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Bureaucrats as Activists: A Revisionist Take on Conservation

It is easy to think of bureaucrats and activists as inherently opposed to one another. Bureaucrats follow rules to a fault, since their own careers and material well-being depend on the institutions for which they work. Activists, in contrast, want to change the rules. Indeed, since the rise of the U.S. administrative state in the Progressive Era, activists and bureaucrats have often found one another at odds: Progressive “good government” advocates collided with urban machines; the American Indian Movement ran headlong into the Bureau of Indian Affairs; environmentalists battled highway departments; Sagebrush rebels assaulted the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management; populists of different stripes lashed out against the Federal Reserve; and on and on.

The recent rebelliousness of National Park Service (NPS) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees against the Trump administration might be understood as one chapter of this story. Donald J. Trump rode the Tea Party wave of recent conservative movement politics into office, invoking hostility toward the federal government in general with his promise to “drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.” (ironically enough, an rhetorical trope pioneered by American Socialists in the early twentieth century). He also launched specific attacks against the regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the EPA, promised a dramatic cut to the EPA’s budget, and opened the door to revoking federal environmental protections for millions of acres of lands in the west. In response, EPA employees have participated in anti-Trump rallies, spoken out in forums, and organized social media campaigns against the proposed cuts and rollbacks. National Park Service employees began trolling the Trump administration with reports of small inauguration crowd sizes and evidence of climate change on the twitter account @AltNatParkSer. Bureaucrats and former employees at a dozen agencies, from the State Department to NASA, quickly followed suit, although in my opinion none matched the striking icon of Smokey Bear with his head bowed and right arm raising a fist of defiance.

But this pervasive resistance from bureaucrats might also be understood as a part of a history of conservation professionals thinking of themselves as participants in a movement, not just as dutiful or self-interested government apparatchiks. Because many are committed environmentalists, and view their jobs as serving those beliefs, they have resisted the dramatic change in course from the Trump administration with creativity and vigor. Since the founding of federal environmental bureaucracies in the in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of their staffers have looked on their jobs as much as a crusade or movement as a duty. Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the U.S. Forest Service and the materialist, institution-building St. Paul counterpart to John Muir’s prophetic witness, animated his calls for efficiency and order with the appeal that conservation was a part of taming capitalism in order to protect democracy. “We have allowed the great corporations,” he wrote in The Fight for Conservation (1910) “to occupy with their own men the strategic points in business, in social, and in political life.” By preventing the monopolization of natural resources, conservation bureaucracies would help to check this power. The scientific expertise and administrative autonomy he struggled for in the Forest Service and sought to extend to other branches of the federal government had a larger purpose, one which animated the work of the first generation of this agency.[1]

Pinchot’s friend Hamlin Garland, best known for his realist fiction and memoirs about Midwestern farm families, lionized the passion of early forest rangers in his Cavanagh, Forest Ranger: A Romance of the Mountain West (1910). Dedicating the book to Pinchot, Garland created a protagonist sensitive to the transcendent beauty of nature. On a midnight ride in the Rockies, Cavanagh “drew a deep breath of awe as he turned and looked about him. Overhead the sky was sparkling with innumerable stars, the crescent moon was shining like burnished silver, while level with his breast rolled a limitless, silent, and mystical ocean of cloud which broke against the dark peaks in soundless surf and spread away to the east in ever widening shimmer.”[2] This passion for nature was an inducement for him to perform his duties, especially in the face of physical violence and death threats from the cattle barons destroying the public range.

A similar passion animated rangers in their fight against forest fires, a nearly religious aspect of early conservation. Ranger Ed Pulaski became a popular icon of courage and selfless sacrifice when he guided his fire crew through a conflagration in the northern Rockies in 1910. Leading his men into a mineshaft with a small trickle of water in its recesses, Pulaski kept the panicked men inside at gunpoint. Thirty-nine of the forty-five survived, making Pulaski, in the description of fire historian Stephen Pyne, “a symbol of the strenuous life bravely battling the reckless waste of natural resources.”[3]

Of course, most Forest Service bureaucrats were not called on to perform such feats. But even paper pushers in Washington, D.C. were linked to this kind of heroism and sacrifice. Garland’s Cavanagh stays in the service even after the dismissal of Pinchot, because “he asks us all to line up for the work and not to mind him. The work, he says, is bigger than any man.”[4]

Scholars generally have a hard time thinking of federal agency staffers in these terms. Conservation is widely written about as an impulse so technocratic and elite that it is shorn of the wider social aspects that clearly informed postwar environmentalism.[5] More generally, we tend to assume that bureaucrats succeed by abandoning whatever emotional or ideological passions they might have and replacing them with self-serving obedience and the rote application of rules. As Max Weber famously wrote, bureaucracy “depersonalizes [itself] in achieving the exclusion of love, hatred, and every purely personal, especially irrational and incalculable, feeling from the execution of official tasks.” Where social movements are animated by a passion to right wrongs, modern bureaucracy, in Weber’s words, “requires for its sustaining external apparatus the emotionally detached, and hence rigorously ‘professional’ expert.”[6]

Appreciating the extent to which mission-driven agencies are staffed by people who are anything but “emotionally detached” can help us understand the staying power of environmentalism in adverse political climates. Ironically, it can also help explain some of the signal mistakes of Progressive-era conservation. Especially in Indian country, conservationists resorted to coercive measures in the countryside to clamp down on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, often forcing rural Americans into the alienating wage labor that had driven people like John Muir to find a refuge in wild nature. They were well aware of the plebeian opposition to conservation, and took positive pleasure in its defeat as another sign of the coming of a more enlightened era.[7] Similarly, their sense of superiority and contempt for the Congressional foes of the young environmental state led them to ignore even sympathetic critiques of their mania for fire control, leading to disastrous ecological consequences generations later.[8] For better and for worse, environmental bureaucrats have been creatures of passion for a century.

Benjamin Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago and co-editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. A founder of Refusing to Forget, Johnson is author of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Uprising and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (2003); of Bordertown: Odyssey of An American Place (2008), and of Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Hope and Fear in Progressive-Era Conservation (2017).

[1] Gifford Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation (Seattle: University of Washington Press 1967 [1910),115; Bruce Schulman, “Governing Nature, Nurturing Government: Resource Management and the Development of the American State, 1900-1912,” Journal of Policy History 17:4 (2005); Benjamin Heber Johnson, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 96

[2] Johnson, Escaping the Dark, Gray City, 110-111.

[3] Ibid., 234; Stephen J. Pyne, Fire in America, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 249.

[4] Garland, Cavanagh, 278.

[5] This is a continuity across a literature that has in other respects approached conservation from very different vantages. See Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959); (Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967); and Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). For a different take, underappreciated in the historiography, see Richard Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[6] As quoted in Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait , volume 2, (New York: Psychology Press, 1998), 421

[7] Louis Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the Nation Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature.

[8] Johnson, Escaping the Dark, Gray City, 230-241.