Some History of Conservation Biology

The History of Conservation Biology
After the revolutions of the 1700’s, the general public
had greatly increased access to natural resources.
Soon afterwards, the Industrial Revolution made
those resources more easily exploited.
Five major eras of conservation activity have occurred in the last 150 years:
The disappearance of the eastern wildnerness – 1850-1865.
The closing of the western frontier – 1890-1905.
The Dust Bowl era – 1930-1940.
Population explosion and environmental pollution – 1960-1975.
The biodiversity crisis – 1990-?.
The Disappearance of the Eastern Wilderness
In the middle of the 19th Century, much of the eastern portion of
the United States had been “tamed”. The forests that had covered
that portion of the continent had been greatly diminished,
replaced by farms and towns.
At the same time, biology was undergoing a revolution, best
typified by the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in
1859. Placed humans as a part of nature rather than separate
from it.
A key point of Darwin’s theory, still not completely recognized, is
that organisms are adapted to a particular environment. If that
environment changes, organisms face the threat of extinction.
Passenger pigeon
As the eastern wilderness disappeared, there was a recognition by
writers and essayists of its aesthetic value.
Henry Thoreau suggested
that every township should
have a park, or a wilderness
area, that they maintained for
instructional purposes.
The idea of parks was carried
forward by several individuals.
One of the most influential
was Frederick Law Olmsted
Among many other projects,
Olmsted designed New York
City’s Central Park. This was
an effort to preserve “a
specimen of God’s
The Closing of the Western Frontier
By the close of the 19th Century:
1. Western settlement had reached the Pacific.
2. Ecology was emerging as a science.
John Muir became America’s most
influential naturalist and
John Muir - 1893
Muir was particularly
interested in the mountains of
California and Alaska. He
became the first president of
the Sierra Club.
John Muir with Teddy Roosevelt
During this period, several federal agencies were established for the management
of natural resources:
1. National Forest System – 1891
2. Division of Forestry of USDA – 1898
3. United States Bureau of Reclamation - 1902
4. United States National Wildlife Refuge system – 1903.
5. United States Forest Service – 1905
Pelican Island Refuge, in the
Indian River lagoon on Florida’s
east coast, was the first national
wildlife refuge. It provided
protection for egrets and other
wading birds.
Also during this period, the
nation’s national park system
expanded greatly.
Mt. Rainier
Sequoia, Mt. Rainier and Yosemite
National Parks were created during
the 1890’s.
As of 2006, there were 58 officially
designated parks within the National Park
Service. In addition, there are many
national monuments, national preserves,
national historic sites, and other
Shenandoah National Park, VA
Virgin Islands National Park, USVI
National Park Service
Congaree National Park, SC
The Dust Bowl Era
After the turn of the century, continuing population growth and
the Great Depression led to the spread of agriculture into
marginal lands. In the 1930’s, the South was plagued by floods
and erosion, while droughts and wind hit the central plains.
Conditions reached the extreme on Black Sunday April 14,
This led to a recognition of the fragility of the land, and a greater
understanding of the way in which human activity was linked to
the environment.
Another influential figure was Paul Sears (1891-1989). He
wrote Deserts on the March in 1935, dramatizing the crises of
land water management that were plaguing many areas of the
nation. Later, he chaired the Yale Conservation Program, the
first graduate program in conservation science in the U.S.
During the 1930’s, under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt,
federal agencies were established that were aimed at crises
related to land and water management. The most notable:
Tennessee Valley Authority – 1933
Soil Conservation Service - 1935
The Population Explosion and
Environmental Pollution
1962 - Rachel Carson expressed her
concerns about pesticides in Silent Spring.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population
Bomb expressed his concerns that the
rapid growth of human population
would lead to increasing problems.
There are those who disagree. Julian Simon
was a primary proponent of the
“concucopian” belief in endless benefits
from resources and unlimited population
growth empowered by technological
progress. His works are often cited by
On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio “caught fire”, leading to a
Time Magazine article and an increased concern about water pollution.
The Sixties and Seventies saw a great deal of conservation legislation.
Wilderness Act – 1964
Established an effective system of wilderness areas in
wildlife refuges.
national forests, parks, and
Establishment of Environmental Protection Agency – 1970
Charged with maintaining an environment safe for
humans and wildlife.
National Environmental Policy Act – 1970
Established a requirement for an environmental impact
involving federal support or
assessment for projects
Endangered Species Conservation Act – 1973
Designates, protects and encourages the recovery of
endangered species.
The Biodiversity Crisis
Paleontologists recognize five major mass extinctions in the history of the earth:
1. One extinction shortly after the evolution of the first land-based plants, about 450
million years ago.
2. One about 350 million years ago which led to the formation of the coal forests.
3. Two major extinctions during the Triassic period, between 250 and 200 million
years ago.
4. The great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period, about 65 million years
ago. This was probably caused by an asteroid impact and led to the extinction of
the dinosaurs.
Many biologists believe that we are currently in the midst of a
sixth major extinction. The cause? Us.
Alabama native Edward O. Wilson
has become one of the leading
advocates of biodiversity, and has
published extensively on the
Concerns over biodiversity have led to a number of developments:
• Computerized databases and species inventories.
• Modelling
• National Heritage Programs (State Level)
• Gap Analysis Programs (State Level)
• National Biological Service (Federal Level)
• Society for Conservation Biology
Alabama Natural Heritage Program
GAP Analysis Program
Mississippi Natural Heritage Program
What does the future hold?
The degradative effects of many activities will likely continue, at
least for a while. Among these:
Use of fossil fuel
Release of industrial chemicals
Tropical deforestation
Mismanagement of arid lands