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U.S. Environmental History: Movements & Timeline

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  • 0:05 Environmental History…
  • 0:39 Late 19th Century
  • 1:59 Early 20th Century
  • 3:23 Late 20th Century
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

Have you ever heard of John Muir? Have you ever been to a National Park and wondered why it was preserved for future generations to enjoy? This lesson will discuss the major environmental movements in the United States since the 19th century, including the events that occurred, the people involved and the legislation which developed.

Environmental History in the U.S.

Currently, the state of the environment is often a topic of discussion by many types of people, from everyday citizens to politicians. Although most of us are now used to hearing people discuss environmental problems or concerns and political solutions, there was a time in the United States where the state of the environment was not a common topic. Since the late 19th century, the environmental movement has changed a great deal, as a result of many events which motivated human involvement and the creation of environmental legislation.

Late 19th Century

During the late 19th century, people in the United States started to become aware of the environment. They began to pay closer attention to how the environment was being treated, how resources were being used and how humans were influencing the environment. One man who became very involved in the environmental movement of the late 19th century was John Muir. Muir was troubled by the poor treatment and misuse of land as people moved west across the United States. He was a preservationist and believed that the environment should be maintained in its pristine form and its resources should not be harvested for human use.

Muir helped establish an organization known as The Sierra Club, to help increase public awareness and preservation of the environment. Muir was very influential in preserving the Yosemite area as a National Park. During this period in history, several other environmental organizations were established, including the National Wildlife Federation. In 1870, due to the growing support for the environment, the first official wildlife refuge was established at Lake Merritt in California. Soon after, in 1872, Yellowstone National Park, the nation's first national park, was created.

Early 20th Century

In the early 20th century, many environmental organizations were established, including the National Audubon Society and the Ecological Society of America. Along with an increase in environmental organizations, there was also an increase in government services. The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were both established during this time. There was also an increase in environmental legislation, including the passing of the National Park Service Act in 1916, which created the National Park System, and the passing of the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, which banned the hunting of migratory birds in the United States.

During the early 20th century, the United States was struggling economically due to the Great Depression. At this time, the nation was also facing a major environmental crisis known as the Dust Bowl. During the 1930s, there was a major drought that resulted in severe soil erosion across the prairielands of the United States. This event, and the subsequent results, increased public awareness of the environment and made more people aware of the benefits of preserving the environment. In 1935, as a result of this dramatic event, the Soil Conservation Act was passed to help manage the land and prevent such a disaster from happening again.

Late 20th Century

The late 20th century is known as the era of the modern environmental movement. During this period, there was a significant increase in support for the environment, which resulted in an increase in the number of laws and policies established to help protect the environment. One of the most influential events of the late 20th century was the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962.

In this book, Carson discussed the effects of pesticides and herbicides on the environment, opening the public's eyes to the ways in which we are harming our own environment. Carson's book caught the attention of President Kennedy and led to the formation of two acts: the Environmental Policy Act, which was the first legislation that acknowledges a connection between human actions and environmental systems, and the Wilderness Act of 1964, which designated over 100 million acres of wilderness and gave the land the highest level of protection.

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