Teaching the Article
Exercise 1

All of the materials associated with this exercise are available for download.

Conservation, Preservation, and the Management of Public Lands

Why does the federal government own one-third of the land in the United States? In the mid-nineteenth century, the federal government’s policy was to give western lands away. It gave land away by the square mile to railroads and in 160-acre parcels to homesteaders. But in the late nineteenth century, as concerns arose over the devastation of the bison, the destructive consequences of mining, the rapid expansion of logging, and the future of the nation’s natural resources more broadly, forward-looking conservationists began to urge the federal government to take new responsibility for the nation’s public lands and resources.

As a result, the federal government remains the largest landowner in America, managing much of the nation’s lands in the public interest. A map of the West today reveals a jigsaw puzzle of federal lands: national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. This puzzle is the product of an ongoing discussion that began in the late nineteenth century with debates over the conservation and preservation of America’s natural resources.

Federal Land and Indian Reservation

Conservationists aimed to improve on nature by managing forests, regulating wildlife populations, and building dams to harness the bounty of nature for the public good. Surely, they argued, such government oversight was necessary and far preferable to the unrestrained logging, mining, and exploitation of the nineteenth century. Gifford Pinchot, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a close advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt, was the conservationists’ leader. In The Fight for Conservation (1910), Pinchot urged the government to manage the nation’s resources for “the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.”

Preservationists, in contrast, opposed the conservationists’ hard-nosed reasoning. The preservationists best-known leader was John Muir, the president of the newly founded Sierra Club (which remains one of the nation’s foremost environmental groups). They urged the government to set aside public lands for their recreational and spiritual values. In Our National Parks (1901), Muir wrote, “[t]housands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

American historians have often relied on these conceptions of “conservation” and “preservation” to organize and categorize early American environmental thought. But emphasizing that binary has made it easy to overlook the similarities between those two approaches to managing public lands, the tensions within them, and the objections to the new role given to the government in managing the nation’s resources. After reading the documents below, discuss the following questions, using specific documents to support your claims.


  1. Did Gifford Pinchot and John Muir agree on the role of the government in protecting the public lands? What distinguished their approaches? In what ways did their visions overlap?
  2. Are the goals and rationales of conservation and preservation evident in the authorizing language for the national forests (1897) and the National Park Service (1916)? What about on the Web sites of these agencies today?
  3. Pinchot and Muir focused on the importance of protecting the national interest. For whose interests does Senator William Andrews Clark speak? How do his concerns prefigure more recent opposition to public lands protection in the West?

Group Work Suggestion

Break students into three groups and assign each group to represent Pinchot, Muir, or Clark. Then stage a debate over the uses and management of and role of the federal government regarding the nation’s public lands.


Web Sites



Further Reading

One of the most dynamic areas of scholarship on the early American environmental movement has been on the social consequences of federal land protection for the native and rural peoples living in the American West. The work of Mark Spence, Karl Jacoby, and Benjamin Johnson highlight both the consequences of federal conservation policy in the rural West and the resistance to it by Native Americans and rural residents.