- The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection by Dorceta E. Taylor
Dorceta E. Taylor’s ambitious work The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection is an important addition to the historiography of the American conservation movement, covering the evolution of the ideology of conservation from the eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Taylor’s work examines the roles played by elite white men, women, and the groups to which they belonged in the various stages of the movement. The biographical sketches she provides throughout her work offer insight into how the most visible people in the conservation movement shaped its direction while also showing that the influence of lesser-known activists must be acknowledged as well.
Her most important contribution, however, is how she integrates the experiences of people of color into her larger work, bringing the discussion of environmental justice, or lack thereof, to an earlier period of environmental history. Although Native Americans’ and African Americans’ connections to environmental history have been examined elsewhere, it is rare to see these groups and other people of color integrated into the larger conservation narrative. By doing so, Taylor reveals the complexities of the American conservation movement. While her narrative makes it clear that ideology and policy were disproportionately shaped by those who possessed wealth, she also shows that more marginalized groups – such as the working class or people of color – had their own understandings of the environment. The experiences of Latino and Asian immigrants, for example, are explained within the context of the western expansion of the United States through their connections to the land as agricultural workers, miners, farmers, and land owners. Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese [End Page 189] immigrants, looking to make a living off the land, were seen as taking jobs and opportunities away from whites. They faced sometimes violent discrimination, restrictive legislation, and no protection of their civil rights at the state and federal levels during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Taylor places the conservation movement within the context of the urbanization of the United States and the reforms surrounding and influencing the development of cities. She connects these reforms and the ideologies that supported them to the impulses of elites to look to “wilderness” as a way to define themselves and the country through “cultural nationalism” (190). This last idea, a privileged one developed by the elite, is evident in the creation of the national parks, and it offers a depth of contrast to the discussion of class, racism, and gender that is present throughout Taylor’s work. The idea of “wilderness” of national parks celebrated by the elite, for example, depended upon the idea of these special places were empty of human habitation. What this meant was the removal of the physical, historical and cultural presences of native tribes from national park lands and the celebration by people such as John Muir of wilderness as “peacefully open” once the native tribes were gone (357, 362)
The Rise of the American Conservation Movement is divided into four parts. In Part I, Taylor defines the concepts that support her argument and that influenced the development of the conservation movement’s ideology. (It is here that she provides the historical context of the urbanization of the United States.) In Part II, Taylor focuses on gender, including the nineteenth century cults of masculinity and true womanhood, and on race, articulating the roles that “sexism, racism, and discrimination” played in how women and people of color came to be seen and to see themselves within the context of environmental understanding (4). Part III focuses on wildlife protection and the development of a conservation ethic that helped to publicize and regulate threats to wildlife. Part IV shows the divide between the conservation and preservation ideologies, particularly in relation to the national forests and the national parks, as well as the tensions between government control and citizens in the western United States, something that is still pertinent today.