The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920


Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Phil Birge-Liberman

Concern over the sustainable use of natural resources did not begin with the first Earth Day in 1970. The term ‘sustainable’ connotes the use of resources to meet present needs without compromising the needs of the future. It is the use of resources that distinguishes conservation from preservation. Conservationists promote the sustainable use of a forest, while preservationists prefer the complete protection of that same forest, free from human disturbance. In order to understand how conservation has shaped environmental policy, one needs to examine the roots of the conservation movement.

”Home”The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, is part of the American Memory project sponsored by the Library of Congress. The American Memory project is a clearinghouse of primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement site contains over 60 books and pamphlets, over 140 Federal statutes and Congressional resolutions, 360 Presidential proclamations, 170 prints and photographs, 2 historic manuscripts, and 2 movies that document the human-nature relations and how closely environmental history is linked to American history.

Scope/Content: Because the site is sponsored by the Library of Congress, its primary audience is the American public. However, the site is also designed to be accessible to foreign visitors wishing to get a sense of the history of the American Conservation Movement. The site begins with a clear mission of the Library of Congress and a general mission of the site, which is to “document the historical formation and cultural foundations of the movement to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage.” Investigating deeper, the visitor finds three broad themes that guide the collection: 1) the human impact on the natural environment, 2) the link between the natural world and the construction of American national identity and character, and 3) the aesthetic value of nature.

As the visitor navigates the three themes within the site, there are six main sections. Each is laid out in a timeline fashion that traces the chronology for a given period of years and each has a nature painting or photo at the beginning. For example, the first section is titled, “Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1871”.

OlmstedThroughout the timeline there are links to hundreds of digitized photos and texts. The timeline is more than just dates and facts. Accompanying each year are particular events that helped shape the American Conservation Movement and a short narrative describing why these events were important. For example, in 1887 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (the creators of Central Park) prepared a detailed plan for the restoration/preservation of the landscape surrounding Niagra Falls. The accompanying narrative tells the visitor more than just the fact that this landscape was preserved; it explains that Olmsted and Vaux faced challenges in preserving a natural setting while, at the same time, making it accessible to the visiting public. Overall, the text is well-written, and there is a plethora of material to allow the visitor to see a number of viewpoints. For example the visitor can view material regarding the Hetch Hetchy struggle between the preservationist, John Muir, and the conservationist, Gifford Pinchot.

Authority/Bias: The “Contact Us” link is a link to the American Memory Historical Collections Help Desk and only lists general contact information for the Library of Congress. The acknowledgments section provides a list of all those responsible for the project. One of the key expert advisors associated with the project was Donald Worster, the Hall Professor of American History at the University of Kansas. Specializing in environmental history, his books include, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, and The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination.

The site is devoted to showing how conservation became the dominant environmental ethic by linking the natural world with the construction of the American identity and character. But it makes no mention of the economics behind conservation. Capitalism, as an ever-expanding system of production, relies on the use of natural resources to produce commodities. Inherent in capitalism is the contradiction of resource use. If capitalism consumes all natural resources, then capitalism will fail as a system. Therefore, a new approach to the use of resources was needed and conservation was that approach. Conservation promotes the sustainable use of resources - using some resources now while saving others for future production.

Man and Nature by MarshThe real bias of the site shows in the exclusion of Native Americans from the conservation movement. Although Native Americans practiced the sustainable use of resources, the site makes it seem that conservation began in 1847 with George Perkins Marsh. Even though "no project of this nature can hope to be comprehensive," the editors attempt to make it comprehensive by tracing the "Development of the American Conservation Movement". If the site truly traced the development of the American conservation movement, it would include all Americans. In reality the editors trace the development of the Anglo-American conservation movement. The editors' note does acknowledge this lack of attention, but the act of acknowledging it does not dismiss the criticism. This omission may be attributed to the scope of the project, while others may see it as bias. The bias is inherent in the editors' subjective parameters for the project and their conscious exclusion of Native Americans.

Timeliness/Permanence: The site was originally launched in the spring of 1996, with updates in 2001 and 2002, although there is no way to know what was added or deleted with each update. Every link on the site functioned properly. There is no way to know how long the site will remain available. While it should remain as a permanent fixture, it is up to the Library of Congress to determine the length of its life.

Value Added Features: One of the best features of the site is that there are a variety of ways to navigate and search the site. Beginning at the homepage, the site presents six main sections for viewing the chronology of the development of the conservation movement. There are also explanations for viewing text and illustrations as well as instructions for ordering photographic reproductions. In addition a visitor can view documents by browsing an index of subjects, authors, or titles. One of the major resources that will be useful to visitors are the ten bibliographies, each dealing with a different aspect of conservation. The list of bibliographies includes headings such as Scenic and Wilderness Travel Literature, The Nature Essay, State-Level Fish and Game Conservation Measures, Nature and Wilderness as Recreational Resources, and Juvenile Nature Literature.

A search can be accomplished by entering keywords either found in the bibliographic record or in the full text. However, due to the amount of primary source documents on the site, a visitor can easily find that there are up to 100 returns for a search. For example, a search for “forest conservation” returned 100 different pages. While this is to be expected with such a broad category, the titles of the results revealed very little as to what the actual document was. In the search for “forest conservation” a typical resulting title was “U.S. Statutes at Large, Vol. 32, Part 2, Proclamation No. 35, pp. 2022-2023. By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation.” Only after clicking on the title would the visitor find that this particular document dealt with a tract of land in Montana known as the Little Belt Mountains Forest Reserve, rather than another forest. For a visitor beginning a general search on forest conservation, this could be a time consuming task.

Technical Aspects: The site is easy to navigate using Internet Explorer. The pages load quickly and print well. The one drawback was the extra pages associated with printing. When printing an image, the entire web page gets printed not just the image. The printing of an image results in three pages, only one with the image. For a site devoted to conservation, there were many pages wasted and trees lost as the entire page prints, and the visitor ends up with one or two extra sheets (that hopefully get recycled).

While much of the site is easy to navigate, some visitors may get confused. For example, clicking on the link for the “legislation establishing Sequoia National Park” leads the visitor to two titles of the legislation, and further investigation leads the visitor to nearly 400 pieces of landscape conservation legislation. Viewing the movies may be problematic, in that, one may need to download new programs and software as the movies are available in MPEG, QuickTime and RealMedia formats. The movies included loaded quickly, but those without a high speed connection may wait a while for them to load.

Aesthetics/Visual Clarity and Appeal: ChronologyOverall, this site has consistent themes throughout. The layout for the homepage is understated, so the visitor is not overwhelmed at the start. Each page has the same color scheme and background which provides continuity. A nature painting or photograph is used at the top of each of the main sections of the chronology. One aspect of the design that can be problematic is the color of the hyperlinks. The site has a light beige background, and the recently visited links are yellow, making them hard to read.

Overall Impression of the Site: The overall impression of this site is positive. While there are some weaknesses, they are overshadowed by the positive features and information of the site. It carries out the stated mission and allows the visitor to come away with a deeper understanding of the history of the conservation movement and human-nature relations.

Interpretation of Materials: The narratives associated with the timeline provide brief descriptions for each full-text document, identifying the important aspects of the document and explaining how the document fits into the evolution of the conservation movement. The interpretive material for each photograph simply identifies the photographer, a key aspect of his/her professional life, and a note expressing how the Library of Congress received the photograph. Each description is not identified as being written by a specific author, and while the acknowledgements page lists all those associated with the projects, it does not indicate who had responsibility for writing the descriptions. True to the mission of the site, it is accessible by the general public and is generally free from jargon.

Primary Source Documents: Half Dome, YosemiteThe primary source materials included are a great strength of the site. Each of the digitized text documents is clear and easy to read. The photographs are also clear and of excellent quality. The site provides instructions for obtaining photographic reproductions. The "Building the Collection" section provides a detailed account of from where the documents came, the process of scanning texts and photo images, and the technical requirements and formats (TIFF, GIF, JPEG, etc.). The site also has a section addressing copyright restrictions associated with the use and reproduction of the documents.

Education: There are curriculum materials available for teachers under “The Learning Page.” Following this link, the visitor finds three subheadings: U.S. history, critical thinking, and arts and humanities. Unfortunately, when one visits the critical thinking section, there is almost no critical thinking associated with the page. Instead, the page asks the student to search the collection for a variety of issues such as conservation of natural resources, endangered animals, forests, grazing land, national parks, public lands, public recreation, and Hetch Hetchy to trace the debate on conservation issues. Simply searching these to trace the debate on conservation issues does not develop critical thinking on conservation issues. Rather, it only proves that students can navigate the site and gather and record information from it. One positive aspect of the Learning Page is the visitor can fill out a form to send questions or comments to the reference librarian.

Promotion of a Community of Interest: There is no component of the site to encourage interaction. It is simply a clearinghouse of documents to trace the evolution of the American conservation movement. The promotion of a community of interest is something the Library of Congress should pursue as new sites are created and older ones are updated.

Point Assessment for The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Permanence and Timeliness12/15
Value Added Features12/15
Technical Aspects12/15
Overall Impression8/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials30/40
Primary Source Documents20/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest0/20

Total: 140 points -- 3.5 Earths

Phil Birge-Liberman ( is a doctoral student in geography at Syracuse University. His research lies at the intersection of urban, historical, and environmental geography. In examining the role of nature in American cities, Phil will be exploring the politics of urban parks. In particular, he will examine the historical production of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace in Boston as well as current efforts to preserve and restore these parks in the hope of preserving the legacy of Olmsted.

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Last updated on  January 12, 2004