With the 2012 election season in full swing, I found myself reflecting on past political campaigns and the issues that candidates discussed. Specifically, I thought about how conservation and natural resources entered the political sphere.
The Progressive Era (1890s-1920) introduced most Americans to conservation and the politics that surround it. The 1912 National Conservation Congress helps illustrate this point. This congress, hosted in Indianapolis, IN (very close to Eppley’s base in Bloomington), featured presidential candidates and people from around the country. Looking back on the 100th anniversary of the congress, we can see what issues brought conservation into the national spotlight, how the congress fit into the larger political framework of the time, and whether the goals of the congress were ever achieved.
From the early 1800s through the early 1900s, America experienced rapid industrialization. These decades saw the advent of new industrial machines that produced goods cheaply and more efficiently than humans. The factories that created these goods also produced waste that often found its way into waterways, urban sewer systems, and the air. In the countryside, industrialization increased demand for timber, agricultural products, and minerals.
Industrialization led to a deteriorating urban environment and rapid, wasteful exploitation of natural resources. These negative effects of industrialization caused increasing numbers of people to question what had been a common belief in the limitless abundance of nature. As a result, people began to explore options that would help curb pollution and ensure that resources would not be wantonly squandered. Conservation came to reference the various reform movements that sought to improve natural resources for human use, for better human health, and to preserve nature’s beauty.
Politically speaking, perhaps the most well-known champion of conservation was President Theodore Roosevelt. He felt that conservation was of such importance that he called the first national meeting of the states’ governors to discuss the topic in 1908. This conference of the governors spurred federal and state action regarding conservation and helped propel a national movement.
Increased interest in conservation and President Roosevelt’s support of the movement led conservation to become a political issue during the Progressive Era. Particularly in the elections of 1908 and 1912, presidential candidates like William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt championed conservation to bolster their progressive credentials.
Given the political environment, it can be hardly surprising that the 1912 National Conservation Congress featured a heavy dose of politics. Held in Indianapolis from October 1 through October 4, the congress featured speeches from pure food advocates J. N. Hurty and Harvey W. Wiley, state secretaries of health, national women’s clubs, and presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson.
Now, 100 years later, how prominent of a role does conservation play in politics? One hundred years after the fact, there has been significant progress in efforts to improve sanitation, protect nature, and reduce pollution. The National Park Service protects the nation’s natural beauty. States now feature departments of natural resources that are charged to protect nature. Standards for water, air, and soil quality have been established and are enforced. Urban areas are much more sanitary than they were.
Despite this progress, there are still issues that continue to this day. Debate surrounds the regulations passed in the name of conservation. Some believe that regulations are too constricting to business and provide little benefit to everyday citizens. From another point of view, others argue that there are many loopholes in regulations that allow businesses to pollute with little repercussion. Scientific evidence continues to indicate that man-made pollution is changing the earth’s climate, yet many refute these claims. One hundred years later, though progress has been made to improve natural resource protection and sanitary issues, conservation still plays a role in modern politics.
To learn more about the conservation movement, check out the Eppley Institute’s e-course on the History of the National Park Service. This e-course provides excellent details about the NPS’s connection to the larger conservation movement.