The Conservation Movement

Between 1850 and 1920, concern for the natural world emerged as a complex and broadly popular political and cultural movement in the United States. Newly urbanized Americans were becomingly increasingly aware of the importance of nature as an economic, aesthetic, and spiritual resource, especially as they became convinced that nature's resources were imperiled by industrialization. This movement led to unprecedented public and private initiatives to ensure the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of wildlife and of land. By the turn of the twentieth century, Wisconsin had become a center of conservation thinking and activity in the United States.

Increase Lapham is generally considered the founder of the conservation movement in Wisconsin. Arriving in Milwaukee three days before Wisconsin became a territory in 1836, Lapham kept careful records on the environment that served as models for those who followed him. In the 1850s, when Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh were advocating similar concepts in New England, Lapham began to argue for an ecological point of view toward the Wisconsin frontier. In 1855 he urged the state legislature to authorize a natural history survey before any more of Wisconsin's native species became extinct under the brunt of white settlement and industrialization. He also warned about the devastation of state forests, fifty years before it became an issue of national importance. Lapham's book, Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin , published in 1867, was one of the first books to stress the importance of natural resources. He wrote other books about the state's native grasses and Indian effigy mounds.

During the same decade, Wisconsin's best-known environmental thinker was immersed in farm chores near Portage. Though he would achieve his greatest fame for his years in California, John Muir spent his formative years in Wisconsin. In 1849, the Muir family immigrated to the United States from Scotland. Until he entered the University of Wisconsin in 1861, Muir worked from dawn-to-dusk on his family farm near Portage, roaming the fields and woods whenever he was allowed a short period away from the plow. Muir was also an inventor, creating an alarm clock that would tip up his bed and dump him on the floor at the appointed time. He showed this "early-rising machine" at the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair. Muir later wrote that his strenuous years in Wisconsin's outdoors prepared him for his later wilderness ramblings.

In the second half of the 19th century lumberjacks swept across the central and northern portions of our state. Saving some of Wisconsin's forests from the lumber industry was one motivation for the first state parks. In 1878, the legislature approved "The State Park," a 760-square mile state area in northern Wisconsin. The proposal was ill-fated from the start though, because the state owned just ten percent of the total land within its boundary and the population was too small to support the project. Lumber barons who opposed its provisions were the primary power brokers in the region, and the state eventually sold two-thirds of its land to private interests in 1897.

At the turn of the century, Robert La Follette's progressive politics influenced the rise of conservation concerns on the state level. Rebelling against the political influence of the lumber barons, La Follette led the fight to protect Wisconsin's natural resources from complete economic exploitation. He also worked closely with professors at the University of Wisconsin, including geologist and University president (1903-1918) Charles Van Hise. Van Hise chaired the State Conservation Commission, provided conservation advice to Teddy Roosevelt, and wrote the first textbook on conservation in 1910.

In these early years of land conservation, the creation of each new state park required separate legislative action. The First State Park Board was appointed in 1907 and John Nolen, a noted landscape architect, was hired to draft a feasibility plan for a State Park System. Nolen's report, published by The State Park Board, provided guidelines for a park system and recommended the creation of four state parks: Devil's Lake, the Dells of the Wisconsin River, Fish Creek in Door County, and the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. All but the Dells of the Wisconsin River became state parks soon after. In 1915, the State Park Board merged with the State Board of Forestry, the Fisheries Commission, and the State Game Warden Department to form a new agency, the State Conservation Commission.

Forest conservation was also essential to Wisconsin's Indian populations. For centuries, the Menominee had practiced extensive forest management, even as logging became a major industry and source of income for the tribe in the 19th century. Unlike many other areas of the state, the forests on the Menominee reservation were not clear-cut and burned. Today, the Menominee are known worldwide for their sustainable forestry practices, maintaining forest land on 220,000 of their 235,000 acres.

These early conservation efforts would inspire a later generation of Wisconsin environmentalists, who would breathe new life and introduce new goals to the movement to protect the state and the world's resources.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 5 and 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "State Parks History" Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (online at http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks/Centennial/chronology.html); "John Muir Exhibit" Sierra Club (online at http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Recollections of John Muir in Prairie du Chien, 1860-61.Recollections of John Muir in Prairie du Chien, 1860-61.
Link to article: Madison boasts the nation's first fish hatcheryMadison boasts the nation's first fish hatchery
Link to article: The CCC tackles forest fires in Northern Wisconsin, 1934The CCC tackles forest fires in Northern Wisconsin, 1934
Link to article: Increase Lapham surveys Wisconsin's trees, 1858Increase Lapham surveys Wisconsin's trees, 1858
Link to book: Constitution of the Wisconsin Game Protective Association, 1900Constitution of the Wisconsin Game Protective Association, 1900
Link to book: A Lake Geneva home becomes a refuge for native plants and birdsA Lake Geneva home becomes a refuge for native plants and birds
Link to book: A Guide to CCC Camps in Wisconsin, 1937A Guide to CCC Camps in Wisconsin, 1937
Link to book: Progressive-era conservation efforts, 1917-1922Progressive-era conservation efforts, 1917-1922
Link to book: Wisconsin's earliest forest conservation plea, 1867Wisconsin's earliest forest conservation plea, 1867
Link to book: The Forestry Commission urges the creation of a state forest system, 1898
The Forestry Commission urges the creation of a state forest system, 1898
Link to book: A conservation education camp opens in Eagle RiverA conservation education camp opens in Eagle River
Link to book: John Nolen drafts a plan for a state park system in 1909John Nolen drafts a plan for a state park system in 1909
Link to collections: The Killing of Chief Joe White (Gishkitawag), 1894The Killing of Chief Joe White (Gishkitawag), 1894
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868
Link to images: Pictures of John MuirPictures of John Muir
Link to images: Smokey Bear visits Milwaukee in 1954Smokey Bear visits Milwaukee in 1954
Link to images: Birdseye view of the first Wisconsin Fish HatcheryBirdseye view of the first Wisconsin Fish Hatchery
Link to images: A CCC recruitment poster, 1939A CCC recruitment poster, 1939
Link to images: Pictures of the cutover lands in northern WisconsinPictures of the cutover lands in northern Wisconsin
Link to manuscript: 30 original manuscript letters of John Muir, 1861-191430 original manuscript letters of John Muir, 1861-1914
Link to manuscript: A visit to John Muir in his dorm room, ca. 1862.A visit to John Muir in his dorm room, ca. 1862.
Link to manuscript: John Muir's younger brother recalls their boyhood.John Muir's younger brother recalls their boyhood.
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