“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” —Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 1949
1826–1838 Artist John James Audubon publishes the first edition of Birds of America, with hand-colored images of more than seven hundred birds.
1832 Artist George Catlin proposes a “nation’s park” for buffalo and indigenous people after visiting the West and observing Native American tribal cultures.
1845–1847 Henry David Thoreau lives at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, and writes his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854.
1849 The US Department of the Interior is established to protect and manage “the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage.”
1859 Construction of New York City’s Central Park begins, ushering in a new era of public park creation in the United States.
1864 The US government cedes Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California “for public use, resort, and recreation.”
George Perkins Marsh publishes Man and Nature, a seminal book about the negative effects of deforestation.
1872 Inspired by William Henry Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings, Congress designates Yellowstone as both the nation’s and the world’s first national park.
A tree-planting day is celebrated in Nebraska. By the mid-1880s, what is now known as Arbor Day is observed in every state.
1873 Forest and Stream magazine is founded, becoming the premiere sportsman’s publication and a forum for conservation advocacy.
1874 William Cullen Bryant’s Picturesque America is published. The book’s full-page engravings of some of the country’s most celebrated scenery, such as Niagara Falls, stimulate popular interest in the natural landscape.
1875 The American Forestry Association is founded. Congress passes an act prohibiting the unauthorized cutting of trees on government property.
1876 John Muir writes about preservation of Sierra Nevada’s giant sequoia trees, inspiring the National Parks bill in 1890 that creates Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks.
The Appalachian Mountain Club is founded in Boston, Massachusetts, to protect the mountains, rivers and trails of the northeastern United States. The club remains the nation’s longest-running conservation organization.
1885 New York’s Adirondack Forest Preserve is created, becoming a state park in 1892. Containing 2.7 million acres, it is the largest protected state or federal forest zone in the continental United States.
New York opens Niagara Falls State Reservation, the first state park in the eastern United States.
1887 George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt establish the Boone and Crockett Club, which advocates for conservation and “ethical hunting.”
1889 William Temple Hornaday, chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum, publishes “Extermination of the American Bison” in the Smithsonian Institution’s Report of the National Museum.
1891 The US Forest Reserve Act, which empowers the president to set aside public reservations, initiates the National Forest System.
1892 The Sierra Club, dedicated to wilderness preservation and outdoor recreation, is founded. John Muir is elected president, a post he holds for twenty-two years.
1898 Gifford Pinchot becomes head of the US Division of Forestry. Over the next twenty years, he promotes scientific forestry and leads the utilitarian wing of the conservation movement.
1899 Congress passes a bill creating Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State.
1900 The Lacey Act becomes the first US federal conservation law to prohibit trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.
1901 Theodore Roosevelt becomes president of the United States and supports conservation as a domestic priority.
1903 President Roosevelt establishes a federally protected wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, Florida. It is the first of fifty-three refuges he creates, setting a precedent for today’s National Wildlife Refuge System.
1904 Chestnut tree blight is introduced to North America via a popular Japanese import, the Japanese chestnut. By 1940, most mature American chestnut trees are wiped out.
1905 William Temple Hornaday and President Roosevelt form the American Bison Society and create the National Bison Range in Montana, where a herd of thirty-nine bison grows to approximately four hundred bison by 2017.
President Theodore Roosevelt increases US Forest Service land from forty million to two hundred million acres, after transferring responsibility for US forests from the Department of the Interior to the newly created National Forest Service.
The National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (National Audubon Society) is founded.
1906 The US Antiquities Act is signed into law by President Roosevelt and allows the president to reserve ancient Indian artifacts and significant historic sites as national monuments, including Devil’s Tower, Grand Canyon, and Petrified Forest.
1912 The Plant Quarantine Act establishes government powers to inspect shipments of suspected invasive species.
1913 William Temple Hornaday, head of the New York Zoological Park, publishes Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation, one of the first books devoted to endangered animals.
1914 The passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America, becomes extinct.
1916 The National Parks Service is established to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of same in manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The private philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller Jr. helps establish what becomes Maine’s Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi River.
1918 The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, between the United States and Canada, makes it unlawful to hunt, kill, capture, or sell listed birds. Enacted in response to the commercial trade in birds and feathers, the list includes eight hundred species as of 2017.
1919 Congress passes a bill establishing Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Zion National Park in Utah.
1921 Pioneering regional planner, Benton MacKaye, proposes a trail and wilderness belt along the mountain ranges of the eastern United States. His vision later becomes the two-thousand-mile Appalachian Trail, completed in 1937.
1929 The United States passes the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, enabling the federal government to purchase land in order “to conduct investigations, to publish documents related to North American birds, and to maintain and develop refuges.”
1931 Severe drought hits the midwestern and southern plains in the United States, now known as the Dust Bowl. Winds, whipping over-plowed and over-grazed land, last until 1939.
1933 The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is established as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. During the Great Depression, the CCC employs half a million young men to work on public projects to improve the country’s national, state, and local parks and forests.
1934 The Duck Stamp Act is passed by Congress, requiring each waterfowl hunter to purchase a stamp, thereby generating revenue for wetland acquisition. The Act has resulted in 4.5 million acres of waterfowl habitat protection.
1936 The General Wildlife Federation is founded. Its name is changed to National Wildlife Federation in 1938.
1939 The US Department of the Interior creates the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is dedicated to the conservation of natural resources.
The Carolina parakeet, the only parrot species native to the eastern United States, becomes extinct.
1947 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s landmark book is published. The Everglades: River of Grass culminates a twenty-year effort to educate the public and political leaders about the importance of this unique ecosystem. Everglades National Park is established at the same time.
1948 The International Union for the Protection of Nature is created, bringing together governmental bodies and nongovernmental organizations to protect natural heritage through policy initiatives and on-the-ground actions. The organization’s name is later changed to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
1949 Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is published. Among the most influential books about conservation ever written, it urges the need for a “land ethic.”
1951 The Nature Conservancy is created by its predecessor, the Ecologist’s Union. By the 1990s this organization owns and manages the largest network of private nature reserves in the world.
1955 The US Air Pollution Control Act is enacted by Congress, declaring air pollution the responsibility of state and local governments.
1956 The US Fish and Wildlife Act, a comprehensive national fish, shellfish, and wildlife resources policy, is established.
1961 The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is founded.
Gaylord Nelson Jr., a senator of Wisconsin, initiates the Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP), which includes a one-cent tax on cigarettes that generates $50 million for acquiring one million acres of state land for recreation and preservation.
1962 Rachel Carson publishes her book Silent Spring, which ignites the campaign against toxic chemicals. The book launches a new era of growth in environmental awareness and activism, leading to the ban of the pesticide DDT in the United States in 1972.
1963 Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall publishes The Quiet Crisis, a book concerning the dangers of pollution, dwindling natural resources, and limited space.
1964 The Wilderness Preservation Act is signed into law to prohibit mining, timber cutting, and other operations from designated areas. The law currently protects 110 million acres in 757 sites.
1965 US Congress passes the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.
1968 US Congress passes the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the
National Trails Act.
1969 The Santa Barbara oil spill occurs. It is the largest oil spill in United States waters at the time.
The National Environmental Policy Act is created “to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.” It becomes the prototype for similar legislation in more than one hundred countries.
1970 On April 22, twenty million people participate in the first Earth Day demonstration.
President Nixon creates the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce laws protecting the environment and public health.
1972 The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are passed and implemented by the EPA.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is established. Governments sign an international agreement to regulate trade of endangered species.
The World Heritage Convention is adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This treaty encourages the identification and protection of outstanding cultural and natural heritage sites around the world.
1973 The US Endangered Species Act is signed and implemented by the EPA.
1976 The US Toxic Substances Control Act and National Forest Management Act are signed into law and implemented by the EPA.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) becomes the primary law governing marine fisheries management in US federal waters. It prevents overfishing and encourages sustainability.
1977 The first plant species are listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, including the San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush, larkspur, broom, and bush mallow.
1978 Lois Gibbs and residents of Niagara Falls, New York, form the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association to fight against toxic contamination by the Hooker Chemical Corporation. Their efforts secure a cleanup and compensation for area residents. The association sparks grassroots environmental activism across the country and generates momentum for national legislation to deal with hazardous wastes.
1980 The US Superfund Act, which designates toxic sites and provides funding for cleanup, becomes law and is implemented by the EPA.
1980s Dutch elm disease claims seventy-seven million trees.
As a decade of rainforest destruction unfolds, fifty thousand square miles of habitat are lost each year. The crisis leads to the growth of international environmentalism. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is founded in 1982, followed by Conservation International in 1987.
1986 The catastrophic nuclear accident known as the Chernobyl disaster occurs in the Ukraine.
The Mexican government creates an ecological reserve where one hundred million monarch butterflies converge each winter.
1987 The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) organizes a boycott of Burger King, which results in the cancellation of Central American rainforest beef contracts.
The Montreal Protocol is signed by twenty-four nations, including the United States, agreeing to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons, known to destroy the ozone layer, a problem first detected in 1985.
Our Common Future, a report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularizes the concept of sustainability and concludes that economic development must become less ecologically destructive.
1988 The United Nations creates the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Chico Mendes, who fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest and advocated for human rights, is murdered.
1989 Time magazine’s January issue, “Planet of the Year,” portrays an “Endangered Earth” wrapped in plastic and string, courtesy of the artist Christo.
A global ivory ban is enacted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to reduce poaching and protect elephants.
1990s Nongovernmental organizations play an increasingly important role in conservation worldwide. More than twelve hundred land trusts are active in the United States by the late 1990s, an increase of 63 percent from a decade earlier. Together, the trusts now protect nearly five million acres.
1990 The northern spotted owl is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, which leads to the development of the Northwest Forest Plan to govern land on federal lands of the Pacific Northwest.
1992 The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity pledges to support all life on Earth.
The largest meeting of world leaders, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (“Earth Summit”), takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A historic set of agreements are signed: the Convention on Climate Change, which targets industrial and other emissions of greenhouse gases; and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the first global agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. All the countries of the world except the United States ratify this agreement.
1993 World Wildlife Fund completes a $19 million debt-for-nature swap in the Philippines. The trade is the largest ever undertaken by a nongovernmental organization.
1995 The gray wolf is reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
1997 The Kyoto Protocol is signed by thirty-eight industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent over fifteen years. The United States, which has the world’s highest emissions, agrees to reduce by 7 percent.
Several Canadian oil companies donate 320,000 acres of exploration rights off Canada’s Pacific Coast to establish the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation for orcas, sea otters, starfish, and hundreds of other marine species.
1998 In a pledge with the WWF-World Bank Alliance, the president of Brazil commits to providing legal protection for 10 percent of Brazil’s rain forests.
1999 World Wildlife Fund and Fundacion Vida Silvestre Argentina help to win passage of legislation protecting a 2.5 million-acre forest corridor connecting existing reserves in Argentina’s Misiones Province and neighboring Brazil.
2001 The US Forest Service, under President Clinton, halts harvesting of old-growth timber on public lands.
President Bush refuses to re-sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce climate change by reducing the release of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The agreement is signed by 141 other nations.
In the Eastern Himalayan lowlands, World Wildlife Fund spurs progress toward creating wildlife corridors linking eleven protected areas between Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park and India’s Corbett National Park.
2006 An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film about global warming written by and starring Al Gore, gains international recognition.
2008 The polar bear is the first species listed as threatened due to habitat loss in the Arctic from climate change.
The Lacey Act is amended to include plants.
2009 The United Nations REDD program (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation) offers monetary and technical assistance to mitigate climate change.
2011 The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurs as a result of an energy accident initiated by a tsunami. Germany and Taiwan accelerate plans to close their nuclear power industry.
2013 Thailand’s prime minister pledges to end domestic ivory trade in his country.
2014 The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases an alarming report that predicts the dire environmental and economic consequences of climate change around the world if the world’s leading economies don’t begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately.
2015 The Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is negotiated and signed by 195 countries. Each country determines the contribution it should make to mitigate climate change.
2017 The Trump administration begins taking several actions which could jeopardize Earth’s biodiversity, including the following:
- The 2018 federal budget calls for a 31 percent cut in the EPA budget, a 12 percent cut in the Department of the Interior, and a 6 percent cut in the Department of Energy.
- The administration withdraws from the Paris climate agreement, in which the United States agreed to cut emissions to 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.
- Plans are made to dedicate more federal land to energy development, utilizing untapped shale, oil, natural gas, and coal reserves found within the national parks.
- In the largest reduction of protected federal lands, national monuments are shrunk, including Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50 percent.
China, the world’s largest ivory market, begins implementing a trade ban on elephant tusks.
2018 Congress considers six bills that weaken the Endangered Species Act, favoring drilling, logging, and other economic activities over protecting plants, animals, and critical habitats.
Library of Congress. “Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847–1920.” May 3, 2002. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/amrvhtml/cnchron1.html.
National Park Service. “Conservation Timeline 1901–2000.” Updated February 26, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/mabi/learn/historyculture/conservation-timeline-1901-2000.htm.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. “Endangered Species Act: A History of the Endangered Species Act of 1973: Timeline.” Updated July 15, 2013. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/laws-policies/timeline.html.
World Wildlife Fund. n.d. “History: From 1961 to Today.” http://www.worldwildlife.org/about/history.