the origins of america's national parks -- 6/16/17

Today's selection -- from The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley. In early American history, the promotion of nature preserves and national parks came from elite gentleman hunters and fishermen. In fact, the legendary painter John James Audubon, considered a founder of America's conservation movement, was an avid huntsman. Notably, President Andrew Jackson was not a supporter of nature preserves. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who is remembered for his enthusiastic support for conservation and national parks:

"[In the early 1900s, President Theodore] Roosevelt and [American Museum of Natural History curator Frank] Chapman weren't unique in their promotion of vast re­serves. They were, in fact, reviving conservationist convictions that had been stalled by shortsighted politicians. Since the American Revolution the idea of game bird laws and habitat conservation had struck a respon­sive chord. In 1828 President John Quincy Adams set aside more than 1,378 acres of live oaks on Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola Bay. Although Adams's personal journals did, at times, show an abiding interest in birds, his motivation for saving Santa Rosa Island was ultimately utilitarian: its durable wood could be used to construct future U.S. naval vessels. But even such a low-grade conservationist effort as Adams's tree preserve drew a fierce backlash. Running for president in 1832, Andrew Jackson denounced Adams's tree farm as an un-American federal land grab, an unlawful attempt to deny Floridians timber to use as they saw fit. 'Old Hickory,' as Jackson was nicknamed, believed God made hardwood ham­mock to cut and birds to eat. He ridiculed New England swells like Adams as effete, anachronistic sportsmen overflowing with ridiculous notions of, 'fair chase' rules and regulations for simply killing critters.

"While Jackson clearly lacked the conservationists' foresight, he was correct in labeling Adams and others who applied etiquette to hunting as aristocrats. Because New England had such strong cultural ties to Great Britain -- where the idea of wildlife preserves (hunting) for aristocrats was an accepted part of the society since the reign of King William IV (1830-1837) -- it's little surprise that America's first true conservationists came from the northeast. Starting in 1783 there were dozens of 'sports­man' companion books, which promoted strict guidelines for upper-class gentleman hunters in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Furthermore, in 1832 the painter and sportsman George Catlin, return­ing from a sketching trip in the Dakotas, lobbied the U.S. government to establish 'a magnificent park' in that region, to be populated by buffalo, elk, and Indians and marketed as a world-class tourist attraction. Filling his western reports with exclamatory prose, Catlin envisioned a 'nation's park' that would contain 'man and beast, in all the wildness and fresh­ness of their nature's beauty!'

"That same year John James Audubon hinted at the need for aviaries when he intrepidly journeyed around Florida, paint box and gun in hand, traveling from Saint Augustine to Ponce de Leon Springs and the Saint Johns River to Indian Key to Cape Sable to Sardes Key and finally to Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Yet he still wrote enthusiastically about massacring brown pelicans and legions of other shorebirds in the Florida Keys. 'Over those enormous mud-flats, a foot or two of water is quite suf­ficient to drive all the birds ashore, even the tallest Heron or Flamingo, and the tide seems to flow at once over the whole expanse,' he wrote. 'Each of us, provided with a gun, posted himself behind a bush, and no sooner had the water forced the winged creatures to approach the shore than the work of destruction commenced. When it at length ceased, the collected mass of birds of different kinds looked not unlike a small hay­cock.' ...

"Although [a] prescient article [on conservation] was added as a last chapter to [Henry David] Tho­reau's classic The Maine Woods after his death, our great national hermit, in truth, was an anomaly in pre-Civil War America. His condemnation of the 'war on wilderness' was, as the conservation scholar Doug Stewart put it, 'a mere whisper in the popular conscience.' Instead, the pilot­-light credit for galvanizing what the conservationist Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac (1949), called 'the land ethic' belonged to well-to­-do Eastern Seaboard hunters who loomed over the early campaigns to create wilderness preserves. In other words, Thoreau the poet contemplated nature preserves in the Atlantic Monthly while hunting clubs like the Ad­irondack Club and the Bisby Club circa 1870 started actually creating pre­serves in the Adirondacks.

"Long before Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot were born, in fact, New York's aristocratic hunters, using sportsmen's newspa­pers and circulars to deliver their message, challenged loggers and saw­mill operators and every other kind of forest exploiter to abandon their reckless clear-cutting. They wanted places like the Adirondacks saved for aesthetic and recreational pleasures. The precedent these pioneering gentlemen hunters started needed an indefatigable champion like Theo­dore Roosevelt to put the U.S. government fully on the side of the bird and game and forest preserves."



Douglas Brinkley


The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2009 by Douglas Brinkley


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