The Forester and the Romantic


I had the chance to cover some winter activities for PA state parks last week, which meant I had the fortune of a couple of visits for photos and interviews. As I browsed around online and in the park offices and exhibits for info, I couldn't escape references to either the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Work Progress Administration, which I've read about before, but never realized just how much work they did in the Appalachian region. The history of these organizations opens a whole box of interesting questions for the future, believe it or not, as this was a pivotal moment in conservation philosophy.

Both the CCC and the WPA were part of FDR's New Deal, providing government work to the 40+ percent of the country that was unemployed. They recruited young men to work on waterway and forestry management, as well as construction of roads, facilities, power lines and bridges

The CCC were responsible for planting some five billion trees in the country. This work, perhaps more than any other can be seen in most of the parks I've visited in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania: tall, thin pines planted unnaturally in row after shadowy row.

The WPA was a more generalized program, putting people to work on public roads and facilities, beautifying and planning parks, teaching the arts and reading. A lot of artists and writers were employed by the WPA, to the chagrin of many conservatives. They supported the CCC for its useful economic potential, but philosophically held the WPA in contempt for its socialistic leanings.

Both organizations were disbanded when the key was turned in the American war machine in 1940 or so.

The reason PA state parks received so much attention (five parks were constructed: Blue Knob, Hickory Run, French Creek, Laurel Hill and Raccoon Creek) was mostly because of Gifford Pinchot. He was a forestry reformer and the first Chief of the US Division of Forestry, appointed at the turn of the century. At the beginning of the Great Depression, he was elected governor of PA, where he immediately set up work camps which would become models for those implemented nationally for the CCC. Pinchot's father was one of the many wealthy that had profited from the widespread decimation of American forests in the 19th century, and was supposedly making up for his sins by pressing Pinchot to learn, develop and implement land management and conservation measures. Pinchot took to the task with vigor.

Pinchot was able to spin scientific management of forests as an economic boon, but it took some time before people began to realize the value of his efforts and those of other conservationists of his time. In fact, Pinchot's ideas became force of philosophical division between himself and his friend John Muir. Muir was a preservationist, Pinchot was a conservationist. They both wanted to find ways to impede the ravenous Industrial Revolution, but while Muir wanted it to entirely stop feeding on many of our natural resources, Pinchot argued that proper management could satisfy a growing America while keeping the machine from destroying the wild places we hold sacred.

They went head to head over a reservoir project for San Francisco, which would pull public drinking water from Yosemite National Park (Hetch Hetchy Valley). Muir, as a diehard romantic, was against any intrusion. Pinchot, as a diehard social servant, felt that it was absolutely necessary for the public's safety.

It's an interesting distinction. It would be simpler if we could treat all of our philosophical predecessors as similar entities, but perhaps their diversity can provide us with a deeper understanding of just what we are trying to say now.

Pinchot and Muir were both right. Muir felt that some places, the most wild places, should be absolutely off limits to industry and development of any kind. Pinchot wanted to use nature to its greatest benefit, to provide recreation and education for American citizens as well as provide our economy with the resources it needed to succeed.

They balance each other out. Pinchot's political focus molds Muir's romanticism into something a bit more realistic, while Muir's concern with losing our perception of nature as a primal entity shifts Pinchot's concern with the public to include a concern for life in general.

We have plenty of Pinchots and Muirs in the world today, trying to promote and fund research on global warming and habitat loss, finding ways to curb the effects of a large, constantly consuming public on our natural lands, each with his or her own ideas of how and why nature should be protected. I suppose looking back into the history of that protective impulse gives me a sense of "this has been happening the whole time" and somehow that's reassuring when the how and why arguments get a bit loud among folks that agree that something needs to be done.

More like this

Here are some essay links I've had open as tabs in my browser for over a week, waiting to be posted. Unfortunately, I don't have time to do the extensive commentary they deserve, so I'm admitting that, and just posting them already. Enjoy. Graphical Abstracts & Biologists as Designers Andrew…
NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott has been awarded the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal, the most prestigious award from the most prominent scientific honor society in the nation (at least). Care to guess the reaction at Billy Dembski's place?: Iâm heartened to see our tax dollars working to…
Part 1 (below) | 2 | 3 - - - The World's Fair sits down with Aaron Sachs, author of The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (Viking Press, 2006), Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University, and environmental…
I'm sure you already know the story of Lonesome George: And now, you can see "him" (as it were) at the American Museum of Natural History. From a press release: Lonesome George Will Be on View at American Museum of Natural History Museum will Oversee Preservation and Taxidermy of Famous Tortoise…

Sounds like a plan, Kevin. As soon as I get some things sorted out, I'm there.