The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States

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The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States

"The Principles of Conservation"

Book excerpt

By: Charles Richard Van Hise

Date: 1879

Source: Van Hise, Charles Richard. The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

About the Author: American geologist, educator, and conservationist, Charles Richard Van Hise (1857–1918) was dedicated throughout his career to preserving and creating environmental resources as well as guaranteeing their accessibility and benefits in a democratic way to the entire body of the citizenry. As president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 until his death, Van Hise, convinced that the boundaries of the campus ought to extend beyond the campus to the entire state, built a network of university educational and conservation services in Wisconsin. His network—called "The Wisconsin Idea"—became a model for university extension programs throughout the United States. He served as an advisor on matters of conservation to President Theodore Roosevelt, who, from 1903 until he left office in 1909, created 42 million acres (about 17 million hectares) of national forests, fifty-three national wildlife refuges, and eighteen areas of natural and national interest including the Grand Canyon. During this time, Van Hise also acted as chairman of the Wisconsin State Conservation Commission. His book, The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States was the first American textbook written about America's natural resources and advocating conservation. Characteristically, its scope is wide. Van Hise includes discussions of public health, work and occupational issues, natural resources conservation, and agricultural techniques.


The presidency of Roosevelt (1901–1909) marked a period of redefinition for the role of the Federal government in American life. Called the Progressive Era, the years surrounding Roosevelt's administration saw a great strengthening of the Federal government, which began to play a significant role in the regulation of many aspects of American life. This activism was the result of what many saw as a crisis that had developed from the growth of industrial activity. The aspects of this crisis were brought to public attention daily by a number of investigative writers in fiction and journalism. President Roosevelt called them "muckrakers" because of the way they dug up "dirt." Among them were Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, and Upton Sinclair. They wrote about corruption in industry as in the case of Standard Oil or the Chicago meat packers, in municipal politics, and in slum dwelling. While the muckrakers exposed industrial perils, naturalists and conservationists like John Muir (a founder of the Sierra Club) and Van Hise were describing the natural world and its glories, waging a battle to protect it from the ravages of industrial production and consumption.



The Principles of Conservation The principles of conservation are different as applied to the different resources.

Coal, peat, oil, and gas are limited in amount. Their process of manufacture is so slow as to be negligible. When extracted from the earth, they must be used, if not at once, within a short time, and when so used are gone forever. Therefore the principles of conservation applicable to them are as follows:—

Conservation of coal, oil, and gas.

In reference to coal, reduce the waste in mining and in use. The waste in mining, now 50 per cent, should be reduced to 25 or 10 per cent; beehive ovens should be abolished; the smoking chimney should be condemned as a nuisance; the gas engine should be substituted for the steam engine. So far as practicable, substitutes should be used for coal; and of these that of developing power by water instead of coal is the most important. Even if all possible economics and substitutes are introduced, the most sanguine cannot hope that the supply of fuels will be sufficient to meet the needs of the people for more than a small fraction of the time we look forward to as the life of this nation. In reference to oil, so far as practicable it should be saved for the higher uses; these are for light and lubricant; only those oils not adapted to these purposes should be used for fuel. Exportation of oil should be prohibited. New wells should be opened up only as fast as necessary to meet the needs under the above principles. In reference to natural gas, the great and pressing necessity is to stop its appalling waste by enacting and enforcing proper legislation. This ideal fuel should be used with the severest economy in order to prolong its life, which will be brief at best.

The metals, like coal, are absolutely limited in amount. Their quantity cannot be added to by any effort of man; but unlike coal, when extracted from the earth and reduced to metallic form, they may be used again and again. The principles applicable to the metals are as follows:—

Conservation of the metals.

First, reduce to a minimum the waste in mining and extracting. At the present time, for certain of the metals these wastes are extraordinarily high, especially for lead and zinc. In many cases by proper practice these losses may be reduced to one half or even one third their present amounts. Second, the metals should not be used for purposes such as destroy them by a single use, as is the case with lead and zinc when made into paint. Third, the metals should not be used in such a way as rapidly to deteriorate, as is the case when iron without a protective covering is exposed to the weather….

Use water fully.

With water, the principles of conservation are different from those of coal and the metals. Each year, a vast quantity of water, through the power of the sun, is taken from the sea and added to the land supply. A roughly equivalent amount flows from the land to the sea. The water is over in circulation, passing from the ocean to the land and from the land to the sea. The problem of the conservation of the moving water is therefore its complete utilization- and that for domestic purposes, for water power, for navigation, and for irrigation. Its use for one of these purposes does not exclude its use for others. Thus, water which is used for domestic purposes may be used for irrigation; indeed this use is most advisable for such water, because of its fertilizing contents. Water used for power may be used for domestic purposes, for navigation, or for irrigation. Water used for navigation may be later used for domestic purposes, for water power, or for irrigation. Water used for irrigation is in part evaporated, but in part goes back to the stream and may be again used for other purposes.

Renew forests as fast as used.

The forests are unlike fuels and minerals in that they may be renewed, but slowly. To renew a forest takes from 50 to 100 years, and for some classes of forests an even longer time. The principle of conservation in reference to the forests is that we may use them, but not more freely than they can be renewed. This is the measure of their wisest consumption. To the present time we have been using the forests much more rapidly than they have been produced. In order to secure this balance we must reduce fire losses; we must reduce the great waste; so far as possible we must utilize by-products; we must substitute cement and stone and brick for wood. Finally, we must increase the growth of the forests….

Reduce erosion to rate of soil making.

The principles of soil conservation are somewhat like those of the forests. The soils may be renewed by the processes of nature, but very slowly; indeed probably at a rate not to exceed one inch in from 500 to 1000 years. The first principle of conservation of the soils is not to allow erosion to occur more rapidly than it is manufactured. The second principle is not to deplete the soil in those elements limited in amount which are necessary for plant food,-nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and especially phosphorus, for the latter is the element which is very scanty in the soil, and the supplies of which are extremely limited. Phosphorus is the crucial element in soil productivity. The conservation of the soil is the greatest of all the problems of conservation; because upon its products we depend for food and clothing, the basal necessities of man.

Conservation is not a simple subject which can be treated with reference to a single resource, independently of the others; it is an interlocking one. The conservation of one resource is related to that of another….

The Purpose of Conservation What is the purpose of conservation? It is for man. Its purpose is to keep the resources of the world in sufficient abundance so that man may have a happy, fruitful life, free from suffering—a relatively easy physical existence.

Subsistence the main problem of men.

The chief efforts of animal life, and it may be said of plant life also, to the present time, have been directed toward securing subsistence. It makes no difference which animal in a wild state we select,-it may be the swallow flying in the air by day, or the bat by night; it may be the lion in the jungle,-the paramount problem is subsistence. The same is true of man to the present moment. The great problem which confronts more than nine tenths of the human race to-day is that securing food. This does not apply simply to densely populated countries, such as India and China; it applies to the larger number of people in the United States and Europe. It is the aim of conservation to reduce the intensity of struggle for existence, to make the situation more favorable, to reduce mere subsistence to a subordinate place, and thus give an opportunity for development to a higher intellectual and spiritual level.


A practical man of ideas, Van Hise played a significant role in redirecting the way the American people thought about the rights of industry over the resources of nature, as well as the responsibilities of government to define and regulate industrial activity and to serve as steward and guardian of natural resources and wildlife areas. His textbook, "The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States," served as a survey of America's natural resources and promoted an attitude of responsible use with regard to them. The book not only inventoried resources within a social context but also wrote of people as a part of the natural environment needing to be conserved. Van Hise was concerned with issues we would now call "sustainability issues," "quality of life issues," and "workplace issues." He was the first to advise Americans to think of the needs of generations far in the future and also among the first to advocate preventative medical treatment by his advocacy of vaccination.

Van Hise's work extended beyond his lifetime through the programs he established, like the seed farm at the University of Wisconsin. In 1940, scientists working there developed a seed potato of a strength and quality resistant to draught and disease. In 1990, scientists at the university seed farm developed the Snowden potato, which is ideal for the manufacture of potato chips. The importance of creating something like the Snowden potato has significance beyond the obvious biogenetic one. Van Hise was dedicated to insuring that the people of Wisconsin profit economically as well as benefit environmentally from the resources of the Lake Superior region. The example of the Snowden shows how work of the scientists at the University of Wisconsin seed farm fostered the economic growth and health of the region.


Web sites

Extension New and Ideas. "For the Record." 〈〉 (accessed November 14, 2005).

University Communications, [email protected]. "A Century-old Legacy: Influence of Van Hise Lives on Through Wisconsin Idea." 〈〉 (accessed November 14, 2005).

Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. "Charles Van Hise." 〈〉 (accessed November 14, 2005).

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The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States