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Proto-Environmentalists, Public Policy and Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom R. Hulst
December 4, 2023

Photo of Lyman Glacier in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington State, by Peter Hulst

The development of environmental policy in the United States, owes much to the contributions of proto-environmentalists who historically laid the groundwork for wilderness preservation, pollution control and sustainability. Important twentieth century environmental advocates include John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Justice William O. Douglas. Their research, writings and activism led to major environmental policy initiatives in the 21st Century. Among the initiatives impacting public administration were the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, theNational Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970, the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

John Muir played a significant role in preserving America’s public lands. Born in Scotland in 1838, he moved to Wisconsin with his family, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He spearheaded legislation to create Yosemite National Park, which was signed into law in 1890 by President Harrison.  He worked with a presidential commission in the mid-1890’s that founded Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier National Parks as well as 13 national forests. This action left the natural resource lobbyists furious, however, and Congress rescinded President Cleveland’s executive order. Many land claims followed, filed by sheepherders, lumbermen and cattlemen, to access these virginal areas. As quoted by William O. Douglas in Muir of the Mountains, John Muir wrote in anger and disbelief that, “it took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods—–God himself has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools—only Uncle Sam can do that.”

Another early conservationist, Aldo Leopold, promoted the designation of “wilderness” areas as early as the 1920’s. Leopold was activist and writer just as Muir was before him. He completed graduate work at Yale University in forestry in 1909 and joined the U.S. Forest Service soon after President Theodore Roosevelt created it. He was subsequently appointed Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught until his death in 1948. In A Sand County Almanac Leopold famously opined that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals. . . a land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” Leopold’s ideas greatly influenced modern environmental policy, inspiring a shift toward holistic ecosystem management.

Rachel Carson, through her seminal work Silent Spring published in 1962, raised public awareness about the injurious use of pesticides—particularly DDT. A native of rural Pennsylvania, she grew up with enthusiasm for nature matched only by her love of writing. A marine biologist by training, her work was characterized by meticulous research and poetic elegance in her expression. Silent Spring exposed the environmental and human health hazards associated with widespread chemical use and sparked a world-wide protest. Carson’s work ignited the modern environmental movement, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the banning of DDT.

Justice William O. Douglas, raised in Yakima, Washington, in the early 1900’s, served on the United States Supreme Court for 36 years. In addition to his judicial opinions, he wrote 32 books, and 200 articles in magazines and law reviews. Douglas, an inveterate hiker, was passionate about the protection of the environment. He fought to defend both the world of ideas and the natural world from government intrusion. These twin elements of freedom are inextricably interwoven. The common theme is the human need for space—space to think, space to move and space to explore; and place; place to experience wonder, acquire meaning and learn stewardship. Douglas advocated ample room for people to exercise their minds as well as their muscles.

William O. Douglas did more than write letters and books about the environment—and compose Supreme Court decisions on the rights of nature. His actions often grew legs—literally! Douglas got directly engaged by organizing actions to preserve areas from despoliation. He led protest hikes to preserve wild places on the Olympic Peninsula and Glacier Peak in Washington State, the Buffalo River in Arkansas, Lake Erie, the Allagash River in Maine, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, the Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico and Allerton Park, in Illinois. He led his first such campaign, along the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Canal, that parallels the Potomac River near Washington, D. C. in 1954.

The contributions of these proto-environmentalists played a vital role in shaping environmental and administrative policy in the United States. They advocated for the conservation of natural resources, preservation of unspoiled landscapes and the defense of biodiversity. Their timeless efforts raised public awareness, produced important legislation and sparked the modern environmental movement. Today, their legacies continue to inspire policies and administrative practices that prioritize the protection of the planet for future generations.

Author: Tom R. Hulst received an MA in public administration from Washington State University, served as policy advisor to Washington Governor Daniel Evans, administrator in the State Office of Public Instruction, and superintendent of Peninsula School District. He published “The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas in 2004,” been a long time ASPA member, and teaches politics at Tacoma Community College. 

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