Just over a hundred years ago, a group of visionaries emerged who took a fledgling conservation movement whose fitful existence had been traveling a bumpy road for more than 300 years.
I know most of us have been led to believe that a few people, especially folks like Aldo Leopold and John Muir, were the founders of America's conservation movement. They contributed, especially Leopold. However, their emergence as stalwarts of the conservation movement was preceded by several American sportsmen who, though mostly forgotten, really put conservation on the front burner.
Today's average American is fairly concerned about the environment and the ecosystems in which they live. We know this from several national surveys that have been conducted by various agencies off and on for well over a decade.
But in many cases, the conservation movement today lacks the vision and dedication that those early leaders brought to the battle to save America's wild places and the wildlife dependent upon those critical habitats. And, in some cases, the movement has been hijacked by some who, in the name of the environment, have used it to foment divisions within the conservation community - divisions which, from all appearances, seem more designed to raise money than to support conservation.
Sportsmen like Grinnell, Pinchot and Marsh had been pushing for conservation of America's unique places and endangered species for almost 30 years when one of their cohorts became president of the United States. With the inauguration of Teddy Roosevelt, America's emerging conservation movement had a national champion with the political capital to accomplish great things. Among President Roosevelt's many contributions to the national culture was the establishment of the national wildlife refuge system, the national forest program and the idea that wise management of natural resources would insure continued use for future generations.
Today, that vision handed down by those early pioneers is being slowly eroded. People who should be united in their concern for the environment and conservation are becoming more and more divided. Conservation is often relegated to a secondary role for the "Me First" attitude among more and more Americans.
That attitude not only applies to those who feel their use of natural resources is somehow an unbridled right, but also to those who believe their ideas on use should be mandated and imposed on others. If we are going to conserve our precious natural resources for future generations, then those attitudes will have to change, and the dedication to conservation for human use will have to be rigorously pursued once more.
The early conservation activists like Grinnell didn't advocate for special privileges, nor did they concern themselves over who would benefit from their efforts. Yes, they worked hard to see that both wildlife and habitat benefited, but in ways that were open to all, not just the few. They also worked tirelessly to impose a new conservation ethic in the national psyche - an ethic that viewed man's interaction with the natural world as both necessary and beneficial if that interaction followed sound conservation principles.
Americans forget this, but the early leaders of the conservation movement were sportsmen. They hunted and fished for sport, for the spiritual awakening of interacting with and challenging the natural world with their knowledge and physical skill.
Field and stream were sanctuaries where one went to commune with nature while pursuing an ancient human tradition. They knew and understood the role of man in managing those resources and did not flinch from taking actions that ensured that those pursuits, those hallowed traditions, would endure.
American conservation currently faces an incremental erosion of that tradition. The conservation movement needs to be healed.
True conservation cannot survive if environmental preservationists continue to advocate nature as sacrosanct, separate from human uses. The ancient traditions of hunting and fishing will also pass into history if sportsmen fail to adequately promote the conservation ethic handed down to them.
The 21st century presents us with many challenges. For those who believe that wildlife and the wild places they depend upon should endure, the challenge will be one of education.
The kind of educational effort undertaken by men like George Bird Grinnell in getting Americans to understand that it was in their best interest to maintain a few natural oases in the ever-developing industrial world. But, unlike Grinnell, conservationists today will have to educate an increasingly urban society that those ancient traditions represented by present-day sport hunters has been, and will remain, conservation's best allies.
Palmer resident Eddie Grasser is the president of the Hunter Heritage Foundation of Alaska. His Valley Voices guest opinion column appears every four weeks. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org