At both of the political conventions this summer, there was a lot said about America being exceptional in the world but, of course, there was not agreement on what those special qualities actually are. Largely absent from this discussion was mention of the history of conservation and environmental protection in the U.S. except for one phrase in Senator John Kerry’s speech at the Democratic convention — he said, “an exceptional country does care about the rise of the oceans and the future of the planet.”

While Mr. Kerry was talking specifically about climate change, he got me thinking that, in fact, one aspect of our history very clearly sets us apart from the rest of the world — the idea that conservation of our natural resources is a foundation for the American way of life.

The first national park in the world was created to save Yellowstone in 1872. While the early national parks protected the spectacular scenery of the west, the purposes of conservation were soon broadened to serve a wider range of needs. The creation of the Adirondack Park in upstate New York in the 1892 was driven by the decimation of the Adirondack forest and the resulting threat to the state’s water resources. The National Wildlife Refuge System begun by President Theodore Roosevelt at Pelican Island in Florida in 1903 was intended to protect biology as well as scenery. National Forests were established for more utilitarian purposes — to ensure the long term management of valuable forest resources. The 19th Century urban park movement believed that all citizens would benefit from time in the outdoors.

During the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression explicit measures were taken to conserve soil and water. These programs have now evolved into the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill. And, in the 1970s with leadership from both parties, the U.S. became the first nation to pass far reaching laws to protect the quality of air and water, to shield people from the impacts of toxic chemicals, to keep threatened species from going extinct, and to save the wilderness quality of exceptional public lands.

More recently non-governmental conservation organizations in the U.S. pioneered the idea of private land conservation whereby landowners could voluntarily give or sell their rights to develop their land to non-profit organizations or to government agencies. These conservation easements have now saved from development millions of acres of farms, ranches and forests which remain in productive use but also provide scenic value, wildlife habitat and protection of water resources. Tax incentives have been adopted by Congress to encourage the donation of these easements.

In almost every case the rest of the world has ultimately followed America’s conservation leadership

While conservation in America has changed over the years, it has proceeded in good times and bad with a remarkable level of bi-partisan support. And it has been successful. Millions of acres have been included in local, state and federal parks, forests and refuges; these lands and waters are valued and enjoyed by tens of millions of  Americans every year. Our air and water are cleaner than before. And parents no longer have to worry so much about their children being affected by toxic chemicals. The populations of eagles, falcons and wolves have recovered. And prime agricultural soils are no longer swept into the air by hot summer winds even in times of severe drought like that being experienced today.

As a result of this success, despite stark divisions in public opinion in America about so many issues, there continues to be broad support for conservation. In a poll conducted for The Nature Conservancy this last June, a bi-partisan polling team found that:

  • 82% of American voters consider conserving our country’s natural resources to be patriotic, and strong majorities hold across all party affiliations.
  • Over three-quarters of voters say that conservation is important in their voting decisions
  • More than three in five voters, including conservative Republicans, believe there is an essential role for government in conservation.
  • Three quarters of the electorate rejects cuts to current conservation funding, even when placed in the context of the budget deficit

So, if America has a history of conservation leadership that has influenced the entire world, if conservation and environmental programs have produced measurable tangible benefits, and if this remarkable heritage is recognized and supported by voters of both parties, then one would hope that this dimension of American exceptionalism would emerge as an issue of importance in the remaining weeks of the campaigns for President and Congress — at least from the results of our poll, one would think the parties would be competing with each other to say that conservation of our air, land and water is one of the things that make America a strong nation with a bright future and deserves our continued investment and support in the years to come.

[Image: Parker Ranch, California. Image source: Ian Shive]

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