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The Conservation Movement
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The Conservation Movement

As the 20th century opened, the Department of the Interior became progressively concerned with a movement aimed at reorienting the nation's traditional practices of handling natural resources--land, timber, water, minerals, wildlife. Most 19th-century Americans held these resources to be inexhaustible and government regulation of their exploitation alien to democratic principles. Basically, Interior's mission was to dispose of them to private enterprise, individual and corporate. A few men of vision dissented from this philosophy. Secretary Carl Schurz fought to halt the devastation of forests in the public domain. John Wesley Powell preached a gospel of systematic and purposeful resource management. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891, promoted by President Benjamin Harrison's Interior Secretary, John W. Noble, and the creation of the first national parks marked a modest erosion of the traditional philosophy. But not until Theodore Roosevelt's administration (1901-09) did the doctrine of Schurz, Powell, and their sympathizers flower in a national crusade. The crusaders gave it a label that has endured: conservation.

To them conservation did not mean, as often alleged, that natural resources under federal control should be locked up and saved for the future. On the contrary, the conservationists advocated use--rational, planned, orderly use. Their goal was not an end to exploitation, not even private exploitation, but rather wise development and use guided by science, facilitated by technology, regulated by government, and benefiting society. Thus power and irrigation sites would be leased to private enterprise and developed according to government standards. Mineral deposits would be mined under a lease system. Forests would be logged and grasslands would be grazed under permits that guaranteed sustained yields of timber and grass.

Leader of the Roosevelt conservationists was Gifford Pinchot, the dynamic head of the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture. Allied with Pinchot were William A. Richards, a former Wyoming governor who served as Commissioner of the General Land Office from 1905 to 1907; Frederick H. Newell, Chief Engineer of the Geological Survey's Reclamation Service; and W J McGee (he always dropped the periods), Secretary of the Inland Waterways Commission appointed by President Roosevelt in 1907 to design multiple-purpose development of river basins. Youthful, zealous in their cause, these men enjoyed direct access to Roosevelt but almost no rapport with Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the elderly and conservative Secretary of the Interior held over from the McKinley administration. When Roosevelt replaced Hitchcock with James R. Garfield (son of the President) in 1907, the conservation coterie acquired another effective activist. [37]

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 authorized the President to set aside forest lands on the public domain. Lands thus reserved remained in the custody of Interior's General Land Office. Judging Interior's management of these forest reservations unscientific and unproductive, Pinchot and his allies campaigned for their transfer to Agriculture. Lumber, grazing, and power interests backed them, and in 1905 Congress enacted a transfer measure. The forest reserves, then comprising 63 million acres, formed the foundation of the national forest system. Pinchot's bureau was renamed the U.S. Forest Service, and he became the first U.S. Chief Forester.

While maneuvering to take charge of the forests, Pinchot gave strong support to a movement that launched reclamation as a major activity of the Department of the Interior. His interest was an outgrowth of John Wesley Powell's studies showing the connection between forests and water storage. Irrigation interests in turn championed Pinchot's forestry programs. The reclamation movement bore fruit through the Newlands Act of 1902, which provided for the construction of dams and aqueducts to water arid and semiarid lands in the West.

To carry out this ambitious program, the Reclamation Service was organized within the Geological Survey under Chief Engineer Frederick Newell. It became a separate Interior bureau under Newell's direction in 1907 and was retitled the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923. The Salt River Project with its Roosevelt Dam, the first major effort under the act, began in 1903 and ultimately made Phoenix, Arizona, an agricultural center of first importance. Later Bureau of Reclamation projects--including such world-famous works as the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, the All-American Canal in California, and the Alva Adams Tunnel beneath the Continental Divide in Colorado--brought water, flood control, electric power, and recreational resources to vast areas formerly incapable of sustaining major settlement, crop production, and industrial development.

The conservationists, including Pinchot's allies in Interior, wanted to apply his principles of scientific planning and use to all public lands administered by the General Land Office. Part of their program was a lease system for livestock grazing within prescribed range capacities. Another, considerably more ambitious, was comprehensive planning and development of entire river basins. The main objective here--later achieved in large measure through the Bureau of Reclamation--was to further agriculture and industry through water resource development, the cost to be defrayed by the sale of hydroelectric power. In 1907-08, however, both proposals met defeat in Congress. Controversy among cattle men, sheepmen, farmers, and watershed protectionists doomed the grazing program; while the Army Corps of Engineers, long charged with public works in navigable rivers, effectively opposed giving the Inland Waterways Commission a statutory mission of comprehensive river-basin planning.

In the closing years of the Roosevelt administration, conservationists came to see that further major gains were unlikely through legislative action. Comprehensive resource planning and development threatened local interests and alliances and so encountered insurmountable obstacles in Congress. Increasingly, therefore, they sought to advance their cause through executive action. Secretary Garfield, for example, withdrew from other disposition most of the good sites for waterpower development. And Roosevelt, forced to sign an Agriculture Department appropriations bill that prohibited further presidential creation of national forests in six western states, first reserved 16 million more acres of forests there. Roosevelt later gleefully recalled how opposing interests "turned handsprings in their wrath" over the setting aside of these "midnight reserves" --a stroke described by a Forest Service historian as "the last flamboyant act of the conservation movement." [38]

President William Howard Taft's administration (1909-13) proved less receptive than its predecessor to the sweeping new policies and programs championed by the conservationists. It also proved uncongenial to the freewheeling methods and direct access to the White House of the coalition of career bureau officials that had given the conservation movement its drive. The prior and subsequent styles were personified by Pinchot and Richard A. Ballinger, Taft's first Interior Secretary (1909-11).

Ballinger, a successful lawyer and reform mayor of Seattle, had served effectively as Commissioner of the General Land Office under Secretary Garfield. But his appointment as Secretary disappointed conservationists: they had hoped Taft would retain Garfield, and Ballinger was less friendly to their cause. When a Land Office employee, Louis R. Glavis, charged that Ballinger was impeding an investigation of fraudulent coal claims in Alaska involving a former legal client, Taft backed Ballinger and authorized Glavis's dismissal. Conservation interests led by Pinchot sided with Glavis and forced a congressional investigation, their aim being to discredit and overturn Ballinger's policies.

The Ballinger-Pinchot controversy was widely portrayed as a struggle of public against corporate interest, of good against evil. Although he was surely innocent of Glavis's charge, Ballinger's exoneration by a partisan majority of the congressional committee did not quiet his critics. When the popular Pinchot had to resign as Forest Service chief for his insubordination to the President, the administration lost further support. Ballinger, well aware that he had become a political burden, left voluntarily after two hectic years. The affair redounded far beyond Interior: by fueling progressive disaffection from Taft, it stimulated the rift in the Republican Party that enabled Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912.

The conservation crusade of the early 20th century and the formation of other departments for other concerns tended toward a sharper focus in Interior on natural resources and a drift away from the "home department" concept. Interior became less and less a grab-bag of miscellany and more and more a natural resource agency. Pensions and patents (two of the department's original "big four"), education, hospitals, and other such activities gradually dropped out. Parks, mines, and reclamation, originally concerns of the General Land Office and Geological Survey, were elevated to separate bureau status within the agency; new responsibilities for fish and wildlife later arrived from the Commerce and Agriculture departments. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, focusing on human rather than natural resources, remained as the major exception to the trend.

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