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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : March/April 2006 : Guest Column

Guest Column

Getting Back to Nature
During the past century, Americans have worked hard to reconcile city life with the great outdoors.

by Dennis Walsh


What I always liked about downtown areas was the people. It was like a circus. I could walk for hours just watching and listening; panhandlers, businessmen and wide-eyed tourists moving to the rhythm of the city in constant motion. The American people have always had a complex relationship balancing city life with nature. At the turn of the century, old attitudes about nature and the environment began to change. And for more than 100 years, we have fought to protect the environment.

The American Industrial Revolution, accelerating after the Civil War, had taken a heavy toll on the nation’s forests, waters and lands. Environmental problems became matters of public debate. Topping the list, the prospect of the nation running out of natural resources was real. By the end of the 19th century, the United States was an industrialized society. Whatever happened downtown, in our country’s capital cities, affected the rest of our world. Downtown was a center for wealth, greed and passion; the very lifeblood that rushed through the veins of our nation. The noise of the traffic, the angry shouts, the racial slurs mingled with the bright lights and street fights. People began looking for deeper understanding. Many of the country’s natural resources were already threatened.

Americans long relied on forests for heat, food and shelter. Timber had become a precious commodity in Europe by the time explorers first came to North America. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for “opportunity.” What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, the ever-retreating frontier has been to the United States. Settlers needed timber for building; a typical New England household could cut more than an acre of forest each year for firewood. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. History tells of the pastoral stage; the exploitation of the soil by unrotated crops; the intensive culture of farm settlement; and the organization of the city and factory system.
Immigrants—attracted by cheap frontier lands—were drawn onward by the love of wilderness freedom.

The rise of the industrial city and the closing of the frontier encouraged a new appreciation for pristine landscapes. The threat of pollution led to efforts to improve the urban environment. But the conservation movement attracted attention first. The growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions depended on the advance of the frontier. Frontier individualism promoted democracy. Frontier settlement pioneered individualism, democracy and nationalism. Forests were quickly depleted. Clear-cutting millions of acres soon created environmental change. Without tree shade, air and water temperatures increased, and soil became susceptible to erosion and flooding.

Conservation consciousness first emerged as a complex, broadly popular political and cultural movement, based largely on a growing appreciation among newly urbanized Americans for the importance of nature as an economic, aesthetic and spiritual resource. Views of nature as a sublime and picturesque landscape had become an essential part of experiencing nature for the middle class. In the 19th century, only the ruling class had the time and money to tour because of the expense of transportation and travel. A craze for sublime experience entailed a new appreciation of natural phenomena with a vision that blurred the boundary between celestial and terrestrial. The romantic desire to escape from civilization into the rejuvenating arms of sublime nature was overwhelming.

The Rise Of Tourism
John Muir founded the Sierra Club in this atmosphere of support for the conservation of natural resources. The American hospitality industry—dependent on renewable resources—was supportive. Nature conservation and tourism emerged as an important cultural activity in the United States. Steamboats and canals allowed for greater mobility, and the nation’s writers and artists focused their attention on American scenery. Their work conferred value on the scenes represented and helped shape the vision of the tourists who visited them. Their common root was the ideology of romanticism with its new look at wild nature.

The quest for and construction of the sublime, beautiful and scientific in nature are often found throughout the history of American environmental tourist attractions, and are inseparably intertwined with American concerns about national identity, culture and industrialization. For groups such as the American Forestry Association, preservation came at a social cost. The lands preservationists viewed as “wild” often were inhabited by Native Americans.

Frontiersmen once described huge herds of bison. The end came during the 1870s when half the Assiniboine people starved to death. In the process, the American bison was nearly wiped out. That’s why Yellowstone bison have a special place in the heritage of all Americans. They represent the only continuously surviving wild herd left in the nation. Native Americans are restoring their cultural identity by bringing back the bison to their tribal lands.

In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, which gave the president the authority to set aside lands in the public domain. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt set aside about 80 million acres of forested lands. One of President Roosevelt’s favorite causes was the protection of America’s wilderness territories, and by 1901 Roosevelt had reserved 150 million acres with a few strokes of his pen. The United States passed the National Park Service Act, which stated that parks were to be “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Park construction was part of a broader effort to improve the aesthetics of the metropolis. Americans took up camping, bird watching and other outdoor recreation as a way to escape crowded cities—and found a happy medium between the two.

Dennis Walsh has worked for companies such as Levi Strauss and Indy Racing. He has a great interest in environmental issues and the history behind them. He can be reached at

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