Since 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that secured Yosemite Valley’s future as a park, Americans have been formally protecting examples of what John Muir called “the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” While the initial focus was on scenic wonders such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, the rationale for land conservation has evolved beyond aesthetics and recreation to also include biological diversity and the intrinsic value of nature.
Preserving our natural heritage has become a bedrock American value, transcending ideological or partisan divisions. Protected natural areas—state and federal parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, private nature preserves, and other conserved lands—have come to embody our idea of America the beautiful. The National Park System alone receives more than 250 million visits annually. Few people, however, have any idea how these places came to be preserved. Was it mere chance that the juggernaut of industrial expansion sweeping over the continent spared them? No, it was not luck, but the intentional actions of people who worked to save wild country.
Private philanthropy as a mechanism to protect natural areas is a minority stream in our conservation history. The bulk of lands administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other agencies came out of the preexisting federal domain. Most western national parks were designated from this original American commons after conservationists pushed Congress to act. But on thousands of occasions when public means for conservation were unavailable, inadequate, or too slow in coming, private initiative has saved wildlife habitat.
The cumulative effect of wildlands philanthropy by individual Americans is extraordinary, yet has gone mostly unstudied, and uncelebrated. Acadia, Grand Teton, Guadalupe Mountains, Virgin Islands, and various other national parks and seashores would not exist in their current form if not for the largesse of conservation donors. Sanctuaries maintained by the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society similarly reflect private initiative. In every region of the country, one can find wildlife sanctuaries whose genesis was an individual or group of conservationists committed to their protection. Places grand and modest, well known and obscure, are part of this great land legacy bequeathed to future generations.
The people behind these places we treasure have come from every walk of life and every corner of America—billionaires and small business owners, entrepreneurs and activists, teachers and scientists—all of them sharing a love for natural beauty and healthy land. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the need for wildlands philanthropy has never been greater—not to supplant, but to complement, strong public funding for land conservation.
Through national and international conservation organizations, through local and regional land trusts, there is opportunity for everyone, regardless of means, to join the great American tradition of individual action on behalf of wild nature.