The conservation movement can be traced back to John Evelyn's work Sylva, presented as a paper to the Royal Society in 1662. Published as a book two years later, it was one of the most highly influential texts on forestry ever published. Timber resources in England were becoming dangerously depleted at the time, and Evelyn advocated the importance of conserving the forests by managing the rate of depletion and ensuring that the cut down trees get replenished.
The field developed during the 18th century, especially in Prussia and France where scientific forestry methods were developed. These methods were first applied rigorously in British India from the early-19th century. The government was interested in the use of forest produce and began managing the forests with measures to reduce the risk of wildfire in order to protect the "household" of nature, as it was then termed. This early ecological idea was in order to preserve the growth of delicate teak trees, which was an important resource for the Royal Navy. Concerns over teak depletion were raised as early as 1799 and 1805 when the Navy was undergoing a massive expansion during the Napoleonic Wars; this pressure led to the first formal conservation Act, which prohibited the felling of small teak trees. The first forestry officer was appointed in 1806 to regulate and preserve the trees necessary for shipbuilding. This promising start received a setback in the 1820s and 30s, when laissez-faire economics and complaints from private landowners brought these early conservation attempts to an end.
Conservation was revived in the mid-19th century, with the first practical application of scientific conservation principles to the forests of India. The conservation ethic that began to evolve included three core principles: that human activity damaged the environment, that there was a civic duty to maintain the environment for future generations, and that scientific, empirically based methods should be applied to ensure this duty was carried out. Sir James Ranald Martin was prominent in promoting this ideology, publishing many medico-topographical reports that demonstrated the scale of damage wrought through large-scale deforestation and desiccation, and lobbying extensively for the institutionalization of forest conservation activities in British India through the establishment of Forest Departments. Edward Percy Stebbing warned of desertification of India. The Madras Board of Revenue started local conservation efforts in 1842, headed by Alexander Gibson, a professional botanist who systematically adopted a forest conservation program based on scientific principles. This was the first case of state management of forests in the world.
These local attempts gradually received more attention by the British government as the unregulated felling of trees continued unabated. In 1850, the British Association in Edinburgh formed a committee to study forest destruction at the behest of Dr. Hugh Cleghorn a pioneer in the nascent conservation movement.
He had become interested in forest conservation in Mysore in 1847 and gave several lectures at the Association on the failure of agriculture in India. These lectures influenced the government under Governor-General Lord Dalhousie to introduce the first permanent and large-scale forest conservation program in the world in 1855, a model that soon spread to other colonies, as well the United States. In the same year, Cleghorn organised the Madras Forest Department and in 1860 the Department banned the use shifting cultivation. Cleghorn's 1861 manual, The forests and gardens of South India, became the definitive work on the subject and was widely used by forest assistants in the subcontinent. In 1861, the Forest Department extended its remit into the Punjab.
Sir Dietrich Brandis, a German forester, joined the British service in 1856 as superintendent of the teak forests of Pegu division in eastern Burma. During that time Burma's teak forests were controlled by militant Karen tribals. He introduced the "taungya" system, in which Karen villagers provided labour for clearing, planting and weeding teak plantations. After seven years in Burma, Brandis was appointed Inspector General of Forests in India, a position he served in for 20 years. He formulated new forest legislation and helped establish research and training institutions. The Imperial Forest School at Dehradun was founded by him.
Germans were prominent in the forestry administration of British India. As well as Brandis, Berthold Ribbentrop and Sir William P.D. Schlich brought new methods to Indian conservation, the latter becoming the Inspector-General in 1883 after Brandis stepped down. Schlich helped to establish the journal Indian Forester in 1874, and became the founding director of the first forestry school in England at Cooper's Hill in 1885. He authored the five-volume Manual of Forestry (1889–96) on silviculture, forest management, forest protection, and forest utilisation, which became the standard and enduring textbook for forestry students.
The American movement received its inspiration from 19th century works that exalted the inherent value of nature, quite apart from human usage. Author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) made key philosophical contributions that exalted nature. Thoreau was interested in peoples' relationship with nature and studied this by living close to nature in a simple life. He published his experiences in the book Walden, which argued that people should become intimately close with nature. The ideas of Sir Brandis, Sir William P.D. Schlich and Carl A. Schenck were also very influential - Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the USDA Forest Service, relied heavily upon Brandis' advice for introducing professional forest management in the U.S. and on how to structure the Forest Service.
Both Conservationists and Preservationists appeared in political debates during the Progressive Era (the 1890s—early 1920s). There were three main positions. The laissez-faire position held that owners of private property—including lumber and mining companies, should be allowed to do anything they wished for their property.
The conservationists, led by future President Theodore Roosevelt and his close ally George Bird Grinnell, were motivated by the wanton waste that was taking place at the hand of market forces, including logging and hunting. This practice resulted in placing a large number of North American game species on the edge of extinction. Roosevelt recognized that the laissez-faire approach of the U.S. Government was too wasteful and inefficient. In any case, they noted, most of the natural resources in the western states were already owned by the federal government. The best course of action, they argued, was a long-term plan devised by national experts to maximize the long-term economic benefits of natural resources. To accomplish the mission, Roosevelt and Grinnell formed the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. The Club was made up of the best minds and influential men of the day. The Boone and Crockett Club's contingency of conservationists, scientists, politicians, and intellectuals became Roosevelt's closest advisers during his march to preserve wildlife and habitat across North America. Preservationists, led by John Muir (1838–1914), argued that the conservation policies were not strong enough to protect the interest of the natural world because they continued to focus on the natural world as a source of economic production.
The debate between conservation and preservation reached its peak in the public debates over the construction of California's Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park which supplies the water supply of San Francisco. Muir, leading the Sierra Club, declared that the valley must be preserved for the sake of its beauty: "No holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
President Roosevelt put conservationist issue high on the national agenda. He worked with all the major figures of the movement, especially his chief advisor on the matter, Gifford Pinchot and was deeply committed to conserving natural resources. He encouraged the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 to promote federal construction of dams to irrigate small farms and placed 230 million acres (360,000 mi2 or 930,000 km2) under federal protection. Roosevelt set aside more federal land for national parks and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined.
Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, signed into law the creation of five national parks, and signed the year 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 new national monuments. He also established the first 51 bird reserves, four game preserves, and 150 national forests, including Shoshone National Forest, the nation's first. The area of the United States that he placed under public protection totals approximately 230,000,000 acres (930,000 km2).
Gifford Pinchot had been appointed by McKinley as chief of Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture. In 1905, his department gained control of the national forest reserves. Pinchot promoted private use (for a fee) under federal supervision. In 1907, Roosevelt designated 16 million acres (65,000 km2) of new national forests just minutes before a deadline.
In May 1908, Roosevelt sponsored the Conference of Governors held in the White House, with a focus on natural resources and their most efficient use. Roosevelt delivered the opening address: "Conservation as a National Duty.".
In 1903 Roosevelt toured the Yosemite Valley with John Muir, who had a very different view of conservation, and tried to minimize commercial use of water resources and forests. Working through the Sierra Club he founded, Muir succeeded in 1905 in having Congress transfer the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley to the federal government. While Muir wanted nature preserved for its own sake, Roosevelt subscribed to Pinchot's formulation, "to make the forest produce the largest amount of whatever crop or service will be most useful, and keep on producing it for generation after generation of men and trees."
Theodore Roosevelt's view on conservationism remained dominant for decades; - Franklin D. Roosevelt authorised the building of many large-scale dams and water projects, as well as the expansion of the National Forest System to buy out sub-marginal farms. In 1937, the Pittman–Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was signed into law, providing funding for state agencies to carry out their conservation efforts.
Environmental reemerged on the national agenda in 1970, with Republican Richard Nixon playing a major role, especially with his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The debates over the public lands and environmental politics played a supporting role in the decline of liberalism and the rise of modern environmentalism. Although Americans consistently rank environmental issues as "important", polling data indicates that in the voting booth voters rank the environmental issues low relative to other political concerns.
The growth of the Republican party's political power in the inland West (apart from the Pacific coast) was facilitated by the rise of popular opposition to public lands reform. Successful Democrats in the inland West and Alaska typically take more conservative positions on environmental issues than Democrats from the Coastal states. Conservatives drew on new organizational networks of think tanks, industry groups, and citizen-oriented organizations, and they began to deploy new strategies that affirmed the rights of individuals to their property, protection of extraction rights, to hunt and recreate, and to pursue happiness unencumbered by the federal government at the expense of resource conservation.
Deforestation and overpopulation are issues affecting all regions of the world. The consequent destruction of wildlife habitat has prompted the creation of conservation groups in other countries, some founded by local hunters who have witnessed declining wildlife populations first hand. Also, it was highly important for the conservation movement to solve problems of living conditions in the cities and the overpopulation of such places.
The idea of incentive conservation is a modern one but its practice has clearly defended some of the sub Arctic wildernesses and the wildlife in those regions for thousands of years, especially by indigenous peoples such as the Evenk, Yakut, Sami, Inuit and Cree. The fur trade and hunting by these peoples have preserved these regions for thousands of years. Ironically, the pressure now upon them comes from non-renewable resources such as oil, sometimes to make synthetic clothing which is advocated as a humane substitute for fur. (See Raccoon dog for case study of the conservation of an animal through fur trade.) Similarly, in the case of the beaver, hunting and fur trade were thought to bring about the animal's demise, when in fact they were an integral part of its conservation. For many years children's books stated and still do, that the decline in the beaver population was due to the fur trade. In reality however, the decline in beaver numbers was because of habitat destruction and deforestation, as well as its continued persecution as a pest (it causes flooding). In Cree lands however, where the population valued the animal for meat and fur, it continued to thrive. The Inuit defend their relationship with the seal in response to outside critics.
The Izoceño-Guaraní of Santa Cruz Department, Bolivia is a tribe of hunters who were influential in establishing the Capitania del Alto y Bajo Isoso (CABI). CABI promotes economic growth and survival of the Izoceno people while discouraging the rapid destruction of habitat within Bolivia's Gran Chaco. They are responsible for the creation of the 34,000 square kilometre Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and Integrated Management Area (KINP). The KINP protects the most biodiverse portion of the Gran Chaco, an ecoregion shared with Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. In 1996, the Wildlife Conservation Society joined forces with CABI to institute wildlife and hunting monitoring programs in 23 Izoceño communities. The partnership combines traditional beliefs and local knowledge with the political and administrative tools needed to effectively manage habitats. The programs rely solely on voluntary participation by local hunters who perform self-monitoring techniques and keep records of their hunts. The information obtained by the hunters participating in the program has provided CABI with important data required to make educated decisions about the use of the land. Hunters have been willing participants in this program because of pride in their traditional activities, encouragement by their communities and expectations of benefits to the area.
In order to discourage illegal South African hunting parties and ensure future local use and sustainability, indigenous hunters in Botswana began lobbying for and implementing conservation practices in the 1960s. The Fauna Preservation Society of Ngamiland (FPS) was formed in 1962 by the husband and wife team: Robert Kay and June Kay, environmentalists working in conjunction with the Batawana tribes to preserve wildlife habitat.
The FPS promotes habitat conservation and provides local education for preservation of wildlife. Conservation initiatives were met with strong opposition from the Botswana government because of the monies tied to big-game hunting. In 1963, BaTawanga Chiefs and tribal hunter/adventurers in conjunction with the FPS founded Moremi National Park and Wildlife Refuge, the first area to be set aside by tribal people rather than governmental forces. Moremi National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including lions, giraffes, elephants, buffalo, zebra, cheetahs and antelope, and covers an area of 3,000 square kilometers. Most of the groups involved with establishing this protected land were involved with hunting and were motivated by their personal observations of declining wildlife and habitat.