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Art Carhart, Father of the Wilderness Concept

By William D. Brown

“Never heard of him!” — the response most often given by professional conservationists, when asked, “Who was Arthur H. Carhart?”

Art Carhart is the most profound unsung conservation hero, writer, gentleman and visionary that I’ve come across. He is characterized by the anonymous quote: “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you’re not concerned with who gets the credit.”

Carhart’s writings during his scant four years with the U.S. Forest Service form the foundation for the wilderness and recreation policies that exist today.

His Grandpa Hawthorn’s tales of nature, hunting, fishing, trapping and the Old West shaped young Arthur’s interests. Carhart’s destiny as a writer was fixed early. At age 11, he sold his first article about the downy woodpecker to Women’s Home Companion for $2.

Art received the first Landscape Architecture degree ever granted by Iowa State University. He paid for his education by captaining a college orchestra — though he had never received professional training as a musician.

The young architect worked a short time for a Chicago firm, but “Over There” a war was going on and he enlisted. His talents were soon recognized and he became a bacteriologist for Walter Reed Hospital and finished the war as first lieutenant, in charge of public health for Camp Meade, MD. That’s when he married the love of his life, Vera Amelia Van Sickle.

In 1919, Carhart became the first landscape architect hired by the U.S. Forest Service. He developed the recreational facilities of national forests in six states, from Superior Forest on Wisconsin’s Lake Superior to the San Isabel in southern Colorado.

Imagine if you will, Art Carhart in his first real job. He’s newly married and poor. His job is to survey the area around a lake for road construction that would lead to home sites and development leases. Instead, on Dec. 10, 1919, he sent a memo to Aldo Leopold following a conversation they’d had on Dec. 6.

“The problem spoken of in this conversation was, how far shall the Forest Service carry or allow to be carried man-made improvements in scenic territories, and whether there is not a definite point where all such developments, with the exception of perhaps lines of travel and necessary sign boards, shall stop. The Forest Service, it seems to me, is obligated to make the greatest return from the total forests to the people of the nation that is possible. This, the Service has endeavored to do in the case of timber utilization, grazing, watershed protection and other activities. There is, however, a great wealth of recreational facilities and scenic values within the forests which have not been so utilized, and at the present time the Service is face to face with a question of big policies, big plans and big utilization for these values and areas.”

At Trapper Lake in 1919, on the Gila in 1920 and on Lake Superior in 1921, he recommended no roads, no disturbances, no leases and no motorized anything. His plans were accepted. Miracle? No, he was a good salesman, a word wizard with vision. His memos mark the turning point in thought about the use of our national forests. Leopold is often credited as the father of the wilderness concept. Credit Leopold never claimed. Fortunately, because of the work done by Donald Baldwin in his 1965 work titled Historical Study of the Wilderness Concept, Arthur Hawthorne Carhart was finally recognized as the father of the wilderness concept.

Unfortunately, a turf battle took place between the Forest Service and the U.S. Park Service. Art Carhart was in the middle. The clash came in 1921 during an impromptu presentation he gave at a National Parks Conference. Up until Carhart’s hiring, national forest policy was to maximize economic production from forest resources. The employment of a landscape or recreation architect marked the first step toward recognizing the economic and aesthetic value of hunting, fishing, camping and other leisure activities. At the conference, he spoke of the recreation potential of the national forests, stating that the parks and forests are not in competition, but complement one another as attractions to be enjoyed by all Americans.

Stephen Mather, director of the Park Service since it’s 1916 inception, blasted Carhart and his forest policies toward recreation as duplicating the great work being done by the Park Service. Carhart, ever the gentleman, stayed calm and refrained from getting involved in a personal fight. Instead, he focused on the issues, policies and objectives. Mather had his political ducks well in line and Carhart’s request for $45,000 to meet the recreation needs on 53 million acres of national forest in six states was reduced to $900. Carhart quit the Forest Service in 1922.

Free to pursue his architectural career, Carhart became a success as an institutional landscape architect. He worked on such notable projects as the Colorado General Hospital, Swedish Sanitarium, the Myron Stratton home and many others. More importantly, in his work as a self-taught writer he was free to take on the fight for wilderness and aesthetic forest values. A new road scheme was proposed for Lake Superior that would destroy its wilderness value. Carhart joined forces with many early conservationists like Wil Dilg, the Izaak Walton League, Paul Riis and Sigurd Olson in the fight to preserve Lake Superior’s many water systems.

A prolific writer, he took on the pen name of Hart Thorne, from his middle name, Hawthorne, for many of his 24 novels. Drum up the Dawn was a popular novel of the time as was the thriller The Wrong Body under the pen name V.A. Van Sickle. In 1931 Carhart abandoned the landscape business to write. As conservation advocate, some of his 4,000 articles reached out to preach beyond the choir to publications that didn’t normally carry a conservation theme. In an early interview, Carhart reckoned he’d “made” practically every magazine. He sold nearly 350,000 words per year, about one-third of his total output. Two of Carhart’s later books, Timber in Your Life and Water in Your Life, are conservation classics.

In a letter to Horace Albright, Carhart says of himself: “I guess, Horace, I’m a non-conformist, totally; an old buck always off the reservation and hunting lonely.”

In the pages of Outdoor Life he carried on the battle to reverse the preferential treatment Western grazing interests were receiving on national forests.

In Outdoor Life’ “A Man for the Wilderness,” (March 1976), Bill Vogt wrote: “One series of articles — on overgrazing of livestock and the havoc of the resulting range destruction was causing among game animals — drew heavy fire from some of Carhart’s former Forest Service co-workers, and some cattlemen promised to shoot him on sight if he ever ventured onto their grazing ranges or ranches.”

Carhart responded: “I was said to be trying to hamstring an industry indispensable to the life of the nation. All this was to be expected since these are the old stock methods followed by entrenched interests for years when they wangled and badgered members of Congress and officials into giving concessions on our public lands.”

In 1937 congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act, a federal tax on firearms and ammunition that directed money to the states for wildlife conservation and research. Carhart was hired in 1938 to direct Colorado’s program. He performed baseline studies, the results of which are still being used today.”

“During those years we learned things that are still being used to answer the anti-hunting crowd: that man has replaced the big cats as predators and has upset the balance so much that game animals must be managed for their own survival. Hunting has become a matter of animal husbandry.”

But with 14 of Carhart’s 17 men fighting in the war, he was unable to do his job effectively; he quit in 1943.

In 1947 he wrote Hunting and Fishing is Big Business for Sports Afield and updated it in the same publication in 1951. His work was some of the first to put a dollar value on wildlife. By no longer speaking airily about aesthetics, Carhart made it easy to understand.

The annual outlay of hunting and fishing sportsmen is approximately twice the total value of all hogs on farms Jan.1, 1947, as reported by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Sportsmen’s business is about eight times the total value of all sheep on farms last New Year’s day. And the sportsmen spend in 12 months an amount approximating half the capital value of all cattle in the nation at the beginning of this year.

Later in the article he wrote:

It is time for sportsmen to take the facts in hand and beat the truth into public consciousness. It is the most effective approach to offsetting the dollar-talk of exploiters.

Properly and effectively used, the general realization of the actual position of hunting and fishing in the business fields is the best of insurance for the future of wildlife resources.

I’ve seen the same kinds of things happen over and over through the years. The thing so many of today’s conservationists don’t know is that most of it has been done before.

One of the projects I’m working on now is to see if some of the old classics on conservation can be reprinted in paperback, if I can find someone to sponsor it. Such books as William Vogt’s Road to Survival and Gifford Pinchot’s Breaking New Ground. I think a dozen or so such books could help keep conservationists from repeating work that’s been done before, and would give new insights on things being done now.

A November 1975 letter to Carhart stated: “That was a good note you shot at the gun control people. I hold with you entirely (no reference was given to a particular article) that the strict application of the laws prohibiting men with criminal records owning guns and quick, severe punishment for those who use them in committing crimes would do more to correct the crime picture than anything else.” Signed, As Ever, Jim (James Cagney).

This, along with his many boxes of letters from notables such as Ed Zern, Grits Gresham, Wayne Aspinall, Rachel Carson, Ralph Edwards, Dwight Eisenhower, Arthur Godfrey, Jimmy Stewart, Lowell Thomas, the Muries and OWAA members from all over, show that Carhart’s soul and his connections helped his writing be heard.

He felt his most important contribution was the creation of the Conservation Library Center (CLC) at the Denver Public Library. Today the CLC is the historic core for anyone doing conservation research. Without Carhart’s work, it simply wouldn’t have happened.

William D. Brown is a Colorado resident, free-lance writer and filmmaker, specializing in outdoor, travel and construction topics. His latest film with Wolfgang Obst, for Audubon, was “Mysteries of the Mojave.”

© Outdoor Writers Association of America