Declaration of the Conservation Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt convened a national conference of governors at the White House in the spring of 1908. The participants fell into line with Roosevelt’s thoughts: both that a more concerted effort was warranted in the protection of the nation’s natural resources and that more sustainable development practices should be implemented. The governors also agreed that the federal and state governments should, in concert, play a major role in these policies and that the states should also take a leadership position on these issues.

Summary Overview

President Theodore Roosevelt convened a national conference of governors at the White House in the spring of 1908. The participants fell into line with Roosevelt’s thoughts: both that a more concerted effort was warranted in the protection of the nation’s natural resources and that more sustainable development practices should be implemented. The governors also agreed that the federal and state governments should, in concert, play a major role in these policies and that the states should also take a leadership position on these issues.

Defining Moment

In the decades that followed the Civil War, the United States underwent a period of major economic growth. The East Coast saw significant industrial development, while other areas, such as those along the Mississippi River, started to grow as well. To support this growth, the United States relied on the increased exploitation of its natural resources, including its vast grazing land, forests, and mineral deposits. In the minds of environmental and conservation activists, such as John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club), the country’s seemingly unchecked use of these natural resources would eventually destroy the environment and limit the future growth of the country.

A wildlife and outdoor enthusiast and influenced by the ideals espoused by Muir and his contemporaries, Roosevelt focused much of his domestic agenda on the nation’s natural resources. Roosevelt had already established the federal Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation) in 1902 and the Forest Service in 1905, and he spent much of his presidency placing open spaces, wetlands, and forests under the federal umbrella. Among the sites named as national parks and federal preserves were the Grand Canyon, the Florida Everglades, and Alaska’s Tongass Forest. Toward the end of his presidency, Roosevelt had already made the case before Congress that greater attention should be paid to land reclamation, irrigation systems, and sustainable mining and agricultural practices.

Roosevelt’s successes in this arena were largely based on the fact that the executive branch of the US government was enjoying an increased amount of authority relative to the other two branches. During the Civil War years, the president was heavily dependent on congressional action to proceed with the executive agenda. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, the executive branch started to reassert its authority over the federal government’s operations. Roosevelt took this trend further than his predecessors. In 1905, for example, members of Congress, pressured by the timber industry, proposed a measure to limit Roosevelt’s ability to reclaim forest acreage in the West. The measure was part of a larger agricultural bill that Roosevelt was under great pressure to, and ultimately did, sign–but only after first placing about 16 million acres of that same forestland under federal control.

Roosevelt was a dynamic, charismatic figure who enjoyed popular approval. At the end of his presidency, he drew upon this approval in calling a national conference on conservation. Held at the White House in May 1908, the Conservation Conference drew together governors, legislators, cabinet officials, conservationists, scientists, and other interested parties. The purpose of the event was to underscore the need to pay greater attention to what Roosevelt dubbed “the weightiest problem now before the nation”: the depletion of the nation’s forest and mineral resources. He also sought to create a National Conservation Commission and encouraged the governors gathered at the conference to do the same at the state level. Furthermore, Roosevelt needed the participants to prod Congress to support the president’s agenda. At the close of the conference, the governors and other participants drafted a formal agreement on the optimal course of action with regard to the country’s natural resources.

Document Analysis

The declaration issued by the Conservation Conference echoes the sentiments expressed by Roosevelt throughout his presidency. The participants first underscore the connection between the abundance of natural resources in the United States and the nation’s continued development. Second, they argue that the United States is in danger of depleting its natural resources if it continues to consume them at an unsustainable rate. Third, the group agrees that it is critical that state legislatures, governors, the president, and Congress cooperate to develop and implement an effective natural-resource conservation policy.

The conference participants note that the economic and political profile of the United States is rising on the world stage, largely because the country has throughout its history enjoyed a vast array of abundant resources. Any continuation of US development is thus dependent upon sustaining the country’s water, timber, mineral, and other natural resources. Even the soil, from which the nation’s myriad agricultural products come, should be part of the “transcendent importance” ascribed to conservation, according to the conference participants.

The participants, therefore, declare that it is critical to launch a program of land reclamation. In the document, the group stresses that arid land areas need irrigation in order to foster fertility and swampland can be drained for the same purpose. Furthermore, the declaration states, it is vital to use resources, such as mineral deposits, in such a way that extraction occurs at a sustainable rate and the land and nation do not suffer from overuse. The country’s natural resources should be available to all, the group agrees–no one party should have exclusive access to it.

The conference agrees that the president was correct to call the nation’s attention to this issue. The participants, therefore, call for a collective national effort first to assess and then to protect and conserve the country’s natural resources. To this end, the declaration recommends the creation of both federal and state-level conservation commissions. In the federal government, this commission is envisioned as being used to manage multijurisdictional sites and industries subject to federal oversight.

The conference participants further assert their support for Roosevelt’s initiatives on irrigation (including deepening waterways to facilitate navigation, which would ease some of the pressure on the country’s railways), sustainable development, and federal reclamation of forests and other open spaces. Additionally, the declaration expresses support for federal laws preventing wasteful and hazardous natural-resource extraction, including protections for mine workers. Thus, the conference adjourned with a show of unity behind the president’s initiatives, taking some responsibility and deferring policy to Congress and Roosevelt with regard to the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the entire country.

Essential Themes

The Conservation Conference convened by President Roosevelt resulted in a great show of support by the participants for the president’s natural-resource protection agenda. It also demonstrated a commitment by the states to join the president and Congress in ensuring that the country’s natural resources were being used both in a sustainable manner and by all Americans (as opposed to merely a small group of organizations).

The conference participants acknowledged that the nation’s natural resources and open spaces were in danger of depletion and degradation unless action was taken. In the conference declaration, the participants argued that the country’s waters, soil, forests, and other lands were being overused. It was time, the declaration suggests, to pay attention to this crisis.

The proper course of action, the participants agreed, was a collective and comprehensive approach to protecting the country’s natural resources. This approach meant establishing conservation commissions on both the federal and state levels. It also meant assignment of certain forests, open spaces, and waterways as federal property, thereby protecting the resources contained therein.

Additionally, the conference called for support of the president’s initiatives on irrigation, land reclamation, and waterway development. Roosevelt advocated these initiatives in his final address to Congress (he had actually put the onus on Congress to take action in support of his proposals), and the conference fell in line in support of his agenda. An important theme contained in this document is one that cites the need for collective action to ensure that the country’s natural resources are available to all Americans. The nation had long relied on its natural resources for its success, the conference argued in this declaration. The link between development and natural resources is clear; therefore, sustainable natural-resource management practices were essential to the effective continuation of the country’s forward progress.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Hays, Samuel P. The American People and the National Forests. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2009. Print.
  • Judd, Richard William. Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
  • “Theodore Roosevelt and the Environment.” PBS. WGBH Educational Foundation, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
  • US National Conservation Commission. Proceedings of the Joint Conservation Conference, Washington, DC, Dec. 8, 9, 10, 1908. Washington: GPO, 1909. Print.
  • Wellock, Thomas R. Preserving the Nation: The Conservation and Environmental Movements, 1870–2000. Marblehead: Wiley, 2007. Print.
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