Which is more important, saving the environment or creating new industries and jobs? This issue was one of the main themes recently in PBS’s six-hour presentation on the National Parks and how they came to be.
As one would expect on PBS, the story, an excellent production by Ken Burns, emphasized the need to preserve America’s “crown jewels” – Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the 55 others, including Mount Rainier – from commercialization.
The show’s repeated warning, virtually a mantra, was to avoid the mistake of what happened with the commercialization of Niagara Falls. Private individuals came to the falls, saw an opportunity to make money through selling electricity to the public and vistas or souvenirs to visiting tourists, thus cheapening the Niagara’s natural wonder with crass capitalistic commercialism.
As I sat watching I realized the conflict between conservation on one hand, and politics and capitalism on the other, is a recurring theme in American history. Capitalism has been both a blessing and a cause for government to step in to preserve vast acreage for posterity. It’s a blessing because the inventive, creative spirit of capitalism helped to shape our nation. Dealing with a wild western frontier forced settlers to adapt to changing conditions to survive. New inventions sprang out of those needs: the steel plow, steamboats to navigate the rivers and waterways of the nation and railroads to span the great distances from coast to coast. American inventions like the telegraph and telephone also helped to bind the nation together.
New ways of making steel cheaply, adapted from the German Bessemer process by Andrew Carnegie, helped to create skyscrapers and steel bridges, changing the face of our cities and the nation. Eventually, that cheaply made steel would turn America into a nation on wheels, with a modern steel navy second to none.
The son of oil capitalist John D. Rockefeller used his family’s wealth to purchase 35,000 acres and then donate land for the Grand Tetons National Park. Rockefeller money also preserved colonial Williamsburg in Virginia as a historic nonprofit tourist attraction, educating the public about our national history and government, creating thousands of jobs in the process.
As a defensive measure against capitalism’s ills, Congress in 1906 passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act, giving presidents power to set aside important historic or scientific sites if they are on federal property. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming was the first to be set aside by executive order. Every president since 1906 has set aside land for national monuments except Richard Nixon. The most recent, The First State National Monument in Delaware, number 108, was set aside by President Obama in March of this year. In all, 757 areas of federal land have been set aside as wildernesses, totaling 109,511,966 acres, to protect them from commercial development.
The advantage for the president is that it does not require Congressional approval, often angering business interests who see profit in those monuments. Of course, these decisions have not occurred without howls of protest and lawsuits. Conservatives historically have often strongly objected to these decisions because if an area is set aside for nation parks, monuments and wildernesses, it means American business interests will have to search elsewhere in the world for commodities such as oil, natural gas, and precious minerals, costing the industries, and taxpayers, billions of dollars in extra costs.
These decisions to preserve land for aesthetic reasons has also made the U.S. less self-sufficient and dependent on potentially hostile nations to supply strategic materials, especially in time of war. Setting aside these federal lands also raises the cost of land development.
How, and for what reasons, our nation’s natural beauty should be preserved caused a split in the environmentalist movement. John Muir, president of the Sierra Club, and National Forester Gifford Pinchot tangled over the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Muir wanted to preserve the valley as a national temple to nature, but Pinchot and the city of San Francisco wanted to turn it into a reservoir to provide water and power for the Bay Area.
It took three presidents before the issue was decided. Finally, under Woodrow Wilson, the dam was built and is still used as a reservoir, providing water and electricity for the San Francisco Bay region. Two Republican presidential administrations, Reagan and George W. Bush, have sought unsuccessfully to have the dam removed.
Watching the PBS special on National Parks gave me a sense of appreciation that we have a national government which can encourage capitalistic innovation and development and at the same time has the vision to protect and preserve our natural treasures.