You know the cliche: It’s 2020, time to see clearly. So let’s look at where we are in terms of the American environment.

200 years ago, there were no safeguards. Except for limited military reserves and a few community forests in New England, there were no public open-space lands. Everyone could do whatever they wanted. But in those days of limited technology and horsepower, there was a limit to the devastation that could be wrought. New York state prohibited hunting of the heath hen in 1791, but the species went extinct without other protections.

The next half-century, 1820 to 1870, saw a substantial growth in the development of urban sewer systems and drinking water systems. In 1832, Arkansas Hot Springs became the first open-space area set aside for national preservation. In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote authored the first paper noting the danger of carbon dioxide warming the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1858, Central Park in New York City opened. In 1864, the first measure of protection for Yosemite was put in place under Lincoln’s administration. The word “ecology” was coined in 1866.

1870 to 1920 saw the early blossoming of land preservation events. The U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was formed by Congress in 1871. In 1872, President Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act. In 1879, the US Division of Forestry was created. In 1890, Yosemite, General Grant (now part of Kings Canyon), and Sequoia National Parks were created. The National Park Service was finally formed in 1916.

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius published an important paper on the link between carbon dioxide and global warming. In 1899, Congress passed the Rivers & Harbors Act, the first serious national anti-pollution legislation. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt signed into existence the first national bird sanctuary, Pelican Island in Florida, which was followed by the first national wildlife sanctuary in Kansas in 1906, the same year that the National Monuments act was enacted, with Devil’s Tower in Wyoming being the first monument. In 1911, authority was created to purchase land for national forests.

In 1924, the first enduring Oil Pollution Act prohibiting most discharges into coastal waters is created, but in a weakened form. The Bald Eagle Preservation Act was passed in 1940. From the 1940s through the 1970s, nuclear testing would create significant environmental problems from fallout. In 1953, Gilbert N. Plass presented an important paper linking carbon dioxide and global warming. In 1955, the Air Pollution Control Act was passed by Congress, finally addressing national air pollution, followed the next year by the Water Pollution Control Act. In 1957. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography began documenting the year-by-year rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published. This work is often seen as the real birth of the modern environmental movement. In 1965, in a nationally-televised address, President Johnson warned of the possible effects of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1969. Finally, water pollution control had some teeth!

More in the next Our Home column.

John Knouse works with the Athens Conservancy to preserve lands in the Athens Area.

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