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National Park Service vs. The U.S. Forest Service: Environmental Protection Philosophies in the United States

Updated on May 24, 2013

American Movement West

American Frontier Map 1789
American Frontier Map 1789 | Source
American Frontier Map 1846
American Frontier Map 1846 | Source
American Frontier Map 1889
American Frontier Map 1889 | Source

Endless America

When Europeans first landed on the gentle shores of the North American continent, they were stepping foot upon a land of virgin forests and wild game. However, the notion of Manifest Destiny, that mastery of the continent was the will of Providence, guided every interaction with the new continent. As the nation grew, its wilderness shrank. Frederick Jackson Turner touches briefly on this point in his 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History:"

Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. Now the peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people -- to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.

And so, even as Americans killed the passenger pigeon, obliterated the buffalo and uprooted everything in the way of a road or plantation, we were sowing roots of our own. Deep, cultural roots which affirmed that this endless bounty, indeed, would last forever.

Manifest Destiny

Despite the fact that Native American cultures had effectively created canals, orchards, and cities and peopled the continent with tens of millions, the land was viewed as a wild frontier, and Americans quickly busied themselves with exploring it. Adventurers pressed westward to the great Mississippi River, fur traders hunted and trapped through the north, and in 1804 Merriweather Lewis and William Clark began their expedition of the northwest, not stopping until the reached the Pacific Ocean.

Through the 19th century, Americans had begun to truly see their goal of Manifest Destiny realized. Courageous opportunists had traipsed across the continent and now the great lands of the west were being admitted to the Union in rapid succession. California in 1850, Oregon in 1859 and Nevada in 1864.

Art of the Nation

Click thumbnail to view full-size
California SunsetHot Springs of Gardiner's River, YellowstoneAmerican Mountain sceneryGreat Falls of Snake RiverNative encampment on Yellowstone side of RockiesSummit of the Sierras
California Sunset
California Sunset | Source
Hot Springs of Gardiner's River, Yellowstone
Hot Springs of Gardiner's River, Yellowstone | Source
American Mountain scenery
American Mountain scenery | Source
Great Falls of Snake River
Great Falls of Snake River | Source
Native encampment on Yellowstone side of Rockies
Native encampment on Yellowstone side of Rockies | Source
Summit of the Sierras
Summit of the Sierras | Source

The Idea to Protect

Perhaps there is something in the accomplishment that made us look back fondly. Or perhaps it was the words of Thoreau, who declared, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." Or perhaps it was the awing frontier art and lithographs of unseen wilds which was dropping the jaws of the city folk. but nonetheless as they settled in cozily on the western coast, the American people seemed to look back over their shoulders at those rugged and beautiful lands with nostalgia.

When they did so, however, they were not entirely pleased with what they saw. Early conservationists were taking up issues throughout the nation. The passenger pigeon was nearing extinction quickly, as were the American Bison. The treasures of Mesa Verde were being ransacked. America had long been the land of opportunity in which a person could keep as much as he could grab, but some were beginning to question whether, as a nation, we were grabbing too much. The conclusion was quickly reached that these lands which had heretofore fueled that famous and inspiring "American Dream" were special and needed governmental protection to ensure that they last for the ages. The only question was how.

John Muir
John Muir | Source

John Muir, the Champion of Preservation

In the mid-to-late 19th century, many voices were clamoring for the protection of America's natural phenomena, but one was heard the loudest. That was the voice of John Muir.

Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir fell unashamedly in love with the American West. After his first visit to Yosemite, he wrote, "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite... The grandest of all special temples of Nature."x Muir's love was a thorough one, and it impacted for the rest of his life his philosophy regarding conservation.

Muir saw in the Yosemite Valley all that was sacred in nature. In For the Mountains he explains his position poignantly:

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.

“Everybody needs beauty...places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”

John Muir's position was that the bounty of nature ought be protected eternally, insusceptible to the logging, farming, damming, and commercial interests that he believed exploited the nation's most holy places. It is in the writings and words of Muir that we see the notion of preservation. In fact, when the Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed despite his best efforts to keep it wild, Muir decried, "These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar."x Infringing upon nature in this fashion was near-sacrilege.

Today, Muir's ideology is best perpetuated by the National Park Service which is responsible for, in addition to Yosemite National Park, 58 other national parks, 124 historical sites, 25 battlefields, and a collection of other noteworthy areas. Its purpose "is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." In a word, its duty is to preserve.

Gifford Pinchot
Gifford Pinchot | Source

Gifford Pinchot, the Progressive for Conservation

Gifford Pinchot (pin-cho) was an American-born politician, birthed in 1865. If Muir was a man of the mountains, Pinchot was a man of the forest, and their differences, in many ways, became the highlight of the environmental protection debate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Pinchot's philosophy was undoubtedly fostered by his family's achievement in the industries of foresting and land speculation. Despite the rewards of this experience, Pinchot felt remorse for the destruction that resulted from his family's success and he had a strong desire to impact that national policy.

"The greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time."

In 1896, Pinchot became a member of the National Forest Commission and President Cleveland requested his input in the management of the forests in that still-exciting West. In this capacity, Pinchot was able to advance his position regarding the protection of America's land. That position was two-fold.

The earth and its resources belong of right to its people


Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation, and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day.

So, clearly Pinchot believes, as Muir does, that the land is the birthright of Americans, but while Muir's emphasis is on the spiritual and aesthetic bounty of a place, Pinchot's is upon creating a sustainable process by which to benefit from the material bounty of that same place. He does not wish to preserve nature in its original, untouched form, but rather he wishes to use the land and conserve its ability to produce helpful resources without depletion.

Because his focus was always in forests, his philosophy is best exemplified there. Pinchot supported regulated logging at the edges of the nation's forests in a slow manner. His plan was to allow no more to be cut than could be naturally replaced by the forest in the same time. His philosophy is best exemplified with the U.S. Forest Service, of which he was once the head. The U.S. Forest Service oversees 193 million acres of land used for fishing, hiking, hunting and four-wheeling, and "sustain[s] yield of renewable resources such as water, forage, wildlife, [and] wood."x

What is your experience?

Of America's National Parks and National Forests, which do you prefer?

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So what do we do?

Perhaps the answer isn't so definitive. The population of the United States continues to grow and the need for resources has not yet ceased. Going forward, we will need these resources. However, as we become bigger and faster and more technological, the need for a place to slink away into pure nature seems likewise to grow. Perhaps both men are right. Maybe it's true that we need to "keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods," while recognizing that "the vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future."

It seems that each of these titans has significant validity to their claims, and so perhaps it is well that we have profited from them both. At the root of our industry, the replenishable forests, and at the root of our yearn for beauty, the national parks.

Learn more about America's National Parks

Ken Burns' presents The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea


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