Friday, January 23, 2015

The Progressives and the Environment: the Beginning of the Conservation Movement

As I've already mentioned, there are LOTS of topics that could potentially be studied in a unit on Progressivism. Why pick one over another? I like to spend a couple of days on the environment--a topic less often addressed by teachers, I think--for a few reasons. First, the care of the natural environment is a central concern in our society today and one that students seem to care about a lot. Global warming, the Keystone oil pipeline, fracking and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are all in the news today. Two, there are not a lot of other places in the curriculum where the environment comes up. And three, the Progressive Era marks a key "turning point" in American thinking about the environment.

For starters, 1916 marks the passage of the Organic Act, which created the National Park Service (though not the first national park--that was Yellowstone in 1872). According to this law, the goal of the NPS would be:
" 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." 

I am hardly the first to point out the inherent contradictions of this statement: does "conserve the scenery" and keeping it "unimpaired for enjoyment of future generations" mean the NPS might have to restrict current public access and "enjoyment"?

The National Parks have been described by environmentalist and writer Wallace Stegner as, "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." The creation of the NPS is certainly a milestone moment in American history and worth considering. (See below for links to Ken Burns documentary on National Parks).

The essential question that comes to mind is, why now? Why in the early 20th century do Americans and their government begin talking about the environment in a way that they hadn't before? How did our views about the environment change over time?

One way to begin a lesson on this topic is to have students play around with some key words, considering what they mean, how they are different and their own views:

  • environmentalism
  • conservation
  • preservation
  • wilderness
  • nature
  • green (not the color, obviously)
  • reclamation
Another way to begin is to use a few quotations about environmentalism and conservation. Pick a few from any of the websites below. Something from Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Wallace Stegner, or Stewart Udall are all good choices.

The DBQ I put together and used with students focuses on this question:
How and why did the government's policy toward the use of natural resources change during the Progressive Era?
 To answer the question, obviously students need to understand 3 things:
  1. What were American views/govt policies on the environment before the Progressive Era?
  2. What influenced the shift? i.e. why did policies change?
  3. What were those new policies? i.e. how did they change
To answer these, you can go back to the "beginning"--the period of initial contact between Europeans and Native Americans. William Cronon is the historian who has probably best explained the different points of view in his book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. For a brief summary, you can look here. One of his key points is that Europeans viewed land as property, something one owns, versus the New England Indians who were more likely to eschew land ownership in favor of usufruct rights, in which people "owned" only what they use on the land (e.g. hunting and gathering).

But I usually just go back to the nineteenth century, with a simple in class activity in which students look up a few bits of information about the topics below (most textbooks will work for this, and "a few bits" is all they usually have):
  • manifest destiny
  • Homestead Act of 1862
  • Pacific Railway Act and government subsidies
  • destruction of the buffalo
Then students consider what implications this has about how the American people and the government thought about land, conservation and the environment. Middle schoolers and high schoolers can do this, though middle schoolers may need either a little prodding, or you can do one of them together. Their ability to do it depends a little bit on what your textbook says about each of these things. If you don't like what your textbook says, find a different one, or write up your own "definitions" of them.

Then it's time to examine the shift. For this part of the lesson, I use two things:

  1. maps:  one that depicts the "closing" of the frontier and the extent of settlement (your textbook probably has one). Here are some links to ones you might like:, and here's a GIF one from the US Census.
  2. Frederick Jackson Turner and the "Closing of the Frontier Turner" thesis. Read more here and here or here. Even though it has been discredited, it was considered important at the time. I'm not sure I would use this with middle schoolers. Too theoretical. I think the maps are enough. Here is the document and questions on Turner that I use in class.
Combining the above with the significant droughts of the 1890s, you can start to understand the shift.

And then along come Theodore Roosevelt. My last post has resources where you can find more on his love for the wilderness and experiences with nature that led him to take an interest in preserving the environment just as the time seems to ripe for Americans to take a similar view.

I like to use Roosevelt's 1907 message to Congress as a document with students to understand the evolving view of conservation (vs. the preservationist view of folks like John Muir). Here is my edited version to use with high schoolers, and here is a shorter one to use with middle schoolers or younger/less able readers in HS. Both have the link to the PBS website where I found it.

And then lastly (this would not all be on the same day, mind you), I like to use the story about the debate over damming the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite to provide a water source for the city of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. It is a fascinating story and marks "the first time that competing claims of wilderness and civilization were put to the test before a national audience." (That's from my notes, but I'm sure it came from a book. Perhaps it's from the classic book on wilderness, Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind, now in its fourth edition. There's a whole chapter on Hetch Hetchy.)

The anti-dam folks, led by preservationist John Muir, made arguments that the pro-dam folks were putting commercial interests ahead of wilderness. Muir had been the driving force behind getting Yosemite turned into a national park in 1890 and had been camping with Roosevelt there in 1903. Muir was adamant about the importance of preserving the valley as it was:
"Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
Muir's friend and ally in the fight, Robert Underwood Johnson claimed, "this is a fight between the sordid commercialism on the one hand and the higher interests of the whole people on the other."

But the really interesting thing about the debate over Hetch Hetchy is that the proponents of the damn were not anti-wilderness. In fact, many arguments were made that putting a dam in would make the wilderness more beautiful. Read no further than the first few statements by U.S. Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot in response to California Congressman John Raker to get a sense of the argument.

You have several options for how to teach about this. You could construct an elaborate debate like this one that I found online, or use some of the many materials there to construct something simpler (and shorter). Other resources you can use to create your own debate or historical inquiry or even just a short lecture that dramatizes the events are below:

    Ken Burns has taken Wallace Stegner's statement about the national parks idea and turned it into one of his outstanding documentaries, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. For an overview of this documentary, click here and for the episode by episode synopsis, click here.

    The last section of Episode 2 focuses on the debate over Hetch Hetchy. Read more here (midway on the page). Earlier in Episode 2, the three main characters of the debate are introduced: Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, as well as Theodore Roosevelt.

    A few more resources:

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