Henry David Thoreau is often associated with protecting untouched wilderness, preserving land in its ‘original’ or pre-human state. But a closer look at Thoreau’s legacy today reveals an evolving and more complex view of the role of conservation in a world in which virtually none of the Earth’s surface has been impervious to heavy human influence.
Thoreau inspired a generation – including John Muir, John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt – to protect land. Not to lock up pieces of land to throw away the key, but to promote working landscapes, to be utilized to promote human interaction with nature. Our National Parks and Forests systems, including the Cape Cod National Seashore to our East and the Green and White Mountain National Forests to our North are wonderful examples in our own backyards. None of these places – although protected – remain untouched wilderness. Instead they encourage a harmonious engagement of humans with their surroundings: actively managed working landscapes designed to protect and build healthy ecosystems.
Thoreau is often cited as an inspiration for the creation of conservation and agricultural easements to preserve working agricultural landscapes. “A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it,” a brochure of the California State Parks quotes Thoreau, explaining the genesis of that state’s easement programs.
In Walden, Thoreau wrote extensively about the poor land management practices of his neighboring farmers in Concord, Mass – explaining that a lack of crop rotation and allowing cattle to graze in mixed woodlots lead to both poor quality pastures and poor quality woodlots. Although much of his writing criticizes our tendency to destroy and overutilize natural resources, the answer was not for everyone to live alone in the woods. Instead, the answer is found in better land management practices. In agriculture, this is referred to as “regenerative agriculture” – practices like management intensive grazing, in which grass-fed cattle are rotated through successive pastures with high stocking densities to build and retain soil fertility, and in turn, drive higher productivity of perennial pastures.
July 12 marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. Show your appreciation for preserving working landscapes by visiting a local farm, hiking in the Green or White Mountains, or even just sharing your favorite photograph of a landscape you love.