President John F. Kennedy is often remembered for his support of civil rights and space exploration, but he also stirred a new wave of conservation. In the final part of our two-part series , WRNC's Danielle Kaeding reports that Kennedy set the stage for grassroots environmental protection efforts to grow into national conservation policies.
During President John F. Kennedy's final year in office, the nuclear arms race and emerging technologies drew increasing concern among Americans over their relationship with the natural world. Thomas Smith, a history professor at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., studies Kennedy's impact on the conservation movement. Smith says Kennedy believed the country needed to preserve wilderness areas to maintain its status as a world power.
“We had to protect our natural resources, carefully guard them and also realize that we are not necessarily masters over the earth, but partners with other living things,” says Smith. “I think he thought that was important for the future of not only America, but the future of humanity.”
Smith doesn't give Kennedy all the credit – he says the president popularized a conservation movement growing from grassroots groups like the Wilderness Society and National Parks Association. “But Kennedy realized that this was something that was important. He had the pulpit. People listened to him when he talked.”
In 1963, Kennedy took that message on a conservation tour of 11 states. The tour came together at the urging of then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. Speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration of JFK's trip to Ashland , former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey says the tour marked a turning point in conservation.
“This visit that Gaylord Nelson arranged with Jack Kennedy was really at the beginning edge of the whole national effort on the environment,” he said.
William Bechtel, who served as Nelson's press secretary during the tour, recalls a particular line from the president's 1963 speech in Ashland.
Kennedy: “Every day that goes by that we do not make a real national effort to preserve our national conservation resources is a day wasted.”
“It was a very prophetic comment,” says Bechtel – prophetic because it would lead to the creation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior.
After the tour, Congress created two national seashores in California and Texas. It also established the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation at Kennedy's request.
As president, Kennedy set the vision for a new wave of conservation to keep the country beautiful for future generations:
Kennedy: “If we fail to learn our lessons from the past – and this lesson has been a hard one for the people of this area – the pressures of a growing population and an expanding economy may destroy our assets before our children can enjoy them.”
The administration pushed the Wilderness Bill and a land and water conservation fund as top priorities in 1963, meeting some resistance from congressional lawmakers.
Kennedy would not live to see them pass: His assassination came just two months after his visit to Ashland. Even so, Smith says Kennedy set the groundwork for major conservation achievements. “He glorified conservation, and he made it cool to be a conservationist.”
In the year after Kennedy's death, the 88th Congress passed both the Wilderness Bill and land and water conservation fund, becoming known as the “Conservation Congress.” By the end of the decade, Congress had established new national parks, scenic riverways, seashores, lakeshores and shorelines from coast to coast.