Today, we’re talking about the conservation movement and the creation of Americas National Parks in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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Transcript of National Parks in America: Health, Manhood, and Wilderness

Researched and written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Sarah: Americans like to think of themselves as a frontier people – even if we live in cities, we like to imagine ourselves as part of a country that includes wide open expanses, massive mountain peaks, and dense, wild forests. We may not always want to go explore it, but we like to know it’s still there. And as a people, Americans share lands that are set aside for this purpose: the National Parks.

Elizabeth: We very well could not have those forests and open lands, if it wasn’t for a confluence of events and several very interesting and committed characters in the late 19th century. In an era where industry was largely unregulated, cities were growing at a dizzying rate, and most people took the environment for granted, conservationists of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era had the foresight to recognize that America’s natural beauty should be protected for future generations.

Sarah: Today, we’re talking about the conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.

I’m Sarah

and I’m Elizabeth

and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: Americans have always believed that what set them apart from Europeans was their access to undeveloped land. Colonists enjoyed access to land that their European ancestors never had – land ownership was limited to elites in Great Britain. Unlike their ancestors in Europe, American colonists could purchase land at reasonable rates, or were given tracts of land in exchange for keeping the land productive. Colonial New Englanders traditionally subdivided family farms to give their children their own land, and after a few generations when they started to run out of land, all they had to do was move westward to the plentiful, cheap, and fertile lands in New York and Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth: And as the population in the East grew, Americans were comforted with the knowledge that there was always someplace to go, someplace wild and untamed. Easterners loved to read and learn about the western wildernesses – whether it was travel narratives of explorers like Lewis and Clark, memoirs of men who went West to seek their fortune in the gold rush, or stories about the US Army’s clashes with Native Americans or outlaws like Jesse James. But starting in the mid 19th century, the federal government – under pressure from naturalists and conservationists – began to see the western wildernesses a little differently. Rather than simply inexhaustible resources to be exploited or sold off to fill the government coffers (like other public lands through the 1830s/40s), certain lands became understood as national treasures. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln took the first steps in American history to protect land when he signed the Yosemite Grant. In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill making Yellowstone the first official national park. Over the next decades, the federal government set aside more and more land to be protected in the name of the American people.

Sarah: Although the federal government began to slowly set aside land as nationally owned, they were slower to decide quite what to do with the lands once it was set aside. In American culture, land was ultimately considered valuable not because it was beautiful or ecologically important, but because it was potentially productive. One of the major conflicts – please note I say one of the, it was one of many, including racism – but one of the conflicts between white Americans and Native Americans was over the perception that Native Americans were wasting their land. Removing Native people from their land and limiting them to reservations was in part an effort to seize their land – take Cherokee Removal in Georgia, or the removal of the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, or the Lakota Sioux in the Black Hills of South Dakota – each region was coveted by whites because the land had potential, whether for agriculture or mining or just settlement, and was being “wasted” by Indians.

black and white photograph of Native American men

Lakota Sioux leaders, ca. 1865-1880 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: But in the 19th century, Americans began to realize that their natural resources were not inexhaustible. The business practices of Gilded Age barons of industry, coupled with their incessant pursuit of entertainment in the form of hunting, fishing, and the building of luxurious mansions, all took a serious toll on the environment. Gilded Age Americans tried to extract a product from the land in a number of ways: producing crops, mined for minerals, or cleared to make way for factories. But it could also be productive without Americans doing much of anything except taking what was already there: timber. Wood was in constant demand in the US and abroad, especially in countries that did not have the standing old growth forests that America had. In states with large forests, logging quickly grew from small-scale at the beginning of the century to a massive industry controlled by a few wealthy and powerful timber barons by the 1870s. But these timber barons saw America’s forests as nothing but sources of wealth. Loggers exhausted the hard wood of one area, then abandoned it and moved on to the next, leaving the less valuable trees. Often, when loggers felled trees, they left behind extra branches and debris that easily caught fire – a series of fires in the 1880s destroyed something like ½ a million acres of woodland a year in Wisconsin. Of course, cutting timber also had soil consequences, leading to erosion and floods on lands unprotected by the trees that usually held their land. By the end of the 19th century, it was becoming clear – to everyone except the timber barons – that something needed to change or America’s forests would be in critical danger.

green and yellow logo of the US Forest Service

Forest Service Logo | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: In 1881, the Division of Forestry was established within the Department of Agriculture, although it was often left with a shoestring budget that made it difficult to do much of significance. Timber conservation, however, made a major step forward in 1891 with the passage of a rider on a civil service bill. The rider was called the Forest Reserve Act, which set aside 1.2 million acres to be the Yellowstone Forest Reserve, and another 1.2 million in Colorado, the White River Forest Reserve, each protecting forested lands around a national park. Two years later, President Benjamin Harrison set aside another 13 million acres. But the reserves were created with no real plan – no steps were taken to protect the forests from timber theft, fire, or destruction from roaming livestock. In the 1890s, the National Forestry Commission was created to take stock of public forest lands. It was headed by a man named Gifford Pinchot, who was born into an incredibly wealthy family and who was encouraged to become a forester by his father. There were no real forestry schools in the United States, so he traveled to France to study. When he returned home, he eventually made his way to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, built by George Vanderbilt, where he managed the forests surrounding the mansion.

Elizabeth: Pinchot and the Forestry Commission were tasked with studying the status of public lands. What they found was fairly disheartening. In South Dakota, they discovered that mining and illegal logging had deforested huge swathes of land. In Wyoming, they found forests destroyed by fire. In Oregon, sheep had been allowed to roam free and chewed their way through the local plant life until it was essentially gone. Clearly, the Commission was going to need to make some changes or America’s forests were never going to recover. However, that was easier said than done. After completing their study, the Commission was ready to report on their findings and make a recommendation to the President, but first they had to agree on what to recommend. This was … not easy. The Commission split into two factions: the preservationists, led by naturalist John Muir, and the conservationists, led by Gifford Pinchot.

A black and white photograph of John Muir outside in nature

John Muir, ca. 1902 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: John Muir was a Scottish born naturalist who traveled extensively through the United States during the 1870s, writing books and numerous articles for Century magazine describing the beauty of remote locations that many Americans had never seen, and would likely never be able to travel and see. For instance, in “The Treasure of Yosemite,” he wrote this: “….No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feed, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly conscious, yet heedless of everything going on about them. Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these mountain rocks are adorned and how fine and reassuring the company they keep – their feet set in groves and gay emerald meadows, their brows in the thin blue sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their adamantine bosses, bathed in floods of booming water, floods of light, while snow, clouds, winds, avalanches, shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by!” It was writing like this that put the initial pressure on the federal government to protect places like Yellowstone and Yosemite In 1892, Muir helped to found and became the first president of the Sierra Club, which advocated for the protection of places like Yosemite.

A black and white photograph of a white man

Gifford Pinchot, 1909 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Muir and Pinchot, who had previously been friends, had very different ideas about how to care for America’s forests. Muir saw the national forests as literally sacred – he often described them in terms of cathedrals and churches. His recommendation was that the forests be protected without exception, with soldiers tasked with guarding the forests from poachers and illegal loggers. In fact, just a few years before, the cavalry had been deployed to Yosemite and Yellowstone to stop poaching, and had been very successful, so this wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. But Pinchot was a forester and thought about caring for forests in terms of farming: forestry was about scientifically managing trees, which required new planting, harvesting, and occasional clearing. Without it, Pinchot argued, the forests would actually suffer. [Side note, this is actually the way that most American forests had always been managed. When colonists first arrived in New England, for example, they discovered that the forests were clear and easy to walk through – this wasn’t because they grew that way, but because Native Americans practiced control burns to manage undergrowth.] Instead of the cavalry guarding the forests, Pinchot envisioned a new force of civilian foresters, trained specifically in the care and management of trees. In addition, these foresters would help to ensure that the forests were open to responsible logging and other industries.

Sarah: In the end, the conservationists had the most influence on the report, and when it hit President Cleveland’s desk in 1897, he took it seriously. He set aside an additional 21.3 million acres for national forests and parks. The move was immediately unpopular with those who wanted to keep those lands open to mining, hunting, and logging and the whole issue devolved into a political mess – at one point, Republicans even tried to draft articles of impeachment against Cleveland because of his refusal to deal with western industries. In 1898, Pinchot was named the first director of the Division of Forestry. After the assassination of President McKinley, Pinchot worked under President Theodore Roosevelt, who had long been an ardent conservationist. In 1905, with Roosevelt’s support, Pinchot finally succeeded in creating the organization that would become known as the US Forest Service.

Elizabeth: Roosevelt was also able to secure more protection for America’s natural resources than any other president. In 1906, he signed the Antiquities Act, which allowed the President to preserve historic areas – such as those in desert states like Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico that included ancient artifacts from Native Americans – or places of scientific importance. Since then, this precedent has been used to preserve other historic sites, from battlefields like Gettysburg to the Stonewall Inn. But – like with the District of Forestry, the problem was enforcement. The President could set aside the land, but there was no agency designated to actually protect those lands in a “boots on the ground” sense. This became very clear in 1913 when city officials from San Francisco built a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite to provide the city with water – John Muir called this akin to a “rape.” The next year, rich outdoorsman Stephen Mather complains to the Secretary of Interior Franklin Lane about the abuses of public lands. Lane decided to let Mather solve the problem, and appointed him Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior for Park Matters. Mather lobbied hard for a specific agency to care for the parks, appealing to the public with lavish publications and articles in magazines like National Geographic. It worked. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill creating the National Parks Service, created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for enjoyment of the same in manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Sarah: As the effort to protect the nation’s forest was evolving in the late 19th century, many Americans were also becoming increasingly concerned with preserving the country’s wildlife. There has been some small-scale efforts to protect game in some states. New York State, for instance, created its first wildlife conservation law in 1846. This law restricted hunting and fishing to seasons and controlled the sale of hunted birds – especially in response to fashion crazes that required enormous quantities of feathers. Through the middle of the 19th century, it was hunting clubs like the New York Sportsmen’s Club (later called the New York Association for the Protection of Game) that lobbied state governments to pass laws designed to protect and preserve the country’s wildlife. At the turn of the century, hunting clubs, especially in Eastern states like Pennsylvania and New York, began protecting wildlife not by trying to pass laws that would preserve wildlife for all citizens, but by creating private wildlife preserves accessible only to the most wealthy.

Elizabeth: Take, for example, Blooming Grove Park, created out of 18,000 acres of land in Eastern PA. The park was created by the Blooming Grove Park Association, made up of wealthy men from New York City who were impressed by the grandeur of exclusive European hunting parks. Blooming Grove was not necessarily designed to protect wildlife – the park created and enforced its own hunting regulations, and allowed hunters to take enormous amounts of game. To ensure that the park always had enough game for its clients, rather than restricting hunting, the park started to stock game – raising birds, fish, and other critters to ensure a healthy population. Blooming Grove also employed game experts who carefully tracked animal populations, using a system of sustained yield to ensure they didn’t over hunt even with the large quotas hunters were allowed.

a green and white logo featuring the wildlife of the Adirondacks

The logo of the Adirondack League | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Similar clubs were established in the Adirondack Mountain region in upstate New York. Wealthy men, generally also from NYC, paid for exclusive memberships in clubs like the Bisby Club and Adirondack League, which controlled hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Adirondack wilderness. These preserves were carefully guarded and posted with signs to keep the local residents off the land and away from the game. This was both good and bad: it meant that outsiders from the “big city” controlled huge portions of the land in the region, adding little to the local economy except for seasonal labor, but at the same time, it actually helped to protect and conserve wildlife in the Adirondacks because parks more carefully tracked game populations, kept the streams stocked with raised fish, and generally had stricter hunting laws than the surrounding regions.

Elizabeth: Private hunting clubs could, however, have seriously negative impacts on local communities. Steel barons in Pittsburgh purchased a tract of land near an old reservoir and dam that was no longer really being used outside of Pittsburgh, and built a private clubhouse and cabins called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They also decided to refill and expand the reservoir – without any guidance or regulation from state authorities. The reservoir was essentially privately owned and operated. The relationship between the club and the locals was mixed: some people were glad to have the club in the area because it provided jobs. Others were happy to have it in the area because the newly expanded and stocked dam was teeming with fish – locals snuck on the club grounds at night to poach. But starting in 1885, other locals started to complain when the reservoir started to periodically flood, damaging neighboring farms. In 1889, a particularly bad rainstorm doused the town of Johnstown – neighbor to the lodge – with 8 inches of rain. The sudden rain caused the dam to break, and Johnstown was deluged. In the end, the flood killed 2,209 people and did $17 million dollars in damage. What I think is particularly tragic about the Johnstown flood, aside of course from the staggering loss of life, is that in their quest to preserve a natural resource for themselves they caused a natural disaster for others.

a black and white photograph of a massive pile of bison skulls

A pile of bison skulls, waiting to be ground into fertilizer | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: One of the greatest ecological disasters of the Gilded Age was the near extinction level hunting of the bison in the American West. But while this seems like a clear problem to us, it wasn’t to Americans of the late 19th century. Just to give you an idea of the scale: in the 1500s when the first Europeans arrived in the Americas, there were around 25-30 million buffalo – by the 1890, there were likely only 100 left in the wild. Many conservationists were horrified by the decimation of the buffalo, but at the same time, most also believed that it was a necessary evil. Roaming herds of buffalo made it impossible for the lands of the West to be productive – buffalo were a danger to trains, a nuisance to travelers, and a symbol of Native American ways of life. They also stood in the way of agricultural progress, particularly cattle ranching. Eliminating them made sense, even to the most ardent environmentalists. Even John Muir, who usually decried overhunting, wrote in 1901 “I supposed we need not go mourning the buffaloes. In the nature of things they had to give place to better cattle, though the change might have been made without barbarous wickedness.” Theodore Roosevelt, who formed the Boone and Crockett club in 1887 for the purpose of protecting America’s natural resources, believed that the buffalo had to go to make way for white settlement. [Side note: John Muir actually wrote in much more scathing terms when the people doing the hunting were brown – he was very critical of Native Americans he witnessed killing mountain goats, for instance.]

Elizabeth: But once the buffalo were all but driven out of existence in the 1890s, the American Bison Society started an effort to restock the buffalo – but only in carefully controlled ways. Bison preserves were created in Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to breed buffalo – not to reintroduce them into the wild to roam the plains again, but to be kept on ranches and in zoos. The society called its efforts a success, but also turned a blind eye to ranchers who raised buffalo only to sell rich dudes the right to hunt them and other mass killings of bison determined to be a nuisance to cattle. By the 1930s, the American Bison Society disbanded, not having really done much to bring back the American bison population.

Sarah: Another part of the effort to protect American wildlife in the late 19th century was the creation of game protection services – in other words, game wardens. In New York State, Governor Alonzo Cornell appointed the first eight men to be “game protectors” in 1880, and gave them the job of stopping poachers and enforcing the fledgling game laws of NYS. Some early game wardens felt they were making a difference, but by the late 1890s, then-governor Theodore Roosevelt was disappointed that the positions had essentially dissolved into a political patronage job. Men were being appointed who had no commitment to the laws they were enforcing, but even more, they were men who had no idea what they were doing –they weren’t familiar with the landscape or wildlife, and weren’t capable of the rough, outdoor work they were required to do. There’s a famous quote from Roosevelt to the Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission of NYS where he outlines what he wants from his game protectors: “The men who do duty as game protectors in the Adirondacks should by reference be appointed from the locality itself, and should in all cases be thorough woodsmen. The mere fact that a game protector has to hire a guide to pilot him through the woods is enough to show his unfitness for the position. I want as game protectors men of courage, resolution, and hardihood, who can handle the rifle, axe, and paddle; who can camp out in summer or winter; who can go on snow-shoes, if necessary; who can go through the woods by day or by night without regard to trails.” The NYS game protectors morphed over the years, and when the Department of Environmental Conservation was officially created in 1970, the game wardens became Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs).

Elizabeth: We would be remiss to talk about the gilded age/progressive era move for conservation without talking about two other motivations for protecting America’s open lands, wildernesses, and wildlife populations: manhood, and health. Conservation was often spearheaded by wealthy white men, mostly because they were the ones who had the luxury to escape the city and travel, whether to stay at the resorts in places like the Adirondacks or Catskills or go hunting in the west. They found great relief and escape in America’s wildernesses, and did not want to see them disappear. Of course, they also embraced conservation because they loved to hunt, and losing game meant losing the hunt. But there was yet another level. During the Gilded Age, there was something of a panic about the state of American manhood. Desk jobs and white-collar jobs, a general feeling of being removed from the land and manual labor. Between 1870 and 1920, almost 11 million rural Americans moved to cities; and between 1860 and 1900, the majority of Americans went from working in agriculture to working in industry. There was a general sense that Americans were losing touch with their more primal selves and being weakened by being sedentary, civilized, and intellectual. And many people believed that this disconnect was literally making people sick. People – primarily white, middle and upper class people – started developing a nervous disorder that came to be known as neurasthenia. We might think of it today as a sort of anxiety or depression: people were frustrated, and feeling suffocated and unfulfilled.

Sarah: Often, the people who got sick were those who challenged traditional notions of manhood and womanhood. Men who worked desk jobs and lost touch with their primal masculinity got sick; women who sought lives in the public got sick. You might have heard of neurasthenia before if you’ve read the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: in the story, the main character is a woman suffering from an intense nervous disorder. Her doctor – modeled off of the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell – prescribes her the “rest cure,” his patented treatment for neurasthenia. She is kept to strict bed rest, which drives her slowly mad, until she begins to see a woman, trapped in the wallpaper, creeping around her room. It’s a horrifying, feminist story about the expectations of womanhood and how the enforcement of those expectations created madness in the pursuit of compliance.

Elizabeth: One of the possible reasons for ill-health and the breakdown of proper gender roles, some people argued, had to do with a degradation of the very American character. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave a speech to the AHA in which he made an argument that the American character – the very thing that made Americans Americans – was the existence of a frontier. But, he argues, that frontier is now gone – with the invention of barbed wire, more and more frontiersmen were closing off their land, effectively killing the open American frontier. And embedded in his argument is this fear: what will happen to Americans when there is no longer a frontier? Will American men and women go soft and weak? And for some, this seems like a clear parallel with neurasthenia: Americans are getting sick because we’ve lost our connection with this open space that makes us American. It’s in the wilderness that we can be cured! This aligns in an interesting way with Theodore Roosevelt’s own personal story. In the early 1880s, Roosevelt was an ambitious young man trying to find his break in NYS politics, but he was lampooned as effeminate, called “Punkin Lily” and “Jane Dandy,” and accused of suckling on the end of a cane. Roosevelt responded fiercely, telling one politician who was plotting to pull a humiliating trick on him that “By God! If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls, I’ll do anything to you – you better leave me alone!”

a black and white photograph of theodore roosevelt as a young man wearing buckskin clothing

Theodore Roosevelt in buckskin | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Roosevelt had been a sickly child, and had worked hard as a young man to change his image through boxing while at Harvard but it had only gone so far. Two years after his almost-tussle with this politician, Roosevelt gave up his life in NY (temporarily) to move to South Dakota to start a cattle ranch after the death of his wife and mother on the same night. Being out in the wilds of the Dakotas changed his life – when he returned to NY, he was a different person, obsessed with masculinity himself and a symbol of masculinity for others. And as we know, he became intrinsic to the conservation movement, founding the club that helped fight for an expansion of the National Parks and helping to create a better game warden service in NYS. He was an avid hunter and outdoorsman. And all that was tied to his ideas of masculinity. In 1899, for example, he gives a speech called The Strenuous Life in which he outlines what it means to be an American man: you need to have the willingness to work hard with your hands, fight for what is right, do your duty in the world as a white American man. What is incompatible with this Strenuous Life is “the timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, the man of dull mind.”

Elizabeth: So you can’t be a true American man sitting behind your desk in the city pushing paper – you need to get out and camp and kill buffalo and experience life! And so when men started being diagnosed with neurasthenia, one of the cures for them was NOT the rest cure, but the strenuous life. In order to be healthy, you needed to be more masculine by being out in nature – just like women needed to be more feminine by being inside in bed. And so what we see is a push for conservation at the same time when Americans are experiencing real anxiety about gender and the American character. For some Americans, preserving forests and creating national parks was about more than just a commitment to the environment. It was about preserving the American character and identity, and saving American masculinity!


Arrington, Todd, “Creating the National Parks Service,” We’re History

Muir, John. “The Treasure of Yosemite,” Century Magazine, August 1890.

Morrison, Jim. “How the US Army Saved Our National Parks,” Smithsonian Magazine.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Public Papers of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. I (Albany: Brandow Printing, 1899).

Roosevelt, Theodore. “The Strenuous Life,” April 10, 1899.

Taylor, Dorceta E., The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)

Taylor, M. Scott, “Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, March 2007

The National Parks – In the Beginning,” National Geographic

The National Parks Service, “Theodore Roosevelt the Rancher

Our second installment in our environmental history series. National Parks in America


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