Milestones in Environmental Protection

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Preservation and conservation milestones in the United States

by Holly Hartman
1840s–1860s1870s–1880s1890s–1920s1930s–1960s1970s1980s1990s2000sMost Recent Entry
1849 The U.S. Department of the Interior is established. Among its duties (which are so diverse that it is nicknamed "the Department of Everything Else") is the management of public parklands. It is now the nation's main conservation agency.
1854 Henry David Thoreau's Walden is published. It laments the rise of industrialization and the destruction of wilderness, and raises questions about humans' relationship to nature that influence naturalists and political activists more than 150 years later. Among its famous lines is, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
1864 Naturalist and Vermont congressman George Perkins Marsh, sometimes called the father of the conservation movement, publishes Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as modified by Human Action. From travel in Europe, Africa, and Asia, Marsh describes human damage to the natural world that he believes is irrevocable—then a new idea. He also warns against the dangers of future technological innovation.
1864 A bill is passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln that creates the nation's first state park, setting aside for public recreation 20,000 acres in California's Yosemite Valley.
1866 The word ecology is coined by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel to describe the study of the relationship between organisms and where they live. The word comes from the Greek logos (study) and oikos (home).
1870 Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, becomes the first wildlife refuge in the United States. A year earlier, the area had been a sewage-filled slough of San Francisco Bay; Oakland mayor Samuel Merritt personally financed the dam that created the lake.
1872 A bill is passed by Congress and signed by President Grant to create the world's first national park at the headwaters of Yellowstone River in Montana and Wyoming. The parkland now comprises more than 2 million acres, mainly in northwest Wyoming.
1877 U.S. secretary of the interior Carl Schurz attempts to pass land-management laws that would slow the exploitation of public forests by the "timber barons" who ultimately deforested much of the American Midwest. He fails.
1887 The Boone and Crockett Club, an elite group of outdoorsmen, is founded by George Grinnell and Teddy Roosevelt to promote ethical hunting laws and wildlife conservation. Among their achievements was the defense of Yellowstone Park against railroad and mining interests; at that time, the park was still open for commercial exploitation.
1886 The Audubon Society, dedicated to the protection of birds and their natural habitats, is founded by George Grinnell, publisher of Forest and Stream magazine. Grinnell's original group soon folds, but local chapters take up the mantle and reconstitute the National Audubon Society in 1905.
1892 Naturalist and writer John Muir co-founds (with Robert Underwood Johnson) and becomes president of the Sierra Club, which is dedicated to wilderness preservation and outdoor recreation.
1894 The Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve is declared "forever wild" by an amendment to the New York State constitution. A preservation landmark, this legislation permanently protects the park from commercial exploitation.
1898 The European-trained forester Gifford Pinchot becomes the head of the U.S. Division of Forestry. In this role, and as head of the Forest Service after its founding in 1905, Pinchot shapes U.S. conservation policy—and becomes the bane of radicals who object to his emphasis on managing, rather than preserving, natural resources.
1901–09 Theodore Roosevelt is the "conservation president." During his administration, more than 225 million acres of land become part of the U.S. Forest Service, and approximately 50 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests are created.
1903 President Roosevelt orders the creation of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge—the first national wildlife refuge—in Florida.
1906 The Antiquities Act, which aims to preserve ancient Indian artifacts under a new rubric of protected "national monuments," is passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt. The act becomes a watershed in wilderness preservation thanks to the creativity of Roosevelt, who uses it to proclaim millions of acres-including the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, and Katmai—"national monuments."
1916 The National Parks Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is established. At its founding, the bureau is responsible for managing 14 national parks and 21 national monuments.
1925 Industrial Poisons in the United States by Alice Hamilton explores the dangers of industrial pollution to American laborers. Hamilton's groundbreaking work reflects a broader understanding of conservation issues, with concern not just about wilderness but about human health.
1935 The General Wildlife Federation is established to educate the American public about American wildlife and natural resources; the following year, the name is changed to the National Wildlife Federation. It is now the nation's largest grassroots conservation organization.
1949 A Sand Country Almanac by naturalist and former Forest Service employee Aldo Leopold describes the complex relationships within nature. His work does much to educate the general public about natural science. It also marks the beginning of a shift from a conservation movement dominated by wilderness lovers to the emerging environmental movement, which brings together scientists from different fields.
1962 Silent Spring by aquatic biologist Rachel Carson exposes the harm caused by insecticides such as DDT. The book leads to the development of safer insecticides and to a ban on the sale of DDT within the United States. More significantly, it heightens the awareness of ordinary people, who demand new legislation aimed at protecting the environment—a word that enters common parlance around this time.
1964 The Wilderness Preservation Act establishes the National Wilderness Preservation System. The system can grant wilderness areas protected status that excludes them from mining, timber cutting, and other operations.
1968 The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act establishes a system for protecting pristine, free-flowing rivers from development.
1966 The Endangered Species Preservation Act, the nation's first law to protect endangered species, permits the government to take land into federal custody in order to protect "selected species of native fish and wildlife." It does not ban, however, the killing of endangered species, except within national wildlife refuges.
1967 The Environmental Defense Fund is established to seek legal solutions to environmental problems. Its founding heralds the emergence of this new law specialty.
1969 The Endangered Species Conservation Act expands the protection of the 1966 act to some invertebrates and introduces a new category: threatened species—those that are "threatened with worldwide extinction."
1970 On April 22 Earth has its first official birthday celebration in the United States. More than 20 million people marched, demonstrated, and attend teach-ins on environmental topics.

On Dec. 2 President Nixon forms the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce laws that protect the environment and public health. Two days later William D. Ruckelshaus is sworn in as the agency's first administrator.

The Clean Air Act is passed, regulating air emissions and granting the EPA the power to set air quality standards. Amendments to the act in 1977 and 1990 raise standards even higher, in order to counter problems like acid rain and ozone depletion.

The League of Conservation Voters is founded. A bipartisan political action committee (PAC) of environmental activists, it publishes a scorecard of House and Senate member votes for every Congress.
1971 The international organization Greenpeace is founded. Greenpeace proves adept at using the media to raise awareness about industrial pollution, endangered species protection, and other environmentalist concerns.
1972 The Noise Control Act helps to define a newly recognized environmental problem-noise pollution—and grants the EPA authority to set noise limits.

The Clean Water Act is passed by Congress, placing a limit on the flow of raw sewage into rivers, lakes, and streams. According to EPA statistics, only one third of the nation's waters are safe for fishing and swimming at the time that the act is passed. Three decades later, about two thirds are safe.
1973 The Endangered Species Act is passed to protect wildlife. The act expands federal protections to plants and all invertebrates; bans the killing of all endangered species, as well as trade in endangered species and their products; and permits non-native species to be added to the U.S. endangered species list. Every year the names of 35 to 60 insects, plants, and animals are added to the list of species threatened with extinction. By April 2001 there are more than 1,800 threatened and endangered plant and animal species around the world.

OPEC countries raise oil prices in response to Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. As a result, Western nations begin to put more effort into exploring alternative energy resources.
1974 The Safe Drinking Water Act outlaws pollutants to ensure that people drink safe water.
1975 Congress passes legislation that sets standards for automobile tail-pipe emissions. As a result, automakers begin adding catalytic converters to cars. The EPA claims that today's cars pollute 95% less than those of 1970.
1976 The Toxic Substances Control Act empowers the EPA to track the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals used in the United States, as well as to ban those that pose a threat to the environment or human health.
1980 Congress creates the Superfund, setting aside large amounts of money to clean up hazardous waste sites across the United States.
1985 A team of British scientists led by Dr. Joe Farman reports that there is a hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic.
1987 The United States is one of 24 nations to sign the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It was discovered in the 1970s that CFCs destroy the ozone layer.
1988 Scientists discover a second hole in the ozone layer, this time over the Arctic.
1990 Earth Day 2 is celebrated on April 22. One hundred million people around the globe participate. The tradition of celebrating Earth Day annually on or around April 22 is begun.
1992 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro brings 150 nations together to set global standards for protecting the Earth against global warming and other environmental threats.
1994 New standards created by the EPA require chemical plants to reduce toxic air pollution by more than half a million tons each year.
1995 On Earth Day, a student-led campaign delivers the Environmental Bill of Rights to the U.S. Congress. This petition asserts that "every American has the right to a safe and healthy environment" and describes how elected officials should protect that right. It is signed by 1.2 million Americans.
1996It becomes mandatory that public suppliers of drinking water provide customers information about the chemicals and microbes in their water.
1997 Thirty-eight industrialized nations sign the Kyoto Protocol, agreeing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% over 15 years. The United States, which has the world's highest emission levels, agrees to reduce by emissions by 7%.
1999 New emissions standards are set for automobiles, requiring them to become 77% to 95% cleaner. For the first time sport utility vehicles and trucks are ordered to meet the same standards as cars.
2000 The Senate overwhelmingly approves a $7.8 billion aid plan to restore the Everglades ecosystem in Florida.
2001 In January, the head of Clinton's Forest Service halts harvesting of old-growth timber on public lands.

In April, President Bush refuses to sign an international environmental treaty, known as the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce global warming. The treaty is aimed at reducing heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide around the world. The Kyoto Protocol is ratified by nations in Latin America, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and the European Union.

Environmental groups react strongly to Bush's decision, and EPA leader Christine Todd Whitman later announces that the Bush administration would support other environmental steps, including executive orders by Clinton to protect wetlands and to regulate lead emissions by companies.
2004 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informs the governors of 31 states that the air pollution in their states does not meet federal health standards. These states must develop new pollution controls to clean up their air. The unhealthy air affects more than 159 million people.
2005 On Feb. 16, the landmark Kyoto Protocol officially goes into effect. The international environmental treaty requires dozens of nations to reduce heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide. A total of 141 nations have ratified the Protocol. Several of the largest industrialized nations, notably Australia and the United States, did not sign the treaty.
2007 In August, Arctic sea ice hits at an all-time low, measuring 1.93 million square miles. Due to global warming, it's dropped 27% since the previously recorded low of 2.05 million square miles in 2005.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that China has exceeded greenhouse gas emission estimates, and thus may nullify efforts made by the Kyoto Protocol. By 2010 China's carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase 11% per year instead of 2.5-5% as previously anticipated.

2010 The EPA celebrates its 40th year. Goals for the next 40 years include the following: taking action on climate change, improving air quality, assuring the safety of chemicals, cleaning up our communities, protecting America's waters, expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice, building strong state and tribal partnerships.
2012 On Aug. 28, 2012, the Obama administration finalizes the historic 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency standards The Obama Administration's program to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will save consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and will reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels.
A new app is available which allows users to instantly access information on the health of thousands of lakes, rivers and streams across the United States from their smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. For more info: How's My Waterway?
2014 The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report in March 2014 that predicted dire environmental and economic consequences for the entire world if the world's leading economies do not start to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. The repercussions of climate change include a rise in sea level, a shrinking of ice and snow cover, the melting of glaciers, food and water shortages, crop loss, destruction caused by coastal storms, and increased poverty. In addition, the report said drought caused by global warming could contribute to geopolitical conflicts over water and land. In fact, several scholars and experts blame some of the current political instability in the Middle East on drought.

The Supreme Court ruled 6–2 on April 29 that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to regulate air pollution emitted from coal plants that crosses state lines. Smog from coal plants in 28 Midwest and Appalachia states blows toward the east and increases pollution in states that are downwind of the plants. "Some pollutants stay within upwind states’ borders, the wind carries others to downwind states, and some subset of that group drifts to states without air quality problems," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority decision.

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