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A brief history of conservation in California

Our founder looks at how the incredible human and economic growth achieved by his home state in just 170 years has been closely tied to the birth of the global conservation movement. This all goes to show that there really is nowhere quite like California!

The first human settlers arrived in California from Asia after crossing the Bering Strait roughly 15,000 years ago. They found a fertile land of plenty, with productive valleys and abundant marine fisheries. California’s indigenous inhabitants never organized into the kind of widespread civilizations found in Central or South America, instead remaining loosely organized regional groups. The rugged topography and lack of need to expand for resources meant that even before the waves of European and Asian immigration that would shape its future, California was among the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions in the Americas. It’s no wonder that when the first Spaniards arrived to find lush valleys of peace and plenty, they would name it after the famed utopia of a popular romantic Spanish novel of the day.

California's start-up legacy was born from gold miners and saloon life.

The Gold Rush

 The discovery of gold by American prospectors in 1848 changed the region – and the newly established state of the Union – forever. Prospectors suffering from gold fever flooded in on covered wagons from the east and ships from the west, arriving to San Francisco and the state’s new capital in Sacramento. The 49ers – named after 1849, the year the influx of miners began – explored the rivers and streams of the Sierra Foothills with gold pans and, later, hydraulic mining. Hydraulic mining, which tore down entire hillsides, was the most destructive of these practices and was eventually banned in 1888.

These new settlers to California planted the seeds of one of the most economically vibrant republics the world has ever seen, while at the same time changing the natural landscapes of the rivers and hillsides of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Levi Strauss & Co., which was founded in San Francisco in 1853, heralded the arrival of jeans as a material of choice for miners and other workers, and can be considered California’s first start-up. What is now one of the world’s most recognizable apparel brands was born in the gold fields of California.

Today, a smattering of small towns preserves their Gold Rush era history in a region that is quickly becoming known for its stellar wines. Boutique B&Bs (the pre-Airbnb type) and old miner saloons nestle among wooden water wheels and pine trees, blending into a world where high school football rules and old trucks are passed down as an inheritance.

Industrialization and Conservation’s Reaction

By the time industrialization hit California after the Civil War in the 1870s, the wholesale harvesting of redwood forests for lumber to build early San Francisco and other Californian cities was in full swing. The wood wasn’t just great for building cities, it was also vital to the construction of the transcontinental railroad east (as was Chinese immigrant labor). It wasn’t until President Teddy Roosevelt, inspired by the writings of John Muir and the photography of Ansel Adams, began establishing national parks in the early 1900s that California would enter an era of environmental activism that still permeates the state today.

California's Central Valley, one of the world's most productive agricultural regions.

In the early 20th century, as Hollywood began to emerge from the citrus groves of Los Angeles, Californians began to alter the state’s Central Valley, turning plains and deltas into the most productive agricultural region in the world – yet not without an environmental cost. This transformation is vividly described in Cadillac Desert, one of the most important books on conservation in contemporary America. By the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, a new influx of immigrants, the Okies, emigrated from the Midwest in search of work and fertile soil. Like the Gold Rush before them, the early beginnings of California agriculture drove westward expansion, and they also played a pivotal role in feeding the war effort during WWII.

Much like the abundance of California’s forests and farmlands, California’s coast sprouted an industrial fishing industry that initially destroyed fish stocks through overharvesting, as epitomized in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Later in the 20th century, California’s legendary salmon runs began to diminish due to the building of thousands of dams needed to sustain a booming agriculture industry and growing population. This destroyed a key natural system that had transferred countless nutrients from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierras as millions upon millions of salmon died in the small high-country streams after spawning. The collapse of the fishing industry in the 1970s and the decline of the lumber industry (hastened by the declaration of Redwoods National Park in 1978) would change the economic landscape of California’s North Coast forever, helping to develop new ideas around renewable resources.

Giant redwoods are colossal symbols of California's history and conservation efforts.

After seeing what had happened in Cannery Row in Monterey, the redwood forests of the North Coast and the conversion of the Central Valley, California doubled down on conservation and the preservation of its wilderness. Today, Cannery Row – once a symbol of marine exploitation – is home to one of the most important marine sanctuaries in the world due to the research that goes on in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The state’s redwood forests have been protected, and a more critical approach to dam building and removal has taken hold, resulting in the salmon returning. California has led the way in environmental activism, a movement that was fueled by research and brain power from its universities and an ardent love of natural beauty that many residents recognize as distinctly Californian.

California’s rugged, untouched nature

While there’s no denying the major impact that man has had on California over the last 170 years, the human footprint is very recently compared to other regions of the United States and the rest of the world. When you look at California’s Sierra Nevadas, where fierce winters drop snow up to 10-15 feet high, you’ll notice that this massive region of California has never established significant year-round settlements. To this day, the Sierra Nevadas can only be crossed by two main highways during the winter.

The rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range.

What began with John Muir persuading Teddy Roosevelt to proclaim Yosemite a national park (read about the most significant camping trip in conservation history here), created a legacy of conservation that still lives strong. This is demonstrated by California’s vast network of national forests, coastal preserves, and state parks. California has led the world in conservation and placing value on our natural world. Its rugged and often untouched nature continues to inspire and rejuvenate Americans and all other citizens of earth.

What makes this all the more incredible is that California has managed to preserve much of its natural abundance while also developing two of the world’s great urban centers, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But that’s a story for another day.

California is resounding proof that healthy nature means a healthy society, and abundant natural resources lead to strong economies. Come visit California with us. Learn its history, be a Californian just for a while, and unveil its glory on one of our tailor-made journeys through time and space!

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