The ideologies of conservation and preservation have profoundly shaped Colorado’s physical landscapes and continue to shape Coloradans’ attitudes toward nature. Agencies such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and the United States Forest Service (USFS), multiple-use agencies, oversee the use and development of Colorado’s landscapes, while the National Park Service (NPS) is charged with preserving Colorado’s most pristine and sensitive landscapes. Environmentalism has further fashioned the ideologies of conservation and preservation by ushering in an era of environmental regulation that continues to define the relationship between Coloradans and nature.
The chief principle of conservation was articulated by Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the USFS. In the The Fight for Conservation, Pinchot stated that conservation entails “development, the use of the natural resources now existing on this continent for the benefit of the people who live here now,” and that those “natural resources must be developed for the benefit of the many, and not merely for the profit of the few.” This utilitarian approach to resource use collided with John Muir’s philosophy of preservation—the protection of nature from commodification and economic development. The establishment of national forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and national parks in Colorado has exemplified the importance of both of these philosophies, as expressed in the different management mandates of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the USFS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the NPS. In the 1960s and 1970s, according to historian Ted Steinberg, “ecology-based environmentalism grew to be one of the most dramatic and significant reform movements in American history” and has shaped how Colorado has attempted to balance the development of the state’s natural resources against the need to preserve landscapes for their intrinsic value, ecosystem services, and enjoyment by future generations.
Stewards of the Land
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the state agency tasked with balancing the material needs (food, water, shelter, and recreation) of Coloradans with the habitat needs of the state’s wildlife. The agency is nationally recognized as a leader in wildlife conservation and management. Furthermore, CPW oversees outdoor recreation programs, administers hunting and fishing licenses, conducts research important to maintaining healthy animal populations (such as studies of chronic wasting disease), protects wildlife through the continued acquisition and improvement of habitat, and undertakes educational outreach. The agency manages forty-two state parks and more than 300 wildlife areas across Colorado, and is responsible for all the wildlife within the state, regardless of whether the animals inhabit federal, state, or private land. The central mission of CPW is to maintain biological diversity, healthy watersheds, and clean air, to preserve a healthy standard of living for Coloradans.
The USFS and BLM manage renewable and nonrenewable resources within Colorado, as well as wildlife habitat on federally owned lands. The USFS, part of the US Department of Agriculture, oversees 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. It is a multiple-use agency that keeps an eye on logging, mining, recreation, and conservation activities on more than 193 million acres of land. Within those 193 million acres, the USFS manages more than 36 million acres as wilderness areas, which are protected from intensive development. Established in 1946, the BLM is part of the Department of Interior. It is also a multiple-use agency that manages more than 240 million acres of land, principally in the western United States. In addition to administering grazing and mining permits, the BLM is responsible for 221 wilderness areas and 23 national monuments. While both the USFS and the BLM steward wilderness areas, conservation, not preservation, is the guiding principle behind the management policies of these federal agencies.
The National Park Service is the preservation corollary to the conservation-oriented CPW, USFS, and BLM. The NPS is tasked with preserving and maintaining the integrity of entire landscapes. A recent example of this in Colorado was the designation of Browns Canyon National Monument on February 19, 2015. Acting under the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, President Barack Obama ordered the preservation of 21,586 acres of canyons, rivers, and forest in Chaffee County. In addition to offering recreational opportunities such as hiking, kayaking, fishing, and whitewater rafting, Browns Canyon National Monument ensures the continued preservation of habitat important to ecologically sensitive species such as the bighorn sheep and pine marten. Browns Canyon is the eighth national monument designation within the state of Colorado; the others are Colorado National Monument, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Dinosaur National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Yucca House National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Chimney Rock National Monument.
National Monuments such as Browns Canyon exemplify the tension between proponents of conservation and preservation. The monument includes 11,836 acres of the San Isabel National Forest and 9,750 acres of BLM land, so the USFS and the BLM jointly manage the monument. The fact that Browns Canyon is jointly managed by the preservation-oriented NPS and the conservation-oriented USFS and BLM has drawn its critics. The 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, which created the NPS, explicitly directs the agency to “promote and regulate the use of. . . parks, monuments, and reservations [in order] to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein.” Critics fear that the utilitarian philosophy that guides the USFS and BLM will prevent these agencies from executing this preservationist mandate in Browns Canyon, and that the monument might be opened to mining, logging, and road building.
On the other hand, because the new designation has effectively withdrawn Browns Canyon from future mineral leases and has created strict conservation priorities, a different set of critics charge that it jeopardizes economic development. As with the USFS and the BLM, the NPS oversees a wide-ranging portfolio of public lands with various legal protections and designations. To varying degrees, the USFS, the BLM, and the NPS all deal with what Stephen Mather, first director of the NPS, called the “dual mandate”: the struggle to simultaneously preserve American nature and provide for the public enjoyment of that nature.
After World War II, the environmental movement began to affect government policy nationwide. Environmentalism combined preservation’s commitment to protecting nature for its own sake with more utilitarian concerns about human health and recreational opportunities. Americans grew increasingly willing to subordinate natural resources development to all of these concerns. In 1970, for example, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law. The legislation required the federal government to complete an environmental assessment and/or an environmental impact statement whenever a federally funded project had the potential to significantly affect the environmental quality of a landscape. Nixon also signed the Clean Air Act (1970), the Water Pollution Control Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and other legislation that has shaped resource use nationwide.
The proliferation of environmental legislation has affected how land management agencies pursue their missions in Colorado. The recent controversy over elk culling in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) provides an excellent example. In the 1960s, in the midst of the environmental movement, RMNP stewards terminated its decades-old predator eradication program in an effort to phase out conservation policies that were ecologically counterproductive. By 2009, the year Congress designated 95 percent of RMNP as wilderness, park stewards finalized the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan (EVMP), developed to address the environmental decline driven by excessive elk populations (a legacy of successful predator eradication programs). Ironically, the EVMP determined that lethally reducing the elk herd in RMNP, not reintroducing apex predators such as gray wolves, was the most practical option to preserve nature within the park. In other words, the NPS used environmental legislation to preserve nature in RMNP, even though the solution fundamentally violated the core principal of the Wilderness Act, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
In the case of RMNP, stewards determined that human intervention was required in order to preserve nature within the park, rather than passively allow it to degrade. Ultimately, the environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, specifically the Wilderness Act and NEPA, profoundly affect how the USFS, the BLM, and the NPS strive to fulfill their missions to conserve and preserve the most iconic landscapes in Colorado and throughout the United States.