was no longer possible. Thereafter all our land would be to some degree used land, and our resources would have to be conserved forever. However, the frontier use-and-move ethic was still strong, and our techniques for protecting the environment were relatively primitive. Turn-of-the-century Americans, citizens of the "good old days," probably suffered more from what is now called poor environmental quality than any before or since.
Bad water was only one of many ecological problems. Rapid and ruthless timbering had left behind scarred landscapes and great piles of tinder-like debris in what had been the northern forest belt. By the last half of the 19th century, enormous and frightening fires were sweeping through the north woods, burning in New England, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota for months at a time, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property and taking not a few lives.
Coal and wood were our principal fuels. In the cities and towns, stacks continuously emitted heavy, greasy clouds of smoke and soot. Afflictions traceable to polluted air and industrial and commercial toxins included black lung, miner's asthma, brass founder's ague, hatter's shakes, file cutter's paralysis and mule spinner's cancer, to say nothing of such non-vocational plagues as bronchitis and asthma. On a per capita basis we were perhaps not creating quite so much solid waste as we are now, but in general, facilities for disposing of it were poor.
A 19th century report dealing with this problem in New York City reads in part, "Domestic garbage and filth of every kind is thrown into the streets, covering their surface, filling the gutters, obstructing the sewer culverts and sending forth perennial emanations which must generate disease. In winter the filth and garbage accumulate in the streets to the depth sometimes of two or three feet." In the countryside, by habit and out of necessity, all manner of ugly and toxic junk was simply piled on the nearest piece of empty ground or else dumped into convenient ravines, gorges and rivers.
In what was left of the wilderness, lumbermen, miners, farmers, ranchers and other exploitative tradesmen had little thought for ecological consequences or esthetic losses as they appropriated natural resources by the quickest and most immediately profitable methods. The most numerous large mammal on the continent, the buffalo, seemed headed for extinction, and the most numerous of all birds, the passenger pigeon, became extinct in 1914. At the turn of the century more species of American flora and fauna were endangered than ever before or since.
Perhaps the best thing about this terrible time was that the quality of the environment was so bad that it forced us to start looking seriously at our ecological situation. Fortuitously, a forceful group of conservation activists—most notably Theodore Roosevelt and his brilliant forester-guru, Gifford Pinchot—gained political power and began to force Americans to face up to the environmental problems. Calls for reform were bitterly resisted in many places, especially in the West, which remained close to the frontier in space and spirit. There Roosevelt, Pinchot and their supporters were despised as "radical conservationists," accused of trying to subvert the constitutional and even God-given rights of Americans to do to nature whatever they damn well pleased. Despite this kicking and screaming, human and natural history were on the side of the conservationists. Gradually they created a complex of national agencies (and often their counterparts in the states) charged with conserving some of the more obvious of our resources and investigating our more pressing ecological problems. The Forest Service was created in 1905 and was followed by the Inland Waterways Commission (1907), the National Park Service (1916), the Federal Power Commission (1920), the Soil Conservation Service (1935) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (1940).
A group of private conservation organizations came into existence to promote their own projects and to serve as watchdogs on the activities of public agencies. Among them were: the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876), the Boone and Crockett Club (1887), the Sierra Club (1892), the National Audubon Society (1905), the Izaak Walton League (1922), the Wilderness Society (1935) and the National Wildlife Federation (1936). Such organizations are now sometimes referred to a bit contemptuously as "old-line conservation groups," but they have been of enormous influence in creating the current environmental movement and they are perhaps the most powerful political and economic bloc within it.