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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Environmental Victorian

In honor of Earth Day, here's a story about an early Wisconsin tree-hugger and dirt-worshipper.

By the 1850s, Wisconsin's lumber industry had begun to penetrate into the Chippewa and Wisconsin River watersheds. The forests seemed inexhaustible to most people, but Milwaukee scientist Increase Lapham (1811-1875) could see that unrestrained harvesting would cause irreparable damage to the environment. In 1854 he published an article urging that Wisconsin forests be carefully preserved, but his ideas ran against the grain and his warning went unheeded.

Lapham and the handful of renegade thinkers who agreed with him persisted. In 1867, the state legislature authorized an investigation of whether the lumber industry was likely to cause harm and what, if any, actions the government should take to prevent it. Lapham was appointed to chair the investigation, and he prepared this report with characteristic thoroughness and balance. It was ignored by policy makers, and Lapham remained a prophet in the wilderness.

As long as lumber companies could benefit from clear-cutting northern forests, Lapham's arguments fell on deaf ears. Not until long after his death, when much of northern Wisconsin had been turned into a wasteland, would twentieth-century legislators follow his advice.

By then, another Wisconsin environmentalist, John Muir (1838-1914), had helped create the conservation movement that spawned our national and state parks systems. Many of the letters Muir sent back to his Wisconsin friends are online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

Two generations later, another Wisconsin environmentalist, Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005), would lead the nation's effort to preserve the planet. The Society recently provided video clips of Nelson discussing the Apostle Islands and the St. Croix River, the conservation ethic, and how protecting the environment helps the economy to the Univ. of Wisconsin site that shares his legacy. Selections from Nelson's office files on the first Earth Day, in 1970, are also online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on April 21, 2011
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