The battles of the American West haven’t always been fought by cowboy gunslingers. Some of this nation’s most epic showdowns have been between those who promote commercial expansion and those who promote conservation.
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir: Visions That Founded Western Environmentalism
President Theodore Roosevelt is literally a part of the Western landscape, carved into the rock of Mount Rushmore. This rough rider and his Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, capitalized on laws that authorized the president to set aside forest lands for public benefit. They went to town, establishing 230 million acres of public lands.
Roosevelt’s contemporary John Muir founded the Sierra Club to promote the wilderness and wrote articles in popular magazines to champion his cause. “By far the greater part of [the] destruction of the fineness of wildness is of a kind that can claim no right relationship with that which necessarily follows use,” he penned in an 1890 article about proposals for Yosemite National Park. In 1903, Muir introduced President Roosevelt to Yosemite. In 1906, reflecting on that visit’s impact, Roosevelt expanded Yosemite Park.
But plenty of interested people, especially ranchers who worked the western land, opposed the goal of land protection. In 1907, an Oregon congressman desperate to protect timber interests delivered the Fulton Amendment, a major blow against conservation efforts. It restricted the president’s authority to increase or add new forest reserves in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.
The president signed that amendment into law…just as soon as he named 21 new forests in the region. Questionable tactics, maybe. Deliberate flouting of the intentions of a new law, definitely. But visionaries don’t ask for permission.
The Mighty Pen: A Midcentury Chapter in the Conservation Saga
Wallace Stegner (1909–1993) authored some of America’s most celebrated novels and founded a prestigious writing program at Stanford University. The born westerner also foretold (and lived through) the consequences of plundering the arid American West. He used his own rootless western childhood to explain how false promises of wealth and glory have always dogged the land beyond the 100th meridian.
In 1960, he urged nature stewards to see the value of wilderness for its own sake. Ignoring or destroying nature to increase human comforts was going to hurt the species in the long run, he said: “Just as surely as [the exploitation of nature for production] has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us.” This famous Wilderness Letter helped to inspire the passage of the Wilderness Preservation System.
While Stegner tended to be the measured academic, working in the system to protect his beloved West, his former student Edward Abbey (1927–1989) showed his love of the land using a raw, countercultural literary style. Abbey’s classic, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, details his work as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument. His most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, gave America a new vocabulary—“monkey wrenching” means willfully disrupting environmentally destructive operations.
Though the two authors didn’t see eye to eye on methods, there’s no doubt they helped create a new understanding of environmentalism and gave fresh perspective to the American West.
Modern Sustainability: Movements for Sustainable Living
Sometimes it feels like the West has been totally carved up. Our wild spaces have been defined. But recently, President Obama signed new public land into existence in the California desert.
The preservation legacy will always be a story of competing interests and hard-won victories. But as long as there are rebels, political schemers and true lovers of the wild, the process will continue. There’s still open space to fight for.