Historical Lessons of Successful Conservation Movements


Clepsydra geyser erupting, Fountain Paint Pots, Yellowstone NP, WY. Photo by George Wuerthner

We do not want those whose first impulse is to compromise. We want no straddlers, for, in the past, they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval areas which should never have been lost.

– Bob Marshall on the founding of the Wilderness Society


There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of conservationists to forget or ignore history. A greater appreciation of past conservation victories as well as defeats can inform current efforts. In far too many cases, there is a tendency to believe that it is necessary to appease local interests typically by agreeing to weakened protections or resource giveaways to garner the required political support for a successful conservation effort. However, this fails to consider that in nearly all cases where effective protective measures are enacted, it has been done over almost uniform local opposition.

In those instances where local opposition to a conservation measure is mild or does not exist, it probably means the proposal will be ineffective or worse—even set real conservation backward.

Nevertheless, many environmentalists now believe that due to regional parochialism and lack of historical context, significant compromises are necessary to win approval for new conservation initiatives.

These compromises demonstrate a failure to learn the lessons from conservation history. In particular, it is striking that in today’s era of greater environmental awareness, many environmentalists are willing to propose compromises that offer far weaker protections for our public lands heritage than what was accomplished decades ago, when resource extraction industries had a much greater influence over local and regional economies.

LESSON ONE: Nearly all worthwhile conservation successes were established over strong local objections. This opposition is not surprising. Current land users have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Though environmental protection has been shown repeatedly to provide long term economic and social benefits to regions, those who benefit are often different from those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. We nearly always hear that protection will ruin the local economy.

Thus Yellowstone National Park was created by Congress mainly over the opposition of locals in Montana Territory, who wanted the park to remain open to homesteading, logging, and ranching. Indeed, annually for twenty years after establishing the park, Montana’s Congressional representatives introduced bills into Congress to undesignate the park. Fortunately, due to strong support for the park from the “dreaded eastern establishment,” these efforts did not succeed.

Similarly, when Franklin Roosevelt established Grand Teton National Monument in 1943, Jackson’s local leaders declared that Jackson would become a “ghost town,” and Wyoming’s Congressional delegation introduced a bill to eliminate the park. The bill successfully passed both branches of Congress. The monument only survived because Franklin Roosevelt vetoed the bill.

Tetons from Blacktail Ponds, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming Photo by George Wuerthner

Early efforts to create a park in the Olympic Mountains with the first park bill were introduced in 1904—a statement that was vigorously opposed by local timber interests. Teddy Roosevelt responded and established the Olympic National Monument in 1907 and put vast tracts of virgin timber off-limits to logging when logging was king.

Nevertheless, opposition from logging interests continued. However, in 1938 outside interests lead to the establishment of Olympic National Park. In the long run, the park’s creation has been shown to have substantial long-term benefits to the residents of the Olympic Peninsula. However, those who made their living by cutting down the Olympic Peninsula trees are not necessarily the same people who are now making a living from the park’s scenic, ecological, and tourism values.

Backpacker on High Divide frames Mount Olympus, Olympic National Park, WA Photo by George Wuerthner

LESSON TWO: Don’t assume all locals are opposed. Typically the most vocal opponents are those with the largest vested interest in maintaining the status quo. There may even be a “silent majority” that is at least neutral or mildly supportive of your proposal, but they are not the ones who control the local politics. However, whether one or many local supporters, nearly all successful conservation efforts rely upon outside leadership to issue a state or national concern. And there is usually some visionary (or group of visionaries) that led this national campaign ala John Muir (Yosemite), David Brower (Dinosaur), Bob Marshall (Gates of the Arctic), Olaus Murie (Arctic Wildlife Refuge), Willard Van Name, Rosalie Edge, and Irving Brant (Olympic),  George Dorr (Acadia), etc.

LESSON THREE:  Creating and generating the political case for strong conservation protection, as opposed to more limited or weak gains, often takes a while, sometimes a long time. For instance, in the 1930s, Bob Marshall publicly called for protecting all of the Brooks Range north of the Yukon River as a national park. It took until the 1980s for his vision to become a reality. Look at a map of northern Alaska. You will see that nearly the entire Brooks Range is now in some protected status between national wildlife refuges, national preserves, and national parks.

Gates of the Arctic NP, Brooks Range, Alaska. Photo by George Wuerthner

LESSON FOUR:  Pragmatists, in the end, leave messes for future generations to clean up.  Capitulating to local interests with half-baked compromises in the interest of expediency typically produces uneven results.  Either they do not adequately protect the land or create enormous headaches for future conservationists to undue often at a significant political and economic expense.

For instance, when the national forest system was first established, the lands were protected from commercial uses, much like our current national parks. However, in 1905, Gifford Pinchot proposed expanding this system of national forest reserves into national forests, opposition to the forest system from mining companies who wished to use timber from national forests for mining timbers and other mine construction lead to a compromise that permitted commercial logging. Some conservationists like John Muir were opposed to this compromise, but they lost in their efforts. Others felt that a compromise was needed, and besides, it was reasoned such a compromise would be harmless because most of the best timber was outside of the forest preserves and on private lands. No one could imagine there would be much demand for logging on national forest lands.

A similar compromise was also made regarding commercial livestock grazing to win over western ranchers. So commercial logging and ranching were put in place to neutralize western opposition to the forests—but we are still paying the price for that decision today.

Another example is Lake Tahoe—the gem of the Sierras. Initially, there was a movement to protect the lake as a national park. But in the interest of expediency and due to local opposition that wanted to log the great pine forests surrounding the lake, the park proposal was dropped in favor of national forest status. Today many of the problems that plague the Tahoe basin, including water quality decline, are a consequence of this decision, including the abundance of private lands (which could be settled within national forests but not parks).

Ponderosa pine frames Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada, CA. George Wuerthner

Point Reyes National Seashore represents another example. The park was created by the purchase of private ranchlands on the Point Reyes Peninsula. As a compromise, any rancher that wanted to remain on their former property and continue ranching/farming was given a 25 year grace period, after which they would be required to leave the property. Almost immediately, the ranchers began to lobby to extend the grace period. Today, fifty years later, they are still operating on the public lands and damaging the water, wildlife, and plant life of the peninsula. Had the Park Service and Congress done what any other property owner does upon purchasing land, which is to pay for the land and have the former owners leave, we would not be facing the prospect of another 20 years of livestock production on these parklands.

We’ll never know whether these compromises were necessary. One could argue that we would not have any national forests today if we had not made such compromises, but this is mostly conjectures. National support for parks and other preserves was very high, and it is likely national forests without logging and grazing would have won Congressional approval.

LESSON FIVE: Over time, most locals view conservation areas as an asset and source of pride. This change typically takes a couple of decades, but I know of no exceptions. Despite this realization that any particular park, wilderness, etc. is overall a benefit to the local and regional society does not typically result in local support for new conservation proposals as they come along. In other words, though people in Montana have grown to love Yellowstone National Park, there was still stiff local opposition to new wilderness areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park like the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness when it was created in 1978.

To illustrate one example, I will highlight the chief milestones along the way towards today’s Grand Canyon National Park.

Colorado River inner gorge from Tuweep (Tonoweap) overlook, Grand Canyon NP, AZ. Photo by George Wuerthner



1882. Senator Harrison (later president) introduces three proposals for a Grand Canyon National Park into Congress without success.

1883. Harrison, elected president, creates 15 forest preserves, including one surrounding the Grand Canyon.

1898. Coconino County Board of Supervisors passes resolution opposing new forest preserve—and attempts to have protections lifted.

1903. Teddy Roosevelt visits the canyon.

1906. Roosevelt signs a bill to create a large game range at canyon again over local opposition.

1908. Roosevelt asks his attorney general whether there was any limit on the size of areas that could be protected using the recently passed Antiquities Act (1906). The Act was created to protect “small” sites like Indian ruins. However, according to the attorney general, no size limit exists—so Roosevelt uses the Antiquities Act to create a million-acre Grand Canyon National Monument.

Residents in Arizona were outraged. Arizona’s congressional delegation succeeded in blocking all funding for the implementation of monument protection. They sued the federal government and went all the way to the Supreme Court. They argued that Roosevelt exceeded his powers and the original intention of the Antiquities Act. Supreme Court upholds the use of the Antiquities Act, and Grand Canyon National Monument remains.

Failing to eliminate the monument, opponents took a new tact—like Healthy Forests Initiative—they used the conservationists’ language to hide their real intent—to undercut protection. Knowing the national popular support for parks, in 1917, Arizona Senator Henry Ashurst introduced a bill to make the Grand Canyon a national park.

1919. Grand Canyon NP was signed into law—but freed up much of the valuable mining, timber, and grazing lands to satisfy local interests. The bill removed monument and park protection to grazing and timberlands, reducing the overall acreage protected by the national monument by 2/3!

1927. Growing popular support for parks and the Grand Canyon lead to the expansion of Park boundaries to 646,000 acres.

1932 Herbert Hoover declared a new Grand Canyon NM to protect an additional 273,000 more acres surrounding the existing national park.

1969. Marble Canyon NM was created.

1975. Grand Canyon Enlargement Act adds Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon NM to the existing Grand Canyon National Park. Creating a park of 1.1 million acres that finally equals in size the original national monument that Roosevelt had protected in 1908.

1979. UNESCO declares Grand Canyon, an official World Heritage Site.

In the 1990s, when federal budget issues threatened to close the park to visitors, the state of Arizona offered to pay rangers salaries to keep the park open—illustrating the complete change in attitude that now prevails.

2000 President Clinton designates just over 1 million acres as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument to protect much of the North Rim region of the canyon over locals’ objection. I predict that someday these lands will be added to Grand Canyon National Park.


The most important lesson is not to be discouraged when local people do not widely hold your idea for conservation protection. This should not prompt an immediate compromise to whatever legislation or goal you are pursuing. Instead, stick to the plan, and in many instances, you will prevail. Try to neutralize local opposition, but generate outside support if possible, make the issue a state or national issue.

For instance, it was downstate supporters in New York City that provided the political muscle to create the Adirondack State Park over residents’ objections. This park, now 6 million acres in size, has a clause that prohibits all logging on state lands.  If early park advocates had tried to mollify locals to accept park establishment, there would have undoubtedly been logging permitted in the new park. Instead, park supporters successfully rallied people from outside the region to help create the wilderness park we have today.

Autumn color High Peaks Adirondacks New York Photo by George Wuerthner

All legislation is compromise, but don’t be the one to do the compromising—that’s the job of Congress. Make your best case for the best protection. If you don’t achieve that goal in any particular legislation, you can decide to oppose it and attempt to stop it or accept it with compromises. For instance, if you want all the roadless country in a particular area designated as wilderness, propose it all as wilderness and make your best case to save it all. If Congress cuts that in half, you have still successfully made the case that all the roadless lands are qualified for wilderness, and you can always try to enact more protective legislation in the future for these lands. However, if in attempting to secure local support, you automatically say or accept the notion that some of these roadless lands are ecologically unimportant or are throw away lands that can be developed; you have lost your moral authority to fight for protection later.

When and where you compromise affects the outcome, not only current issues but shaped future expectations. Thus a long-term vision should always be kept in mind.


  1. rastadoggie Avatar

    “Wildlife News” inspires my motivation and inspiration, my “long-term vision”, like nothing else. What exemplary writing here.

    In honor of Marshall, Muir, Murie, Edge, Brower, Wuerthner et al. I will keep on, keeping on with my conservation goals.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Gabriel Smedley Avatar
    Gabriel Smedley

    This is great advice for if mountain lions are to be reintroduced into the east!

  3. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    This is a lesson that should be used by Democrats at this point in time! To compromise the RIGHT thing doesnt seem to accomplish all that much. As always Mr. Wuerthner is so good at bringing a really disruptive issue into the light!

  4. Terri Ducay Avatar
    Terri Ducay

    excellent article.thank you

  5. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    They compromise because they are captured by money – today industrial recreation.

    One just need view ONDA, KEEN, Wyden and Conservation Alliance, the Owyhee Canyonlands and all of Eastern Oregon.

    These oligarchs do buy enviro.orgs that are then used to promote their version of enlightened self interest, as per Sterling. A pittance from the 1%, marketing with a purpose to sell widgets and anarchistic access, from smoke filled tents virtuously using captured peons to dispose of the remaining wild and use Great American Outdoors Act welfare to garden (restore) the rest.

    In reality, almost every environmental group today is captured.

    I’m writing on this, going to open with the Big Outside, Wolke and Foreman, no compromise, and the ONRC High Desert Protection Act.

    Then, fill in the blanks to where we are today, ONDA, Wyden, collaboration, collusion, Steens, Owyhee, biomass, ruby, land trusts, various bills, and a compromised landscape, noting Wolke became an outfitter, Foreman’s ReWild Institute a Patagonia prostitute.

    The first initiatives for industrial recreation were the smoke filled rooms of the railroad barons, Harriman & Muir. Then, the automotive and the birth of the RV and outdoors as a virtue to be marketed, intricately again tied to public lands. We are currently in the third recreation oligarch epoch, these industrialists no different than any other era.

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      For fun.

      Steve Rendle makes $14M / year
      . If he donated it, he could fund the following (2018):

      : $1.6M
      : $892K
      : $4.2M
      : $1.2M
      : $3.6M
      : $200k
      : $240k

      And many more.


      All of

  6. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    In short, compromise is not a problem of unenlightened locals. Rather, compromise is a problem of the enlightened.

  7. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    One more thing on enlightenment.

    I’m again going to make the distinction between Conservation and Preservation, how 30+ years ago the environmental movement was more concerned with the latter than the former – and it shows legislatively, on the ground AND IN THE TITLE OF GEORGE’S PIECE.

  8. Beeline Avatar

    “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach”. Aldous Huxley

    My own first reaction is to never let your guard down. In a country that has become so devoted to profiteering through capitalism, some entity will always be attacking natural resources and rational thought. Trump has opened the old cages of authoritarian rule and has let the dogs of the inquisition back out to intimidate the population which has been stressed economically and physically. Stressed, fearful people do not always make the best decisions.

    If all a person can afford is a can of beans per day, it is difficult to convince them that the rain forests really matter. We cannot let pollution and today’s ‘commodificaton’ of everything become the static norm.

    Aldous Huxley also said “Who is going to educate the human race in the principles and practices of conservation”.

    Since ecologists and other scientists are not listened too that leaves Grandmother Earth. She has not been happy lately.

  9. Synthdawg Avatar

    Great article, Mr. Wuerthner. Thank you for the historical perspective.

  10. Evan Watson Avatar
    Evan Watson

    This kind of strategic decision making, informed by history and science is as important as ever. It seems the modern political landscape is driven by both an apocalyptic sense of panic and the fleeting impulses of cyber-addled masses. Political will exists, but it needs to be directed by strategic thinking like this. The trend in the last several decades among the environmentally concerned (and more broadly among any group questioning the role and power of money) is to confuse the discourse to the point of paralysis. When change is demanded over the roar of confusion its done by representatives who come to the negotiating table ready to make every compromise they have prepared.

    That said, compromise has resulted in some huge conservation successes. Ecosystems free from human control can change in a multitude of healthy ways, fast and slow, subtle and sudden. Our strategies to protect them should emulate this strength. For example, the National Forest system has it’s shortcomings but that should be expected of a system working in the middle ground between pristine landscapes and fully human altered ones. Refusing to recognize the middle ground perpetuates the myth that “nature” is in the mountains, while everything else belongs to humans. Breaking this duality, recognizing that the human and non-human world are intrinsically linked is the messy, complicated path that has been modeled by the very ecosystems we are aiming to protect.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner