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Both utilitarian and ecological conservation grew from our wilderness problems. Esthetic conservation—what might be called nature appreciation—grew from our pleasures. Once they began to get around with more ease and security, some early settlers began to note that here and there the wilderness was beautiful. A traveler would struggle up to some especially scenic prospect, stop to take a rest and, as certain old journals and letters indicate, say, in effect, "Ain't nature grand."
In time this America the Beautiful theme was embroidered with a fancier notion—that the wilderness was not only pretty but was good for a man in spiritual ways. This idea—that the primitive and the wild refreshed and purified civilized man—was largely of European origin, being particularly popular among romantic poets and philosophers of the Rousseau-Wordsworth kind. However, it had immediate appeal for certain members of the American intelligentsia, who tended to be self-conscious about the cultural superiority of Europe. In the United States we might not yet have museums, galleries and salons to match those of the Old World, but we had wilderness from hell to breakfast. Wilderness values and virtues were plugged by a long, distinguished line of Americans: Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, John Audubon, George Catlin, Walt Whitman, John Burroughs, John Muir and, above all, by Henry David Thoreau, who in 1851 delivered himself of the opinion that "in Wilderness is the preservation of the World."
So articulate were many of those who promoted the restorative qualities of the wilderness that we frequently assume they were in the majority. In fact, they were always a very small, if elite, minority. We may remember Thoreau's ringing words, but a more prosaic message from Andrew Jackson perhaps better represents the American consensus of the mid-19th century. Asked Old Hickory rhetorically, "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute."
By and large the Americans closest to the wilderness liked it least—an observation, among many others, made by Alexis de Tocqueville. Being all afire to see some of the fabled New World wild lands, de Tocqueville took himself off to Michigan in 1831. He was a bit surprised by what he found there. "In Europe people talk a great deal about the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them; they are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet.... [They] march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature."
De Tocqueville stretched the point in claiming no Americans were sensitive to the wonder of inanimate nature. Some were supersensitive, but they were not found among the Michigan pioneer classes. They were, in contrast, the most privileged in terms of education, affluence and leisure time. As a rule they came to the wilderness as de Tocqueville did, as tourists. They traveled with conveniences and stayed briefly. They returned to comfortable dens and libraries to contemplate their experiences. Understandably, they usually had a higher opinion of the wild than did men who were trying to clear enough swampy forest to support a family and who could leave the wilderness only by subduing it.
Wilderness lovers and appreciators of nature may never have been numerous, but they were and are articulate and persuasive. Not surprisingly, they were instrumental in founding the "old-line" conservation organizations that were formed at the turn of the century as nostalgia for the vanishing wilderness became more fashionable and our real environmental problems more obvious. As a rule, they promoted preservationist projects—saving natural phenomena, spectacular beauty spots, natural recreational or historic areas, rare and interesting non-utilitarian species of plants and animals.
Because they had time for club work and had money to support private causes and social and political connections, esthetic conservationists have been notably successful in shaping national policies and attitudes. On the other hand, because they have often thwarted conventional development schemes—building a road, dam or shopping center—and because of the kind of people they tend to be (rich, well educated, sophisticated, liberal), esthetic conservationists are largely responsible for the charges that environmentalism is an elitist preoccupation. Whether this is true and whether, if true, it is fortunate or shameful, is another matter. But the perception that they represent privileged interests has traditionally been a handicap for environmentalists.
By 1940 three major environmental themes had emerged:
There was general agreement that utilitarian conservation was necessary, though there was disagreement as to how our resources should be saved and who should be in charge of saving them.
We had become alarmed by our ecological problems and the prospects of worse ones. In response, some environmental management techniques had been developed and at least a foundation of national conservation law had been established.