First National Conservation Congress opens at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on August 26, 1909.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 10/30/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8775

On August 26, 1909, the First National Conservation Congress, organized by the Washington Conservation Association in response to the Report of the National Conservation Commission issued in January 1909, opens at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on the University of Washington campus. Attendees include delegates from state conservation commissions, university representatives, church leaders, commercial organizations, and businesses. Session topics included irrigation, soils, good roads, mining, forestry, "and the relation of Capital to Labor in the work of general conservation of natural resources." The congress ends with a religious service on Sunday, August 29.

Realization Dawns: Resources Are Limited

At the turn of the nineteenth century Americans began to realize that the seemingly infinite resources of the country were actually finite and, if misused, could disappear. In response, a movement arose among people who sought to conserve resources by using them more efficiently. Known as conservationists, their numbers included politicians, business owners, and concerned citizens.

As part of this movement, the Washington Forestry Association formed on August 8, 1908. It held the first Washington State Conservation Congress in Seattle in November of that year. Shortly thereafter, in January 1909, it reorganized as the Washington Conservation Association and broadened the scope of its work. It identified its purposes as:

"To conserve, preserve and promote the development of the forests, the minerals, the waters for power and irrigation, the soils and other natural resources within the State of Washington, and to co-operate with the Federal and state authorities and with other organizations, public or private, in accomplishing these purposes.

"To assist in and encourage the bona fide settlement of our public lands and the development of our material resources in order to advance the civil and social wellbeing of the commonwealth" (Bylaws and Charter Member List, 3-4).

Washington Conservation Association Numbers 200

The nearly 200 members of the organization included prominent individuals, such as Richard Ballinger (1858-1922), commissioner of the General Land Office, and F. G. Miller, dean of the recently formed University of Washington School of Forestry. A number of businesses that relied on natural resources, such as lumber companies, also joined.

In January 1909, the National Conservation Commission, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), issued its report, which called on the nation to conserve resources. In particular, the commission wanted the government to prevent forest fires and to fight them more effectively when they occurred, and to improve waterways for flood control and to facilitate trade. The report also called for industry to use minerals, fuels, and water more efficiently, thereby conserving them for future generations.

In response to this report, the Washington Conservation Association planned a Conservation Congress to occur during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world fair held on the University of Washington campus in 1909. Forty-five states sent delegates, as did several agencies of the federal government, churches, universities, and private organizations and businesses. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who as the first chief of the Forest Service advocated the "wise use" of natural resources, spoke at the congress, as did dignitaries from the Army, the Department of Agriculture, the Reclamation Service, and representatives of several women's organizations.

Support from the President

President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) sent a message to the congress pledging that they could, "count upon the earnest support of this administration on the policy of the conservation of natural resources" ("Mr. Taft Pledges Himself to Conservation Policy").

Session topics included irrigation, soils, good roads, mining, forestry, "and the relation of Capital to Labor in the work of general conservation of natural resources." All sought to encourage careful use of resources, rather than preservation, or protection from use ("The National Conservation Congress"). Several more congresses would convene annually, until 1915. After that, disunity among the disparate groups who made up the conservation movement prevented further national congresses.


Sources: Joel Shoemaker, "The National Conservation Congress," Pacific Northwest Commerce, August 1909, 23; Washington Conservation Association, Bylaws and Charter Membership List (Seattle: Washington Conservation Association, 1909); "Addresses and Proceedings of the First National Conservation Congress Held at Seattle, Washington, August 26-28, 1909. From Proceedings of the ... National Conservation Congress ... 1st-4th; 1909-12. Vol. 1, 1909," Library of Congress American Memory website accessed July 10, 2008 (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html); "Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1920," Library of Congress American Memory website accessed July 10, 2008 (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amrvhtml/cnchron5.html); "Forty-Five States Plead at Seattle For Conservation," Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 1909, p. 1; "Mr. Pinchot Lauds President's Stand for Conservation," Christian Science Monitor, August 27, 1909, p. 1; "Pinchot Ignores Dispute," The New York Times, August 28, 1909, p. 7; "Pinchot Resolution Wins," The New York Times, August 29, 1909, p. 6.

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