On September 30, 1847, Congressman George Perkins Marsh delivered a speech on agricultural conditions in New England to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. This powerful address gave voice to ideas that would become a catalytic force in the movement to conserve America’s natural resources. Marsh recognized the human capacity for destruction of the environment and advocated better management of resources and active efforts toward restoration of the land–innovative ideas for the period.
But though man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.
Born in Woodstock, Vermont, Marsh was a lifelong spokesman for the preservation and care of natural resources. A successful lawyer deeply learned in several fields, he read some twenty languages fluently and became an acclaimed philologist. Marsh also studied silviculture (the development and care of forests) and soil conservation. In 1842, he was elected to Congress, where he served four terms. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Marsh to serve as U.S. minister to Italy, a post he happily occupied for the rest of his life. While in Italy in 1864, Marsh published his pioneering book Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, analyzing the destructive impact of human activity on the natural world and arguing for the necessity of mitigating it. “[M]an is everywhere a disturbing agent,” Marsh wrote:
Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown. Indigenous vegetable and animal species are extirpated, and supplanted by others of foreign origin, spontaneous production is forbidden or restricted, and the face of the earth is either laid bare or covered with a new and reluctant growth of vegetable forms, and with alien tribes of animal life.
Marsh’s book prophetically established some of the major themes of environmental thought into the twenty-first century and added to the momentum that the conservation movement was gaining in the United States. The writings of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau promoted the idea that contact with nature, especially in its wildest state, was beneficial to the human spirit. Naturalist John Muir settled in California and began speaking out for the protection of wild lands, especially the Yosemite Valley. In 1872, Congress declared the Yellowstone region of Wyoming the world’s first national park.
- Read more about George Perkins Marsh and his role in the conservation movement. See the Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1920, a special presentation of The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- Search Today in History on conservation to find more features on milestones in the history of conservation in America. Topics include the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, the 1908 Governors’ Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, the creation of national parks in Washington, Maine, and Arizona, and the first celebration of Earth Day, as well as pages on conservationist Carl Schurz and naturalist John Burroughs.
- Search on national park in the following photographic collections for more photographs of America’s natural treasures:
- The Mapping the National Parks collection documents the history, cultural aspects, and geological formations of areas that eventually became national parks. The collection consists of approximately 200 maps dating from the seventeenth century to the present, reflecting early mapping of the areas that would become four national parks, as well as the parks themselves. Explore Yellowstone, Acadia, the Grand Canyon, or the Great Smoky Mountains.
- Visit our nation’s national parks online via the National Park Service.
- For access to texts of current environmental protection bills under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, go to Congress.gov and browse major legislation classified by topics such as environmental protection or public lands.