Conservation in the Progressive Era
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Conservation in the Progressive Era

Classic Texts

David Stradling, David Stradling

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eBook - ePub

Conservation in the Progressive Era

Classic Texts

David Stradling, David Stradling

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Conservation was the first nationwide political movement in American history to grapple with environmental problems like waste, pollution, resource exhaustion, and sustainability. At its height, the conservation movement was a critical aspect of the broader reforms undertaken in the Progressive Era (1890-1910), as the rapidly industrializing nation struggled to protect human health, natural beauty, and "national efficiency." This highly effective Progressive Era movement was distinct from earlier conservation efforts and later environmentalist reforms. Conservation in the Progressive Era places conservation in historical context, using the words of participants in and opponents to the movement. Together, the documents collected here reveal the various and sometimes conflicting uses of the term "conservation" and the contested nature of the reforms it described. This collection includes classic texts by such well-known figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, as well as texts from lesser-known but equally important voices that are often overlooked in environmental studies: those of rural communities, women, and the working class. These lively selections provoke unexpected questions and ideas about many of the significant environmental issues facing us today.

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Part 1


The following documents reveal the contested nature of conservation as it gained popularity during the early 1900s. The first four documents present the long-standing, dominant definition of conservation from different perspectives, all of which praise the expansion of governmental power. First, former Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot offers the most repeated definition, linking conservation to development and democracy. Importantly, Pinchot also writes of conservation as a broad movement, one that could improve “national efficiency.” This was a political document published in 1910, shortly after Pinchot's ouster from the Forest Service and as Theodore Roosevelt contemplated another run for office.
President Roosevelt authored the second document, a “Special Message” written to introduce the Report of the National Conservation Commission in 1909. This three-volume report described the extent of the nation's natural resources, including minerals, agricultural lands, forests, and fresh water. The report also indicated in what areas the nation needed conservation measures. In addition to articulating many of the themes found in Pinchot's writings, Roosevelt's introduction emphasized the importance of Government (note the capital G), laying the philosophical groundwork for an expanded and empowered bureaucracy acting to protect the “industrial liberty” of the nation's citizens. The third piece comes from a leading irrigation crusader, William Smythe, publisher of The Irrigation Age, whose book-length treatment of the issue, The Conquest of Arid America, became one of the clearest calls for governmental involvement in reclamation projects in the American West. In this excerpt, Smythe emphasizes the democratic nature of irrigation projects.
In the fourth document, the Ladies' Home Journal explores the relationship between women and conservation, but in a very condescending tone. Ignoring the important political contributions women had already made to the movement, the column “What is Meant by Conservation?” instead focuses on the numerous ways women practiced conservation in their everyday lives as homemakers. According to this definition, Conservation, with a capital C, is nothing more than economy practiced by Government, with a capital G.
The final two documents reveal something of conservation's opponents. In an article from the North American Review, the modestly successful eastern author George Knapp condemns the rhetoric of conservationists, claiming that the nation's natural resources had not been wasted, only used. The last document, a letter from H.J.M. Mattes, of Fort Collins, Colorado, to the editor of Denver's Rocky Mountain News, protests federal conservation efforts in the West. The pro-conservation journal Forestry and Irrigation republished this letter as evidence of the “humorous” opposition conservation faced in the mountain region. Mattes, of course, found nothing funny about federal intervention in Colorado's natural resource use. Both Mattes and Knapp reveal how some citizens could feel a greater threat from the expansion of governmental power than from the depletion of natural resources, even to the point of suggesting conservation threatened the nation's founding principles.
These documents, read together, describe conservation as a movement emphasizing development, positive governmental activism, and the protection of the commonweal, perhaps at the expense of the individual. In addition, Roosevelt himself rests at the center of this definition of conservation. Both in and out of office, Roosevelt and Pinchot worked hard to define conservation as their policy, to proclaim the success of that policy, and to suggest that other policies threatened the nation's survival. Opponents, of course, were forced to battle both the popularity of Roosevelt and his policies.

Principles of Conservation

From The Fight for Conservation (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967), 40–52. (Originally published 1910.)
THE PRINCIPLES WHICH the word Conservation has come to embody are not many, and they are exceedingly simple. I have had occasion to say a good many times that no other great movement has ever achieved such progress in so short a time, or made itself felt in so many directions with such vigor and effectiveness, as the movement for the conservation of natural resources.
Forestry made good its position in the United States before the conservation movement was born. As a forester I am glad to believe that conservation began with forestry, and that the principles which govern the Forest Service in particular and forestry in general are also the ideas that control conservation.
The first idea of real foresight in connection with natural resources arose in connection with the forest. From it sprang the movement which gathered impetus until it culminated in the great Convention of Governors at Washington in May, 1908. Then came the second official meeting of the National Conservation movement, December, 1908, in Washington. Afterward came the various gatherings of citizens in convention, come together to express their judgment on what ought to be done, and to contribute, as only such meetings can, to the formation of effective public opinion.
The movement so begun and so prosecuted has gathered immense swing and impetus. In 1907 few knew what Conservation meant. Now it has become a household word. While at first Conservation was supposed to apply only to forests, we see now that its sweep extends even beyond the natural resources.
The principles which govern the conservation movement, like all great and effective things, are simple and easily understood. Yet it is often hard to make the simple, easy, and direct facts about a movement of this kind known to the people generally.
The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development. There has been a fundamental misconception that conservation means nothing but the husbanding of resources for future generations. There could be no more serious mistake. Conservation does mean provision for the future, but it means also and first of all the recognition of the right of the present generation to the fullest necessary use of all the resources with which this country is so abundantly blessed. Conservation demands the welfare of this generation first, and afterward the welfare of the generations to follow.
The first principle of conservation is development, the use of the natural resources now existing on this continent for the benefit of the people who live here now. There may be just as much waste in neglecting the development and use of certain natural resources as there is in their destruction. We have a limited supply of coal, and only a limited supply. Whether it is to last for a hundred or a hundred and fifty or a thousand years, the coal is limited in amount, unless through geological changes which we shall not live to see, there will never be any more of it than there is now. But coal is in a sense the vital essence of our civilization. If it can be preserved, if the life of the mines can be extended, if by preventing waste there can be more coal left in this country after we of this generation have made every needed use of this source of power, then we shall have deserved well of our descendants.
Conservation stands emphatically for the development and use of water-power now, without delay. It stands for the immediate construction of navigable waterways under a broad and comprehensive plan as assistants to the railroads. More coal and more iron are required to move a ton of freight by rail than by water, three to one. In every case and in every direction the conservation movement has development for its first principle, and at the very beginning of its work. The development of our natural resources and the fullest use of them for the present generation is the first duty of this generation. So much for development.
In the second place conservation stands for the prevention of waste. There has come gradually in this country an understanding that waste is not a good thing and that the attack on waste is an industrial necessity. I recall very well indeed how, in the early days of forest fires, they were considered simply and solely as acts of God, against which any opposition was hopeless and any attempt to control them not merely hopeless but childish. It was assumed that they came in the natural order of things, as inevitably as the seasons or the rising and setting of the sun. To-day we understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of men. So we are coming in like manner to understand that the prevention of waste in all other directions is a simple matter of good business. The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.
We are in a position more and more completely to say how far the waste and destruction of natural resources are to be allowed to go on and where they are to stop. It is curious that the effort to stop waste, like the effort to stop forest fires, has often been considered as a matter controlled wholly by economic law. I think there could be no greater mistake. Forest fires were allowed to burn long after the people had means to stop them. The idea that men were helpless in the face of them held long after the time had passed when the means of control were fully within our reach. It was the old story that “as a man thinketh, so is he”; we came to see that we could stop forest fires, and we found that the means had long been at hand. When at length we came to see that the control of logging in certain directions was profitable, we found it had long been possible. In all these matters of waste of natural resources, the education of the people to understand that they can stop the leakage comes before the actual stopping and after the means of stopping it have long been ready at our hands.
In addition to the principles of development and preservation of our resources there is a third principle. It is this: The natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many, and not merely for the profit of a few. We are coming to understand in this country that public action for public benefit has a very much wider field to cover and a much larger part to play than was the case when there were resources enough for every one, and before certain constitutional provisions had given so tremendously strong a position to vested rights and property in general.
A few years ago President Hadley, of Yale, wrote an article which has not attracted the attention it should. The point of it was that by reason of the XIVth amendment to the Constitution, property rights in the United States occupy a stronger position than in any other country in the civilized world. It becomes then a matter of multiplied importance, since property rights once granted are so strongly entrenched, to see that they shall be so granted that the people shall get their fair share of the benefit which comes from the development of the resources which belong to us all. The time to do that is now. By so doing we shall avoid the difficulties and conflicts which will surely arise if we allow vested rights to accrue outside the possibility of governmental and popular control.
The conservation idea covers a wider range than the field of natural resources alone. Conservation means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time. One of its great contributions is just this, that it has added to the worn and well-known phrase, “the greatest good to the greatest number,” the additional words “for the longest time,” thus recognizing that this nation of ours must be made to endure as the best possible home for all its people.
Conservation advocates the use of foresight, prudence, thrift, and intelligence in dealing with public matters, for the same reasons and in the same way that we each use foresight, prudence, thrift, and intelligence in dealing with our own private affairs. It proclaims the right and duty of the people to act for the benefit of the people. Conservation demands the application of common-sense to the common problems for the common good.
The principles of conservation thus described—development, preservation, the common good—have a general application which is growing rapidly wider. The development of resources and the prevention of waste and loss, the protection of the public interests, by foresight, prudence, and the ordinary business and home-making virtues, all these apply to other things as well as to the natural resources. There is, in fact, no interest of the people to which the principles of conservation do not apply.
The conservation point of view is valuable in the education of our people as well as in forestry; it applies to the body politic as well as to the earth and its minerals. A municipal franchise is as properly within its sphere as a franchise for water-power. The same point of view governs in both. It applies as much to the subject of good roads as to waterways, and the training of our people in citizenship is as germane to it as the productiveness of the earth. The application of common-sense to any problem for the Nation's good will lead directly to national efficiency wherever applied. In other words, and that is the burden of the message, we are coming to see the logical and inevitable outcome that these principles, which arose in forestry and have their bloom in the conservation of natural resources, will have their fruit in the increase and promotion of national efficiency along other lines of national life.
The outgrowth of conservation, the inevitable result, is national efficiency. In the great commercial struggle between nations which is eventually to determine the welfare of all, national efficiency will be the deciding factor. So from every point of view conservation is a good thing for the American people.
The National Forest Service, one of the chief agencies of the conservation movement, is trying to be useful to the people of this nation. The Service recognizes, and recognizes it more and more strongly all the time, that whatever it has done or is doing has just one object, and that object is the welfare of the plain American citizen. Unless the Forest Service has served the people, and is able to contribute to their welfare it has failed in its work and should be abolished. But just so far as by cooperation, by intelligence, by attention to the work laid upon it, it contributes to the welfare of our citizens, it is a good thing and should be allowed to go on with its work.
The Natural Forests are in the West. Headquarters of the Service have been established throughout the Western country, because its work cannot be done effectively and properly without the closest contact and the most hearty cooperation with the Western people. It is the duty of the Forest Service to see to it that the timber, water-powers, mines, and every other resource of the forests is used for the benefit of the people who live in the neighborhood or who may have a share in the welfare of each locality. It is equally its duty to cooperate with all our people in every section of our land to conserve a fundamental resource, without which this Nation cannot prosper.

Special Message from the President of the United States

From Henry Gannett, ed., Report of the National Conservation Commission, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1909), 1–9.
I TRANSMIT HEREWITH a report of the National Conservation Commission, together with the accompanying papers. This report, which is the outgrowth of the conference of governors last May, was unanimously approved by the recent joint conference held in this city between the National Conservation Commission and governors of States, state conservation commissions, and conservation committees of great organizations of citizens. It is therefore in a peculiar sense representative of the whole nation and all its parts.
With the statements and conclusions of this report I heartily concur, and I commend it to the thoughtful consideration both of the Congress and of our people generally. It is one of the most fundamentally important documents ever laid before the American people. It contains the first inventory of its natural resources ever made by any nation. In condensed form it presents a statement of our available capital in material resources, which are the means of progress, and calls attention to the essential conditions upon which the perpetuity, safety, and welfare of this nation now rest and must always continue to rest. It deserves, and should have, the widest possible distribution among the people.
The facts set forth in this report constitute an imperative call to action. The situation they disclose demands that we, neglecting for a time, if need be, smaller and less vital questions, shall concentrate an effective part of our attention upon the great material foundations of national existence, progress, and prosperity.
This first inventory of natural resources prepared by the National Conservation Commission is undoubtedly but the beginning of a series which will be indispensable for dealing intelligently with what we have. It supplies as close an approximation to the actual facts as it was possible to prepare with the knowledge and time available. The progress of our knowledge of this country will continually lead to more accurate information and better use of the sources of national strength. But we can not defer action until complete accuracy in the estimates can be reached, because before that time many of our resources will be practically gone. It is not necessary that this inventory should be exact in every minute detail. It is essential that it should correctly describe the general situation; and that the present inventory does. As it stands it is an irrefutable proof that the conservation of our resources is the fundamental question before this nation, and that our first and greatest task is to set our house in order and begin to live within our means.
The first of all considerations is the permanent welfare of our people; and true moral welfare, the highest form of welfare, can not permanently exist save on a firm and lasting foundation of material well-being. In this respect our situation is far from satisfactory. After every possible allowance has been made, and when every hopeful indication has been given its full weight, the facts still give reason for grave concern. It would be unworthy of our history and our intelligence, and disastrous to our future, to shut our eyes to these facts or attempt to laugh them out of court. The people should and will rightly demand that the great fundamental questions shall be given attention by their representatives. I do not advise hasty or ill-considered action on disputed points, but I do urge, where the facts are known, where the public interest is clear, that neither indifference and inertia, nor adverse private interests, shall be allowed to stand in the way of the public good.
The great basic facts are already well known. We know that our population is now adding about one-fifth to its numbers in ten years, and that by the middle of the present century perhaps one hundred and fifty million Americans, and by its end very many millions more, must be fed and clothed from the products of our soil. With the steady growth in population and the still more rapid increase in consumption, our people will hereafter make greater and not less demands per capita upon all the natural resources for their livelihood, comfort, and convenience. It is high time to realize that our responsibility to the coming millions is like that of parents to their children, and that in wasting our resources we are wronging our descendants.
We know now that our rivers can and should be ...