Many think America's conservation ethic started with Teddy Roosevelt, but that dismisses another 300 years of protecting public space.
Jim Levitt, Harvard University's conservation innovation program director, said the Puritans fostered the tradition in 1634 when they decided to tax themselves for the creation of Boston Common. Those same ideals underpin contemporary efforts like Montana's Blackfoot Challenge, where landowners, industry leaders and government officials have banded together to protect the land they all depend on.
"Throughout American history, this has been a bipartisan movement," Levitt told a large audience in the University of Montana's School of Law. "Republicans took the lead, and Democrats have picked it up."
Levitt was one of a series of speakers at UM's Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy. Center senior fellow Sarah Bates said many separate disciplines focus on public land without realizing how their actions connect.
"We don't always think our work is related to policy," Bates said in introducing Levitt. But to keep big landscapes healthy and productive, she said, Americans can look to their conservation heritage for guidance on how to manage them.
Boston Common and New York's Central Park inspired other American cities to add their own open spaces in the 1850s, to the point that an urban area wasn't considered "grown up" without one, Levitt said. President Abraham Lincoln took that idea another giant step when he designated Yosemite a permanent state park in 1864 (in the middle of the Civil War). President Ulysses S. Grant then gave the world the concept of landscape-scale preservation when he authorized Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
By the time Roosevelt came to the White House in 1901, congressmen around the country were realizing national parks were economic engines of growth. He rode that wave with the creation of five more national parks, 18 national monuments and 150 national forests. All told, Roosevelt put nearly 230 million acres under public ownership.
"The trick is finding the balance between sustainability and protection," Levitt said. "As conservationists, that's exactly why we have to come up with innovative ways to keep doing conservation."
History shows the conservation tradition borrows equally from grassroots activism and federal fiat, Levitt said. The homegrown Blackfoot Challenge proved so successful, the Obama administration chose it as the backdrop to launch the Great Outdoors Conservation Initiative this summer.
"We have a strong tradition of local government and home rule, along with a strong federal government and a federal legal system," Levitt said. "The genius of the system is it allows for ideas from both."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.