Introduction to US Environmental History

The variety and uniqueness of America’s environment has long been a blessing and a challenge to its people. America has been blessed with a richness of natural resources, vast costal waters as well as broad, tall forests and furtive, open plains. At the same time we have been challenged by arid deserts, rugged mountains and elusive resources requiring ingenuity and effort to tame. America’s reactions to her environment have been as varied as the environment itself, ranging from overuse and exploitation to complex regulation and restriction. The greatest of all challenges lay in balancing economic and human development with a sustainable environmental policy for future generations of Americans.


Throughout United States history the American people have attempted to tame the environment for their own growth and success. Early colonists cleared forests for farmland and built early America on the foundations of an agrarian society and trapped American forests for the furs demanded by European fashion. Later, as the industrial revolution raged, early entrepreneurs and companies fueled industrial growth by extracting the riches of the soil in oil, coal and iron ore. As the twentieth century unfolded, many looked to preserve and protect the environment for future generations, setting aside wild lands and protected spaces. As science better helped to understand the dangers and impacts of industry and development on the environment, regulations were introduced, not only to ensure the health and safety of the environment, but of the human population as well.

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Federal and state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Parks Service and the Department of the Interior are responsible for enforcement of countless environmental regulations. Many significant laws such as the Newlands Reclamation Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act have helped to shape environmental policy within America.

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Environmental Issues

In the modern era the United States struggles to weigh concerns over the world’s environment, such as greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion, with the drive for economic development. Modern issues such as these, along with “sprawl”, endangered species protection, nuclear waste storage, environmental cleanup, pesticide and chemical impacts as well as many others make modern environmental policy increasingly complex and contentious.

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