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Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point...

[Detail] Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point...

Checking the waste; a study in conservation, by Mary Huston Gregory

For Lesson One

NOTE: This is an excerpt. For the full document, see Checking the Waste in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

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A nation's riches lie both in its people and in its natural resources. Neither can exist in its highest estate without the other. Goldsmith predicted the certain downfall of lands "where wealth accumulates and men decay," but, in the truest, broadest definition, there can be no national wealth unless the men and women of the nation are healthy, intelligent, educated and right-minded. On the other hand it is equally true that if the people of a country are to make the most of themselves in mind and body; if they are to get the most comfort and happiness out of life and to become in the highest degree useful, they must develop its natural resources to the greatest possible degree.

The United States is particularly fortunate in its abundant riches of soil, forest and mine, and in the fact that from the beginning of the nation these have been the inheritance not of a people slowly learning the use of tools and materials, and emerging


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from ignorance and savagery, but representing the most advanced and enlightened ideas and spiritual ideals of the time.

The result of these conditions has been inventions and discoveries that have developed a great nation at home and have done much to better the condition of the world. But the very magnitude of our natural wealth has made us careless, even prodigal, in its use, and thoughtful men are beginning to realize that with the natural increase of population which is to be expected, we shall, if the present rates of use and waste continue, find ourselves no longer rich, but facing poverty and even actual want. But it is not too late to save ourselves from the results of our past extravagance. We are only beginning to see the danger into which we have almost plunged, but we see enough to make us realize that every one must do his part in checking the waste. Before this can be intelligently accomplished we must understand something of the great national movement for the conservation of our national resources.

Let us go back for a moment to the beginning of our history as a nation, the days of Washington.

Invention at that time was little advanced over what it had been three hundred years before. The same type of slow-sailing vessels carried all the commerce. Wind and water were the only powers

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employed in running the few factories. Only a little iron was used in this country, and in fact almost its only use anywhere at that time was for tools. There was little machinery, and that of the simplest description. Anthracite coal was known in this country only as a hard black rock. Bituminous coal, gas, and oil were unknown.

The forests stretched away in unbroken miles of wilderness. The wood was used for the settlers homes, their fuel, and their scanty furniture, but they needed so little that it grew much faster than it could be used. The man who cut down a tree was a public benefactor. The trees, though so necessary to life, were regarded as a serious hindrance to civilization, for they must be cleared away before crops could be planted.

To the pioneers as to us the soil was the most valuable of all resources. The rivers were necessary to every community for carrying their commerce, and turning the wheels of their saw and grist mills; while the fish, game, and birds made a necessary part of their living.

Under these conditions, with every resource to be found in such abundance that it seemed impossible it could ever be exhausted, and with a small scattered population to draw on all these riches, careless habits of using were sure to spring up. Our


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forefathers took the best that the land offered, and that which was easiest to get, and gave no thought to caring for what remained. Their children, and the new immigrants who came in such numbers, all practised the same wasteful methods.

In the century and a quarter that has passed since then, a great change has come over the world. By the magic of the railroad, the telegraph, and the telephone, all the nations of the earth are bound more closely to one another now than were the scattered communities of a single county in those days, or than the states of the Union before the Civil War.

The forests have been cut away and in place of endless miles of wilderness there now stretch endless miles of fertile farms, yielding abundant harvests.

Slow-going sailing vessels have given place to steamboats which now carry the river and lake commerce. But men are no longer dependent on the rivers, for swift railway trains penetrate every part of the country. The stage-coach is replaced by the trolley-car, and the horseback rider, plodding over corduroy roads with his saddle-bags, is succeeded by the automobile rider speeding over the most improved highways.

Farm machinery of all descriptions has revolutionized the old methods of doing farm work. The fish, game, and birds are largely gone and in their

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place are the animal foods raised by man. Modern houses, filled with countless devices for labor-saving and comfort, have replaced the simple homes of colonial days.

What has brought about this change? The energy and industry of American men and women, aided for the most part by American inventions, and made possible by the wonderful natural resources of America.

No one could wish to have had our country's development checked in any way. These great results could be obtained only by using the materials that could be had easiest and cheapest, even if it meant great waste in the beginning. Labor was scarce and high in this country, abundant and cheap in Europe. In order to make goods that could be sold at prices even above those of European countries, it was absolutely necessary to have cheap lumber, coal and iron.

But the time has come when we can no longer continue this waste without interfering with future development. Some of the resources have been so exhausted that a few years will see the end of their use in large commercial quantities. Others, such as coal and iron, will last much longer, but when they are gone they can never be replaced; and so far as we can now foresee, the country will cease to prosper when they can no longer be had


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for use in manufacturing. The length of time they will last at the present rate of use can be easily calculated. It is a long time for us to look forward, for it is longer than the lifetime of any man now living, or of his children, but it is within the life of his grandchildren, and that is a very short time in the history of a nation.

It may be said that while other nations have passed into decay, none has ever exhausted its resources so early in its history, and surely this great rich nation can not so soon face actual need. But we must remember that no other nation has ever used its resources as we have used ours. We are using in years what other nations have used in centuries.

It is not possible now, it probably never will be possible, to use every particle of a resource. This would be too expensive, would mean a labor cost far beyond the value of the thing saved.

In the beginning, as we have shown, the vast wastes were not wanton, but absolutely necessary, and we have not yet reached the point where we can afford to use the low-grade ores, to use all lumber waste and to practise many other economies that may sometime become necessary. But in the case of the forests we should provide enough trees for use in coming years, and in the case of all minerals

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the refuse should be left in such condition that it can easily be ready for possible future use.

If conservation meant leaving our resources untouched, and checking development in order that there might be an abundance for future generations, it would be both an unwise and unacceptable policy; but it must be thoroughly understood that this is not what is desired.

Conservation does not mean the locking up of our resources, nor a hindrance to real progress in any direction. It means only wise, careful use.

It does not mean that we shall cease to cut out timber, but it does mean that we shall not waste two-thirds of all that is cut, as we are doing at present. It means, too, that we shall take better care of articles manufactured from it, and most of all, it means that, when a tree is cut down another shall, whenever possible, be planted in its stead to provide for the needs of the future.


It means that we shall not allow the farms of our country to lose five hundred million dollars in value every year by letting the rich top-soil drain off into our rivers, because we have cut away the trees whose roots held the soil in place. It also means that we shall not steadily rob the land of the elements that would produce good crops, and put nothing back into the soil.

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It means that we shall not kill the birds that destroy harmful insects and thus invite the insects to destroy the crops that we have cultivated with such care.

It does not mean that we shall let our mines of coal and iron lie unused, as the miser does his gold, but that we shall, while taking what we need, leave as little waste in the mine as possible, and shall use what we take in the most economical way. This means a saving a money to the user, as well as a conservation of resources. It means, too, that we shall not allow out water-power to remain unused, while we burn millions of tons of coal in doing the work that water-power would do better.

It means that we shall not allow enough natural gas to escape into the air every day to light all the large cities in the United States. It means that we shall take better care of the life and health of the people.

This is the true conservation.

In the following chapters we shall take up each of the great resources in turn, shall see what we have used, what we have wasted, what remains to us, how long it will continue at the present rate, how it may be used more wisely, and how it may be replaced, if that be possible, or what may be used instead of those which can not be renewed.

We shall study how we may make the most of

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all that nature has given us and develop our country to the highest possible point, how we may rise far above our present level in comfort, convenience, and abundance, and yet do all these things with much less waste than we now permit.