The Conservative Roots of Conservation

New York Times junkies would have noticed an August 28, 1991, story headed "Woodstock Journal." Reading on they discovered that the story was datelined Woodstock, Vermont, and that it reported a proposal by Laurance S. and Mary Rockefeller to donate their 531-acre Woodstock estate as a National Historical Park. Although the Rockefeller family has a generations-long tradition of adding to the national park system, the story was not one of dog bites man. The estate includes the two-centuries-old mansion that was the birthplace of George Perkins Marsh, author in 1864 of Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, which in Lewis Mumford's frequently quoted words was "the fountainhead of the conservation movement in America." In 1869, Marsh sold the estate—the only time it has ever been sold—to a lifelong admirer, Frederick Billings. Mary Rockefeller is Billings' granddaughter.

Although a principal American railroad builder and pioneer conservationist, Frederick Billings has lacked a scholarly biography. Robin W. Winks, having gained permission from the Rockefeller family to consult the records in the Billings Archives, has admirably filled that gap. Before launching his railroad career, Billings sought his fortune in gold-rush California. He arrived in San Francisco in the spring of 1849 and took not to the gold fields but to law and real estate. He was the first attorney...

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