1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Conservation Policy
CONSERVATION POLICY. — The name “Conservation” has been given in the United States to the movement for using and safeguarding the natural resources of the country (or indeed any country) for the greatest good of the greatest number of the inhabitants for the longest time. It is a fundamental misconception to suppose that Conservation means nothing but the husbanding of resources. The first principle of Conservation is use, but it refuses to recognize needless waste and destruction as normal processes in the proper development and enjoyment of natural wealth. This conception of Conservation as a principle to be followed by the American Government was first brought into prominence by the Chief Forester of the United States during the Roosevelt administration, and was first applied to forest protection.
As with all nations that are both rich and young, a general indifference to the protection and preservation of its natural resources had marked the history of the United States. The rapid and reckless destruction of the forests was the first cause of a change in the attitude of the American people toward natural wealth. Effective action toward the protection and preservation of natural resources was not taken until long after the early warnings, which were heard nearly a century before the Conservation movement was born. In 1819, more than three score years before forestry had secured a foothold in America, a French naturalist, André François Michaux, in his work The North America Sylva, spoke thus of the destruction of forests in America:—
“. . . neither the Federal Government nor the several states have reserved forests. An alarming destruction of the trees proper for building has been the consequence — an evil which is increasing and which will continue to increase with the increase of population. The effect is already very sensibly felt in the large cities, where the complaint is every year becoming more serious, not only of excessive dearness of fuel, but of the scarcity of timber. Even now inferior wood is frequently substituted for the White Oak; and the Live Oak, so highly esteemed in ship-building, will soon become extinct upon the islands of Georgia.”
Conservation, as an American problem, received its first recognition in the work of the Inland Waterways Commission. On Oct. 3 1907 this commission suggested to President Roosevelt, who had created it, the calling of a conference of governors to consider the condition of the natural resources of the United States. The conference assembled May 13 1908 in the White House at Washington. Among those in attendance were the President, the Vice-President, 7 of the 9 members of the Cabinet, the 9 justices of the Supreme Court, the governors of practically all the states and territories (including Alaska, Hawaii, and Porto Rico), numerous members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, representatives of 68 national societies, more than 50 citizens selected for their special attainments, and the members of the Inland Waterways Commission. This was the first time the governors of the states met in conference, and the gathering was unique in American history. The conference, after deliberating for some days, adopted a declaration containing the following passage:—
“We agree that further action is advisable to ascertain the present condition of our natural resources, and to promote the conservation of the same: and to that end we recommend the appointment by each State of a commission on the natural resources to coöperate with each other and with similar commissions of the Federal Government.”
In accordance with this recommendation, the governors of 42 states promptly appointed state conservation commissions, and less than a month after the conference had closed President Roosevelt appointed a National Conservation Commission, divided into four sections dealing respectively with waters, forests, lands and minerals. The commission was directed by the President to investigate and report to him regarding the condition of the natural resources, and to recommend to him measures for conserving them. As the commission had no funds at its disposal, the President directed the heads of departments at Washington to place their officers and facilities at the service of the commission. Thereupon the commission undertook, for the first time in the history of any nation, to prepare an inventory of the natural resources of the country.
The report of the commission was presented to the President in Jan. 1909, and was by him transmitted to Congress with a special message concurring in its statements and conclusions, and recommending it to the consideration of Congress and of the people generally. After making its report the commission continued its efforts in coöperation with governmental and extra-governmental agencies for the conservation of natural resources, in order both to extend its inventory and to determine what specific laws were needed for the wise and orderly development of the country's natural wealth. Unfortunately, this constructive work was stopped by the abolition of the commission through a law enacted by Congress later in the same year. Meantime President Roosevelt had invited the governor-general of Canada, the governor of Newfoundland and the President of Mexico to appoint commissioners to discuss, with commissioners representing the United States, the principles of conservation in their application to the continent of N. America. As a result of this movement, the first N. American Conservation Congress was held in Washington in 1909. President Roosevelt in Feb. 1909, after consulting the Queen of the Netherlands, invited the powers of the world to meet at The Hague for the purpose of considering the conservation of natural resources everywhere. Although a majority of the nations accepted this invitation, the project, after President Roosevelt's retirement from the presidency, was allowed to die. During the administration of President Taft the struggle for conservation centred in the so-called Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, the cause of which was an effort on the part of Richard Achilles Ballinger, then Secretary of the Interior, to transfer to private ownership certain valuable coal lands in Alaska, and to throw open to private acquisition highly valuable water-power sites upon the public lands which had been set aside by President Roosevelt. The controversy resulted in the resignation of Mr. Ballinger, and had much to do with the defeat of President Taft in the election of 1912. The coal lands and water-power sites which formed the subject matter of the dispute remained in the public hands.
In the effort to secure the use of the natural resources so as to promote the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time, President Roosevelt, in support of legislation by Congress to that end, withdrew from private entry 148,000,000 ac. of forest land, 80,000,000 ac. of coal land, 4,700,000 ac. of phosphate land, and 1,500,000 ac. containing water-power sites on the public lands. Thus during the Roosevelt administration more than 234,000,000 ac. of land were preserved, most of which will probably be permanent property of the nation.
Because of the abolition of the National Conservation Commission, the movement threatened to be seriously hampered by the lack of a central body in which could be conjoined for united and effective action the many persons and agencies devoted to the movement. Accordingly, the National Conservation Association, whose purpose was to inform and give effect to public sentiment, was established in 1909. In its successful efforts to prevent the passage of bad laws and to secure the enactment of good laws, this association became an effective factor in the passage by Congress of measures that carry out the Roosevelt policies of Conservation. The more important of these measures are: the Weeks law, to purchase lands for national forests in the White Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains where there was no public land; the Coal and Oil Leasing bills (for the continental United States, including Alaska) which are securing conservation by wise use, without waste and without monopoly, of valuable resources still in the public hands; and the Federal Water-Power Act, to provide for the development by private enterprise, under Federal ownership and control, of water-power in the public domain and navigable streams. Here again public property worth thousands of millions of dollars has been saved for the benefit of all the people of the United States. The association has been especially influential in defeating legislation that sought to destroy the national forests and to permit the diversion to private ownership of natural resources.
The Conservation movement is probably, among the many constructive policies inaugurated by President Roosevelt, that which will be most influential for good, and for which he will be longest remembered. (G. P.)