Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt invited the nation’s governors and other dignitaries to Washington, D.C., for the first major conference on conservation issues in the United States, raising public awareness of those issues.

Summary of Event

On May 13, 1908, the first U.S. conference devoted to conservation issues convened in Washington, D.C. The Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, often called the Governors’ Conference, was convened by President Theodore Roosevelt and organized by his conservation advisers. The governors of all the U.S. states and numerous other dignitaries were invited to the conference, which lasted three days and led to a broad agreement on conservation principles as well as a proposed course of action. Conservation;natural resources Natural resources, conservation Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources [kw]Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources (May 13-15, 1908) [kw]Conservation of Natural Resources, Conference on the (May 13-15, 1908) [kw]Natural Resources, Conference on the Conservation of (May 13-15, 1908) [kw]Resources, Conference on the Conservation of Natural (May 13-15, 1908) Conservation;natural resources Natural resources, conservation Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources [g]United States;May 13-15, 1908: Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources[02130] [c]Environmental issues;May 13-15, 1908: Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources[02130] [c]Government and politics;May 13-15, 1908: Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources[02130] [c]Economics;May 13-15, 1908: Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources[02130] [c]Natural resources;May 13-15, 1908: Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources[02130] Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;conservation Pinchot, Gifford Newell, Frederick Haynes McGee, William J.

Roosevelt had become president in 1901, coinciding with the broad reform movement called Progressivism. Progressive movement Roosevelt, a Republican, was the nation’s first Progressive president. Conservation of the nation’s natural resources soon became a cornerstone of the new administration. By Roosevelt’s second term, however, considerable opposition to his conservation program had developed in Congress, which imposed limitations on portions of the president’s proposed policies. Some congressmen demanded that the country’s resources be left in the hands of the individual states. Others objected to the direction and domination of conservation policies by the executive branch, an approach that bypassed Congress and stretched federal laws beyond what narrow constitutional constructionists believed proper. Many objected to the administration’s reliance on experts rather than elected representatives in conservation matters. A few believed that conservation was unnecessary and even un-American.

The conference’s immediate origins resulted from Roosevelt’s creation of the Inland Waterways Commission Inland Waterways Commission in February, 1907. The commission, which reflected the administration’s reliance on presidential commissions, also embodied a commitment to a multiple-use approach to water use (irrigation, waterpower, navigation, flood control, and soil conservation). The commission was staffed by experts long connected with Roosevelt’s own approach to resource management. The politically astute Roosevelt also appointed several congressmen to the Inland Waterways Commission, including the commission chairman, Theodore E. Burton Burton, Theodore E. of Ohio. William J. McGee, one of the major theorists of the conservation movement and a proponent of the conservation-for-use ideology, was the commission’s secretary.

In May, 1907, commission member Frederick Haynes Newell, director of the Bureau of Reclamation in the U.S. Department of the Interior and the architect of the federal water development program, suggested that a conference on the conservation of all national resources should be held in the near future in Washington, D.C. The other commission members concurred, and Congressman Burton and Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s principal adviser on conservation, brought the commission’s request to Roosevelt, who gave it his enthusiastic backing. Conservation of resources was important in its own right, but a national conference might also generate public support for the administration’s conservation policies.

To maximize the effect and to garner as much publicity and political support as possible, Roosevelt invited all the nation’s governors. In October, Roosevelt, the commission, and several governors traveled down the Mississippi River from Iowa to Memphis, Tennessee, where, on October 4, 1907, Roosevelt announced that a conservation conference would meet in Washington from May 13 to 15, 1908, noting that “the conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.” Formal invitations to the conference were issued in November.

Pinchot, Newell, and McGee were members of the conference organizing committee; Pinchot, who was independently wealthy, paid most of the conference’s costs. In order that the conference should attain the results desired by the administration, McGee and the other committee members made themselves available to assist participants in the writing of speeches, and many of the speeches later delivered were composed by McGee.

The Governors’ Conference began on May 13, 1908, in the East Room of the White House. The overwhelming majority of governors attended in person; others sent representatives. Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the president’s cabinet were represented, as were more than seventy organizations connected with issues related to natural resources. Also in attendance were such national figures as industrialists Andrew Carnegie and James Jerome Hill, labor leader John Mitchell, and William Jennings Bryan, Democratic presidential candidate in 1896 and 1900. Former president Grover Cleveland was invited but was too ill to attend.

Roosevelt delivered the keynote address, which, although it was drafted by McGee, was typically Rooseveltian, reflecting both the modernist and the moralistic attitudes of the Progressive Era. After welcoming remarks, the president for fifty minutes discussed the importance of conservation, claiming that “it is the chief material question that confronts us, second only—and second always—to the great fundamental questions of morality.” Roosevelt stated that although modern civilization consumes increasing amounts of natural resources, the populace had lost awareness of its dependence on nature. In their use and consumption of natural resources, Roosevelt noted, Americans at the time of the Revolution of 1776 had more in common with the earliest civilizations than with Americans of the early twentieth century. The current world was more dependent on resources than ever before, and many resources were in imminent danger of exhaustion. Many historians consider this speech to be among Roosevelt’s most influential.

Neither Roosevelt nor Pinchot was a preservationist; both believed that natural resources should be used, but used with efficiency and with planning. “Efficiency” was a key term in the vocabulary of many reformers, and in his speech Roosevelt referred to the “problem of national efficiency.” Roosevelt was an advocate of national parks, and he established many parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but wilderness preservationists such as John Muir were not invited to the Governors’ Conference, where the efficient utilitarian use of resources, rather than their absolute preservation, was the stated goal. In justifying conservation, Roosevelt claimed that “we should exercise foresight now, as the ordinary prudent man exercises foresight in conserving and wisely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.” The day of unrestricted individualism was over, but there could be no turning back to a simpler past.

Over the following three days, the conference participants attended sessions on iron and coal resources, land and forest conservation, and irrigation and livestock grazing on public lands. Roosevelt also hosted a dinner for the governors at the White House and a garden party for the delegates on the White House lawn, and Pinchot held a large reception at his home. A few conference participants defended the rights of the states over the powers of the federal government, but most supported the administration’s approach. The concluding declaration of the governors, influenced by McGee, who was the recording secretary, recognized the importance of conservation and firmly stated that the nation’s resources exist for the benefit of the people and not for that of private monopolists. Each state was urged to appoint a commission on the conservation of natural resources and to cooperate with other states and with the federal government. The report concluded with the plea, “Let us conserve the foundations of our prosperity.” As Roosevelt had hoped, the conference received wide press coverage, even abroad, and commentary was overwhelmingly supportive. Pinchot later noted in his autobiography that “conservation became the commonplace of the time.”


One of Roosevelt’s chief aims in convening the Governors’ Conference was to create public awareness and support for conservation issues. Until then, conservation policies had been primarily the province of politicians, the users of the nation’s resources, and—more recently—the professional experts generally connected with the presidency. Pinchot and Roosevelt hoped that the conference would generate popular support against their congressional opponents and thus bring a new element into conservation debates. The publicity given to the conference fulfilled that aim, and within a few months more than forty states had appointed conservation commissions. The public was aroused, but not merely in support of the qualities of efficiency and planning that the administration had previously advocated. Roosevelt’s keynote speech had presented the issues of conservation partially in moralistic terms, and the declaration of the governors posed the issue as one of the people against monopolies. The issue of conservation had been put in the context of a democratic crusade against selfish interests, not as merely a choice of alternative policies.

Roosevelt followed the Governors’ Conference and its recommendations by appointing the National Conservation Commission, National Conservation Commission which comprised fifty members from government, industry, and science. This body, chaired by Pinchot and with McGee as a major influence, was to work with state commissions to inventory the natural resources of the United States. The undertaking was another example of the quest for efficient planning; Roosevelt stressed the need for the government to know accurately what resources were available, not for the abstract purpose of preservation but for the purpose of planning future use. Fifty thousand dollars was requested for the commission’s work, but Congress refused the request because of its continuing antagonism toward the administration’s conservation policies. Nevertheless, the commission went forward and, in December, 1908, presented its report in three volumes. A second conference of governors accepted the report, and for the first time there was an accurate estimate of the country’s existing natural resources.

The work of the National Conservation Commission led to Roosevelt’s calling the North American Conservation Conference. North American Conservation Conference A much smaller gathering than the Governors’ Conference, it convened on February 18, 1909, and included representatives from Canada, the colony of Newfoundland, and Mexico. Representing the United States were Pinchot and Secretary of the Interior James Garfield. In his opening statement, Roosevelt noted the interrelationships among all the world’s peoples and stated that conservation issues “may become of the utmost importance to the world at large.” Even before the North American Conservation Conference assembled, the Roosevelt administration had begun exploring the possibilities for a world conservation conference. Invitations were sent to fifty-eight nations to meet in The Hague, the Netherlands, in September, 1909. By that time, however, Roosevelt was out of office, and his successor, William Howard Taft, did not pursue the idea.

The National Conservation Commission further polarized relations between Congress and the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt, Pinchot, and others had long doubted the ability of elected legislative representatives to make proper decisions on complex matters. They believed that elected politicians lacked the necessary expertise and were subject to conflicting political pressures. A legislative body could establish broad parameters, but, in the view of Roosevelt and his allies, the executive must retain the power to implement and initiate. Roosevelt also believed that it was not Congress but the president, elected by all the people, who was best able to serve as the representative of the public’s interests. For its part, Congress had long resented Roosevelt’s creation of numerous commissions to report on various national problems. When the National Conservation Commission was established, this resentment culminated, in February, 1909, in congressional approval of an amendment—aimed at officials such as Pinchot—stating that no federal official could assist or serve on any executive commission that had not been authorized by Congress.

In a larger sense, however, Roosevelt and Pinchot had triumphed over their enemies in Congress. A new public interest in conservation resulted from activities such as the Governors’ Conference of 1908, involving persons who had not previously been directly affected by resource policy. Many of the new enthusiasts for conservation were members of the increasingly influential urban middle class. Many had been active in other Progressive reform movements and organizations. For them, possibly in reaction to industrial and urban trends in the United States, conservation was often more a matter of morality or aesthetics than of efficiency, a means and a method of restoring and maintaining spiritual values under threat from an increasingly materialistic society. Roosevelt backed the efficient use of resources during his presidency, but he also fostered the concept of the ameliorative elements of nature, as his friendship with preservationists such as John Muir and his creation of parks and wildlife sanctuaries suggest.

Given the nature of American society in the early twentieth century, it was foreseeable that conservation would become of great importance to the public at large, as much for its moral and social implications as for its economic realities. The Governors’ Conference was a watershed event that carried conservation into the realm of the public’s awareness; no longer would debates and decisions concerning conservation policy be left only to the users of natural resources, scientific experts, and politicians. Public interest in conservation matters has fluctuated in the ensuing decades, but since Roosevelt’s presidency, conservation debates have invariably included discussion of the moral and aesthetic dimensions of the people’s rights as opposed to those of so-called special interests. Conservation;natural resources Natural resources, conservation Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cutright, Paul Russell. Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Conservationist. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Concentrates on the years before Roosevelt was president but nevertheless contains a full discussion of Roosevelt’s lifelong interest in nature and conservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Theodore Roosevelt, the Naturalist. New York: Harper & Row, 1956. Discusses Roosevelt’s interest in and study of natural history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991. One of the most satisfactory descriptions available of Roosevelt as president, including his conservation policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harbaugh, William H. Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt. 1961. Reprint. Newtown, Conn.: American Political Biography Press, 1997. Excellent one-volume biography of Roosevelt. Covers all aspects of his career, including his contributions to conservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. A seminal work on the early history of conservation. Argues that the movement began as a search for greater efficiency in resource management, not as a democratic crusade against supposed business rapacity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGeary, Martin N. Gifford Pinchot, Forester-Politician. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. Sympathetically covers both Pinchot’s political career and his interest in forestry and conservation. Includes discussion of Pinchot’s contribution to the Governors’ Conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pinchot, Gifford. Breaking New Ground. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947. In this posthumously published autobiography, Pinchot discusses his life’s work through 1910 and his controversies with the Taft administration. Includes commentary on the Governors’ Conference of 1908.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1993. A look at how government manipulates natural resources (especially water) in contrast to the philosophies of early conservationists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roosevelt, Theodore. Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1913. Roosevelt’s own story, which documents his deeply held beliefs about conservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thayer, William Roscoe. Theodore Roosevelt: An Intimate Biography. 1919. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005. The story of Roosevelt’s personal and public life, told by a friend of forty years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Frederick W. John Muir: Rediscovering America. 1985. Reprint. New York: Perseus Books, 2000. This book, first published under the title Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours, provides an in-depth look at the most important conservationist in the West. Muir greatly influenced Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to protect the natural resources of the United States.

First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established

Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service

Roosevelt Withdraws the Grand Canyon from Mining Claims

Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”

Migratory Bird Act

National Park Service Is Created

National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded

Categories: History