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Environmental History Timeline

1492 Christopher Columbus sets sail from Spain on August 3 seeking a new route to the Indies. He makes his first landing in the New World on an island he names San Salvador. (October 12)
1774 Explorer Meriwether Lewis is born in Virginia. (August 18)
1775 Percival Pott observes that chimney sweeps develop cancer as a result of their contact with soot, the first recognition of environmental factors on cancer.
1785 John James Audubon is born in Haiti. (April 26)
1809 Charles Darwin is born in England. (February 12)
1838 Naturalist John Muir is born in Scotland. (April 21)
1845 Self-made naturalist Henry David Thoreau retreats to a cabin in the woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts to avoid the waste and destruction of modern life; he later publishes Walden as a record of his experience.
1846 U.S. Congress establishes the Smithsonian Institution. (August 10)
1849 U.S. Department of the Interior is established.
1851 Henry David Thoreau tells a lecture audience at the Concord Lyceum that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World." (April 23)
1857 Frederick Law Olmsted gains commission to develop America's first great city park, Central Park, in the center of New York City, thus bringing the art and science of landscape architecture to the United States.
1864 George Perkins Marsh (American: 1801-1881) publishes Man and Nature, the first textbook on conservation and the first detailed study of human influence on the environment. (The book was reintroduce in 1874 as The Earth as Modified by Human Action.)
1869 John Wesley Powell leads first party to navigate the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
1872 Yellowstone, world's first national park, opens in Wyoming.

Robert Angus Smith (1817-1884) describes acid rain.

1876 John Muir first suggests preservation of wilderness areas through public ownership and state action in a Sacramento Record-Union newspaper editorial. (February 5)
1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the West by John Wesley Powell released.
1879 U.S. Geological Survey established.
1882 The first hydroelectric plant opens on the Fox River in Wisconsin.

The State of New York establishes a 715,000 acre Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Mountains with the stipulation that it "shall be kept forever as wild forest lands." (May 15)

1888 National Geographic Society founded. (Jan. 27)
1890 Sequoia National Park established in California. (September 25)

Yosemite National Park established in California. (October 1)

U.S. Census Department announces the Frontier boundary, beyond which there were no more than two settlers per square mile.

1891 U.S. Forest Preserve Act permits federal government to set aside public land as forest preserve (precursor of the national forests).
1892 Canada establishes first national park at Banff, Alberta.

Twenty-seven committed environmentalists form the Sierra Club dedicated to "exploring, enjoying, and rendering accessible the mountain the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast." Charter members included John Muir and Joseph LeConte, among others. (May 28)

Animal Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress by Henry S. Salt released.

1895 American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society is founded in response to speed at which industrialization was destroying America's natural heritage.
1897 U.S. Congress passes the Forest Management Act allowing the federal government to withdraw wilderness land from the public domain. (June 4)

"Progressive" Environmentalism gains popularity, espousing governmental intervention in the public interest to offset exploitation of natural resources by private developers.

1898 Cornell offers first college program in forestry.

U.S. Rivers and Harbors Act bans pollution of navigable waters.

1900 U.S. Lacey Act makes it a federal crime to transport illegally-killed game animals across state lines.
1902 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation established propelling the Federal Land Reclamation program.
1903 The nation's first wildlife refuge is formed when President Theodore Roosevelt protects Pelican Island, FL, from hunters decimating the island's bird population.
1905 U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt opens the first national refuge, Pelican Island in Florida, to protect nesting sites of brown pelicans.

The United States Forest Service is established within the Department of Agriculture to manage forest reserves.

National Audubon Society founded.

1906 Devil's Tower National Monument established in Wyoming. (September 24)
1907 Gifford Pinchot appointed first chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
1908 The Grand Canyon in Arizona is set aside as a national monument under the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt hosts first Governors' Conference on Conservation and creates the National Conservation Commission to inventory America's natural resources.

Chlorination is first used extensively at U.S. water treatment plants, producing water 10 times purer than when filtered.

1911 Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States sign a treaty to limit the annual harvest of northern fur seals.

The Weeks Act appropriates $9 million dollars to purchase 6 million acres of land in the eastern United States for the purpose of establishing national forests.

1913 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson approves the Congressional plan to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a scenic wilderness area, in order to serve as a reservoir for the city of San Francisco. (December 19)
1914 The Panama Canal is opened to shipping. (August 15)

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, dies in the Cincinnati zoo, becoming a symbol for crusades against species extinction. (September 1)

1915 Dinosaur National Monument established in Colorado. (October 4)
1916 The National Park Organic Act creates the National Park Service and establishes the National Park System in order to conserve scenery, wildlife, and "historic objects" for future generations.
1917 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signs bill creating Alaska's Mount McKinley National Park. (February 26)
1918 Save-the-Redwoods League is created.

Hunting of migratory bird species is restricted by treaty between U.S. and Canada.

1919 U.S. Congress established the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. (February 26)
1920 U.S. Mineral Leasing Act regulates mining on federal lands.
1922 Timpanogos Cave National Monument established in Utah. (October 14)

Izaak Walton League established as non-profit research and advocacy organzation.

1924 Naturalist Aldo Leopold secures designation of Gila National Forest in New Mexico as America's first extensive wilderness area.

First National Conference on Outdoor Recreation held.

1928 Boulder Canyon project (Hoover Dam) authorized to bring irrigation, electric power, and flood control system to western United States.

The International Union of Biological Sciences establishes the International Office for the Protection of Nature, based in Brussels, Belgium. (July 10)

1930 Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)  are hailed as safe refrigerants because of their non-toxic and non-combustible properties (later disproven by Rowland and Molina).
1933 Tennessee Valley Authority created lo develop the Tennessee River for flood control, navigation, electric power, agriculture, and forestry.

Civilian Conservation Corps employs over two million Americans in forestry, flood control, soil erosion, and beautification projects in an attempt to boost the economy while addressing the needs of the land.

1934 Greatest drought in U.S. history recorded.

U.S. Taylor Grazing Act regulates grazing on federal lands.

1935 Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, Benton MacKaye, Robert Sterling Yard and others join to form the Wilderness Society in order to "protect America's wilderness and to develop a nation-wide network of wild lands through public education, scientific analysis and advocacy."
1939 Paul Muller (Swiss: 1899-1965) discovers insecticidal properties of DDT.
1946 The Grazing Service and the General Land Office are merged to form the Bureau of Land Management.
1947 Everglades National Park establishe in Florida. (December 6)
1949 United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources, Lake Success, NY (August 17-September 6)

Effigy Mounds National Monument established in Iowa. (October 25)

Aldo Leopold's seminal book A Sand County Almanac published.

1952 Smog blamed for 4,000 deaths in London.
1954 World Conference on Population, sponsored by the Economic and Social Affairs Department of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. (August 31-September 10)
1955 Link between exposure to asbestos and lung cancer established.

International Technical Conference on the Conservation of Living Resources. (April 18)

1956 U.S. Congress passes the Colorado River Storage Project Bill stating "that no dam or reservoir constructed under the authorization of the Act shall be within any national park or monument." (April 11)
1957 Nuclear wastes stored by the Soviet Union in a remote mountain region of the Urals explode: radioactive contamination affects thousands of square miles; several villages permanently evacuated.
1960 Haleakala National Park established in Hawaii. (September 13)

The Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act redefined the purpose of the national forests to include not only timber and watershed concerns, but also recreation, wildlife, fishing, hunting, and soil concerns.

1961 Investigations in Scandinavia and the U.S. Adirondacks confirm that acid rain kills some species living in lakes.

United Nations Conference on New Sources of Energy, Rome, Italy. (August 21-31)

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park established in Hawaii. (September 22)

1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1907-1964) exposes the dangers of pesticides and heralds increasing concern for the natural environment. (August 23)

First World Conference on National Parks, Seattle, Washington. (June 30-July 7)

Padre Island National Seashore established in Texas. (September 28)

Petrified Forest National Park established in Arizona. (December 9)

1963 Congress passes first Clean Air Act, allocating $95 million to local, state, and national air pollution control efforts.

Conference on Application of Science and Technology for the benefit of the Less Developed Areas, Geneva, Switzerland. (February 4-20)

U.S. Congress passes the first comprehensive legislation for clean air, with an allocation of $95 million. (December 17)

1964 U.S. Congress passes the Wilderness Act, setting up the National Wilderness Preservation System. (September 3)

Canyonlands National Park established in Utah. (September 12)

The Land & Water Conservation Fund Act is established to purchase park and refuge lands with royalties from offshore oil drilling.

1965 Congress passes Highway Beautification Act, banning many highway billboards.  

Congress passes Water Quality Act, giving federal government power to set water standards in absence of slate action.

Congress passes the Solid Waste Disposal Act, its first major solid waste legislation.

1966 Congress passes Rare and Endangered Species Act.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park established in Texas. (October 15)

1967 S. Manabe and R.T. Wetherald predict that increased amounts of carbon dioxide in tile atmosphere will lead to global warming.

The bald eagle, California condor, whooping crane, gray wolf, and grizzly bear are placed on the Endangered Species List. (March 11)

U.S. Congress passes the Air Quality Act, allocating $25 million to air quality protection efforts. (November 21)

1968 Congress passes Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, identifying areas of scenic beauty for preservation and recreation. (October 2)

First United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Vienna, Austria. (August 14-27)

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Central Arizona project into law, protecting the Colorado River -- which flows through the Grand Canyon -- from damming. (September 30)

North Cascades National Park established in Washington State. (October 2)

Redwoods National Park established in California. (October 2)

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signs a bill establishing the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, creating a legislative category of protection which Congress could apply to any free-flowing river in the country. (October 2)

Biscayne National Park established in Florida. (October 18)

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2398 on the Problems of Human Environment, initiating subsequent Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. (December 3)

1969 International Conference on Monuments and Tourism, Oxford, England. (July 7-11)

First landing on moon, U.S. Apollo XI. (July 20)

U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson calls for national teach-in on the environment to be called "Earth Day".


An estimated 20 million people participate in the first Earth Day demonstrations and activities across the country.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) signed into law. Requires an analysis of the environmental impacts of federal actions.

Clean Air Act signed into law.

President's Council on Environmental Quality established. CEQ advises and assists the President on environmental policies; oversees federal agencies implementation of the environmental impact assessment process.

Eight species of whales -- Blue, Bowhead, Finback, Gray, Humpback, Right, Sei, and Sperm -- are placed on the Endangered Species List. (June 2)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins operations. (October 2). William D. Ruckelshaus appointed first Administrator.

American and peregrine falcons are placed on the Endangered Species List. (October 13)

Technical Conference on Marine Pollution and Its Effects on Living Resources and Fishing, sponsored by the Food & Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy. (December 9-18)

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) founded to protect the environment and human health through advocacy, litigation, scientific research and education.

1971 Arches National Park established in Utah. (November 12)

U.S. government approves the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. (December 18)


Congress passes Clean Water Act, forbidding discharges of pollutants into navigable waters.

Oregon passes the nations first bottle recycling law.

United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, Sweden. (June 5-16)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bars registration and interstate sales of DDT because of its persistence in the environment and accumulation in the food chain. (June 14)

Second World Conference on National Parks, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (September 18)

Establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) by the UN General Assembly. (December 15)

1973 Representatives of 80 nations sign tile Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which prohibits commercial trade in 375 endangered species of wild animals. (March 3)

U.S. Congress passes the Endangered Species Act, referred to as the "most comprehensive legislation for the protection of endangered species ever enacted by any nation." (December 28)

Russell E. Train appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

1974 Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molinas warn that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) produced by spray cans and air conditioners are destroying ozone layer.

World Population Conference, Bucharest, Romania. (August 19-30)

World Food Conference, Rome, Italy. (November 5-16)

Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act establishes planning process for all forest and rangeland resources.

Eastern Wilderness Act designates 207,000 acres of wilderness on national lands in 13 states. The Act makes clear that lands that have recovered from prior abuse can be designated as wilderness.
1975 U.S. Congress enlarges Grand Canyon National Park to include all adjacent non-Indian lands. (Jan. 3)

Belgrade Charter: Global Framework for Environmental Education. (October 28)

1976 Congress passes Toxic Substances Control Act to control hazardous industrial chemicals.

National Forest Management Act (NFMA) Requires the U.S. Forest Service to include economic, wildlife, wilderness and recreational uses in planning.

Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) Governs the use of the national lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

1977 The Alaska pipeline opens, carrying oil 799 miles to Valdez. (July 27)

Douglas M. Costle appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

1978 Community of Love Canal, near Niagara, N.Y., evacuated after hazardous waste dumps are uncovered. EPA declares site safe in 1990.

Omnibus Parks Act adds Santa Monica Mountains, Golden Gateway, and Golden Gate National Recreation Areas to the National Park System.

1979 Nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pa., suffers partial meltdown: radiation confined to reactor dome.

Formation of EarthFirst! and radical environmental movement, inspired by Edward Abbey's book The Monkeywrench Gang.

World Climate Conference, Geneva, Switzerland. (February 23)

1980 Congress passes Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (the "Superfund") to clean up hazardous waste sites.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter signs into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, protecting 104 million acres of federal land -- including Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks and Preserves. (December 2)

1981 Anne M. Gorsuch appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
1982 International Whaling Commission votes phase-out of commercial whaling over a three-year period. (July 23)

World National Parks Congress, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. (October 11-22)

World Charter for Nature adopted by the UN General Assembly. (October 28)

1983 United Nations Conference on Tropical Timber, Geneva, Switzerland. (March 14-31)

William D. Ruckelshaus appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the second time.

1984 More than 2,000 die and thousands more arc injured by toxic gas from an accident at the U.S.-owned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

International Society for Environmental Education (ISEE) and World Council for Biosphere established, New Delhi, India. (February 29)


British scientists discover that a "hole" in the ozone layer develops over Antarctica each winter.

The U.S. sets up a Conservation Reserve Program to remove environmentally sensitive farmland from agricultural use.

Lee M. Thomas appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

1986 A worldwide ban on whaling begins. Chernobyl nuclear reactor number 4 explodes and burns, causing 31 deaths within days, shortening the lives of thousands, and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of square miles in Soviet Ukraine for an unknown length of time.
1986 Great Basin National Park established in Nevada. (October 27)
1987 The worst forest fire in history burns more than 3 million acres of China's timber reserve and up to 15 million acres in the Soviet Union.

U.S. Congress passes reauthorization and expansion of the Clean Water Act over veto by President Reagan.

The Rainforest Alliance is created and incorporated as a non-profit, based in New York City.

1988 The U.S. Ocean Dumping Ban Act mandates an end to ocean dumping of industrial waste and sewage sludge.

UN General Assembly Resolution on Protection of Global Climate for Present and Future Generations of Mankind. (December 6)

1989 Exxon Valdez grounds, leaking 35,000 tons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. (March 24)

Thirteen industrial nations agree to halt production of CFCs by the year 2000.

Hague Declaration on the Environment. (March 11)

Declaration of Brazilia on the Environment, Latin American-Caribbean environmental summit. (March 31)

Helsinki Declaration on Protection of the Ozone Layer signed. (May 2)

UNEP Decision on Global Climate Change, Nairobi, Kenya. (May 25)

William K. Reilly appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

1990 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. (June 26)
1991 Iraq dumps over a million tons of oil from occupied Kuwait into Persian Gulf.

A Georgia wilderness bill adds 24,200 acres of national forest lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

1992 Representatives from 178 countries attend the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they sign treaties pledging to increase the diversity of animal and plant species arid to halt global warming. (June 12)

Dry Tortuga National Park established in Florida. (October 26)

California wilderness bill adds 400,450 acres of national forest lands to National Wilderness Preservation System.

1993 Colorado wilderness bill adds 609,206 acres of national forest lands and 16,989 acres of BLM lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Carol M. Browner appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

1994 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends that strains of American bald eagle be reduced from "endangered" to "threatened" in most of United States.

U.S. Congress passes the California Desert Protection Act, establishing Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks as well as the Mojave National Preserve in California, bringing the National Wilderness Preservation System up to 104.7 million acres, which totals more than four percent of the total U.S. land base.

1995 The United Nations Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change endorses global warming, reporting that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."

Sen. Gaylord Nelson,the founder of Earth Day in 1970, is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Mojave National Park established in California.

1996 The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that measurements show that a global campaign to lower production of chemicals that damage the ozone layer has succeeded and that by 2010 the ozone layer will have begun to recover and by 2050 the Antarctic ozone "hole" will have closed.

U.S. Congress passes the Omnibus Parks Act establishing the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas and the Opal Creek Wilderness in Oregon.

U.S. President Bill Clinton establishes Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

U.S. Congress designated nearly 6 million acres of wilderness, mostly in Alaska's Noatak Wilderness Area.

1997 23-year-old Julia "Butterfly" Hill climbs into a 180 foot tall California Coast Redwood tree for a two-year-long "tree-sit" to protest the logging of old growth redwood forests. (December 10)

Representatives from more than 150 countries meet in Kyoto, Japan, where they agree to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases 5.2 percent worldwide by 2010.

U.S. Congress passes law, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, increasing protection in national wildlife refuges.

The U.S. National Park Service and Department of Transportation sign an agreement to work together to significantly reduce traffic in Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks.

U.S. Congress appropriates money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect Yellowstone, Headwaters Forest, and the Everglades, and provides funding for acquisition of important natural and recreation areas in 38 other states.

1998 Environmental activist David "Gypsy" Chain -- protesting the destruction of old-growth redwood trees -- is killed by a tree felled by employees of Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation. (September 17)

New US Environmental Protection Agency website provides public access to local pollution data throughout the United States.

Otay Mountain Wilderness, east of San Diego, adds 15,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The Opal Creek Wilderness Area in Oregon, at 20,724 acres, is designated by Congress.

1999 Julia Butterfly Hill comes down from Luna after concluding a deal with Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation to save the tree and a three-acre buffer zone. (December 18)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument, Colorado is made a National Park. Redesignation addes 22,000 acres of park Wilderness and 4,700 acres of BLM Wilderness to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

U.S. President Clinton issues his directive to the USFS to conduct an EIS leading to possible long-term protection of 50-60 million acres of roadless lands.

The Dugger Mountain Wilderness Act designates 9,200 acres in the Talladega National Forest, 70 miles east of Birmingham, AL.

2000 Global climate change report by the UN and the National Academy of Sciences firmly establishes scientific basis for concern and disarms skeptics.

US Environmental Protection Agency proposes comprehensive plan to clean up Hudson River PCBs.

2001 The U.S. Forest Service, after receiving 1.6 million comments from concerned citizens, sets aside 58 million acres of wild forests to remain undeveloped for future generations.

Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman appointed Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

United States joins 90 other nations in signing the international Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

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