For more than a century after the republic’s founding in the 1780s, American law reflected the ideal that the commons—the public domain—should be turned into private property. As Americans became concerned about resource scarcity, waste, and monopolies at the end of the 19th century, reform-minded bureaucrats and scientists convinced Congress to maintain in perpetuity some of the nation’s land as public. This shift offered a measure of protection and an alternative to private property regimes. The federal agencies that primarily manage these lands today—U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—have worked since their origins in the early decades of the 20th century to fulfill their diverse, competing, evolving missions. Meanwhile, the public and Congress have continually demanded new and different goals as the land itself has functioned and responded in interdependent ways. In the mid-20th century, the agencies intensified their management, hoping they could satisfy the rising—and often conflicting—demands American citizens placed on the public lands. This intensification often worsened public lands’ ecology and increased political conflict, resulting in a series of new laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws strengthened the role of science and the public in influencing agency practices while providing more opportunities for litigation. Predictably, since the late 1970s, these developments have polarized public lands’ politics. The economies, but also the identities, of many Americans remain entwined with the public lands, making political standoffs—over endangered species, oil production, privatizing land, and more—common and increasingly intractable. Because the public lands are national in scope but used by local people for all manner of economic and recreational activities, they have been and remain microcosms of the federal democratic system and all its conflicted nature.
Adam M. Sowards
The national parks of the United States have been one of the country’s most popular federal initiatives, and popular not only within the nation but across the globe. The first park was Yellowstone, established in 1872, and since then almost sixty national parks have been added, along with hundreds of monuments, protected rivers and seashores, and important historical sites as well as natural preserves. In 1916 the parks were put under the National Park Service, which has managed them primarily as scenic treasures for growing numbers of tourists. Ecologically minded scientists, however, have challenged that stewardship and called for restoration of parks to their natural conditions, defined as their ecological integrity before white Europeans intervened. The most influential voice in the history of park philosophy remains John Muir, the California naturalist and Yosemite enthusiast and himself a proto-ecologist, who saw the parks as sacred places for a modern nation, where reverence for nature and respect for science might coexist and where tourists could be educated in environmental values. As other nations have created their own park systems, similar debates have occurred. While parks may seem like a great modern idea, this idea has always been embedded in cultural and social change—and subject to struggles over what that “idea” should be.
Sara C. Fingal
Since the 1960s, Latinxs have played prominent roles in the environmental justice movement and in organizations that have defined their members as Hispanic or Latinx environmentalists. Organizers created their own groups in response to their alienation from predominantly white mainstream environmental movements that focused on wilderness preservation and government conservation policies. Latinx community activists, on the other hand, related social justice and grassroots democracy to struggles over public parks and beaches, clean air, clean water, pesticide exposure, and high environmental risks. In the late 1960s and 1970s, organizations like the United Farm Workers (UFW) consciously connected worker safety to environmentalist and consumer concerns about unregulated pesticides, but the majority of environmental groups ignored issues that affected Latinx communities. Eventually, mainstream environmentalists and federal government agencies responded to calls for diversity with increased attention to environmental justice for communities of color in the late 20th century. In recent years, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service have attempted to engage Latinxs through American Hispanic heritage projects and Spanish-language advertising. Previous calls for environmental justice and the youth of the US Latinx population have made many mainstream environmental organizations aware of the need to engage with people of color, although persistent stereotypes about Latinx disinterest in access to public lands and conservation still linger. Newer organizations have worked to engage community members, young people, and departments in the federal government. Latinxs have been and will continue to be critical actors in conversations about local and global environmental issues. Recognition of an existing environmental ethic among Latinx and Spanish-speaking people in the United States would expand the understanding of conservation and environmentalism in American history.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.