Leadership Blog Part 9: Reclaiming Our Environmental Imagination (from Thoreau to NEPA)

In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This thought marked the beginning of this country’s literary American Renaissance and it became the cornerstone of America’s environmental consciousness. America’s heritage is rich in its regard to the environment. We all associate Thoreau with Walden Pond, and the year spent in a small cabin in the woods near the pond shore. Those of us who have visited Concord, Massachusetts know that Walden Pond is only about a mile from downtown Concord. We also know that about every other day Thoreau walked into town to get provisions, call on friends, or have dinner with his parents. But the words he wrote while living at Walden Pond have inspired us all. Thoreau was one of the first writers to describe his experience with Nature; to experience its beauty, its strength, and the wisdom that comes to you in moments of quiet reflection.

Even more influential at the time, as a leader of the American Renaissance, was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau befriended Emerson. Thoreau had become a surveyor to earn some money, and Emerson and Thoreau met when Emerson asked Thoreau to survey a piece of his property. Thoreau also surveyed the size and depth of Walden Pond during that year he lived by the shore. Emerson, who was already a successful author, helped Thoreau get his work published. Emerson is well known for his book entitled, Nature. It not only talks of the beauty and richness of Nature but brings forward in profound language the spirit within Nature. Its spiritual content and the association of our spirits with Nature’s spirit gave rise to the American transcendental movement, a new way of thinking about Nature and its place in our lives.

The third prominent writer of the American Renaissance was Walt Whitman. In the mid 1800’s, when Americans were in the fervor of western settlement and discovering this country’s natural beauty, Whitman saw himself as the new Adam in the new Garden of Eden. In his book, Leaves of Grass, which he worked on for a lifetime, he names the elements of the landscape, the birds, the trees and the frogs as if God’s voice had told him to do it. The historical reality of Whitman was he was a male nurse during the Civil War, doing his best to care for and heal the wounded soldiers. This role fit him well because he became the healer as he envisioned in the “I” of “Song of Myself.”

John Muir (1838-1914) is perhaps America’s most celebrated naturalist and conservationist. He is considered the father of the National Park and the U.S. Forest System. During his lifetime, John Muir was known to walk over a thousand miles from Wisconsin to Florida just for the adventure of it. Muir was also a pioneering mountaineer making the first human ascent of many of the highest peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range; and he was a dedicated naturalist who would spend many weeks tramping through the wilderness around Yosemite with little more than bread and a blanket in his backpack. 

In 1872, Congress enacted a law establishing Yellowstone National Park as the world’s first national park. Certainly, this is one of the first successes of a fledgling environmental movement. In the following years the national park system was expanded. In 1891, John Muir founded the Sierra Club, an active organization that is still representative of the environmental movement today. In the first decade of the 1900’s, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential term, 125 million acres of federal lands were set aside under federal protection. During the 1930’s the southwest experienced droughts and a series of environmental calamities. In response to this environmental crisis. President Franklin Roosevelt created the Soil Conservation Service which promoted what we call today “sustainable agriculture” through soil conservation and other beneficial land management practices.


Fast forward to the last 50 years, the years that gave rise to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The impetus for a comprehensive national environmental policy began in the early 1960’s. The Santa Barbara oil spill, the Love Canal incident, the death of aquatic life in Lake Erie, and the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burning out of control are images many of us may still remember. It was a time when Americans, and consequently Congress, were becoming concerned that our environmental resources were deteriorating at an alarming rate. It was a time that America’s youth was responding to the country’s military activism in southeast Asia by carrying banners calling for peace. It was an era of environmental insight that was embodied in the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

In response to this growing consciousness, the concept of NEPA was expressed in a policy statement written by Dr. Lynton Caldwell, who is considered by many the father of NEPA and the environmental impact statement. The challenge before Congress was to create a comprehensive national policy on environmental management and to use environmental impact information as part of our project development decision making. As a result of the efforts of Henry Jackson, Washington State Senator, and Representative John Dingell of Michigan, NEPA was enacted in 1969, and signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970. It presented not only the statutory requirements to balance economic growth with environmental preservation, but NEPA established a national mandate for environmental protection; a mandate to be led by the federal agencies. The intent of NEPA’s effectiveness in the early years was that through heightened environmental awareness there would be better and more open discussion of the environmental effects of project alternatives. Moreover, through greater dialogue among all stakeholders on environmental issues and concerns, better decision making would occur.

Ron Deverman
NAEP Fellow

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