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Once upon a time in America, when the common good prevailed

In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned governors and business tycoons from across the country to Washington for a historic conference aimed at preventing environmental catastrophe.

The 1908 Conference of Governors brought government and business leaders together to protect natural resources and to "conserve the foundations of our prosperity."Internet Archive

At the turn of the 20th century, floods, fires, and waste plagued the United States. Industries burned through resources and blew toxins into the air with few restrictions. State and federal governments were only beginning to approach questions of the environment, and they did so in piecemeal ways.

In 1907, responding to the need to improve transportation, President Theodore Roosevelt tasked the Inland Waterways Commission with studying how to better manage rivers. The commissioners recognized a need for interstate coordination in this effort. Two in particular — Gifford Pinchot and William John “WJ” McGee — went further. They asked Roosevelt to invite all the country’s governors to Washington to discuss the pressing issues of water and natural resources.

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Roosevelt complied, inviting the governors of all the states and territories, along with representatives from hundreds of civic, economic, and media organizations, to the White House. The resulting Conference of Governors, beginning on May 13, 1908, and lasting three days, offered a glimpse of political and economic collaboration that extended beyond normal boundaries of party, state, industry, and even time. The conference represents a not-so-distant precedent for today’s need to extend our political thinking beyond narrow parameters.

According to The New York Times, the Conference of Governors’ unprecedented composition and purpose promised “history-making possibilities.” The paper reported 44 governors attending, though the published proceedings identified 36. Alongside them, four at-large members — steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, railroad executive James J. Hill, labor leader John Mitchell, and Democratic mainstay William Jennings Bryan — were invited to “represent the public,” which appears to have meant ensuring that the discussion integrated economic concerns. Finally, 500-some representatives from trade associations, unions, publications, and the like joined as observers.

At the opening dinner, the attendees dined with Supreme Court justices, members of the Cabinet and Congress, and other prominent officials in the White House’s state dining room while the United States Marine Band played.

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Despite the night’s pomp, the tone of the following day’s conference was serious, even somber. According to Roosevelt’s opening address, “Conservation as a National Duty,” nothing less than the “continuance of the Nation” was at stake. During the 50-minute speech, interrupted by frequent nonpartisan applause, the president asserted the importance of cooperative planning and of elevating community rights over individuals’ pursuit of riches. “In the past we have admitted the right of the individual to injure the future of the Republic for his own present profit,” Roosevelt said. “The time has come for a change.”

Others shared this view. The following day, railroad executive James J. Hill spoke on “The Natural Wealth of the Land and Its Conservation.” Hill spent most of his allotted time offering chilling statistics about shrinking forests, diminishing ores, and declining soil fertility. He argued that these situations presaged not only a bleak economic future but also a potentially violent political one, born out of desperation and poverty.

Hill believed that if industry leaders understood the dire resource situation, they would manage resources more carefully. Espousing a key element of Progressive conservation doctrine — the application of sound business principles to resource management — he compared the nation to a corporation and the leaders gathered to a board of directors. The “board” needed to consider the resource wealth available and marshal it responsibly, he suggested, looking toward long-term investments over near-term profits, or they would ruin “a national patrimony that can never be restored.”

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As the conference concluded, the governors approved a slate of resolutions and presented them to President Roosevelt. The declaration reiterated the themes of resources as foundational wealth, the importance of planning, and the need to cooperate. Its final line announced the governors’ intent plainly: “Let us conserve the foundations of our prosperity.”

By the end of the three days, the governors were also eager to discuss collaborating on other matters, such as extradition laws and divorce standards. They resolved to meet regularly thereafter. That commitment eventually turned into the National Governors Association, which now meets twice a year.

Another effect of the summit was that Roosevelt appointed a National Conservation Commission, which would inventory the nation’s resources. The commission produced a three-volume report that appeared in February 1909 and featured a detailed accounting of the nation’s dwindling stocks of various resources, including estimated dates for when they would be exhausted.

These achievements were all the more striking because the Progressive Era was no harmonious nonpartisan moment. Progressives saw themselves in a battle between good and evil on behalf of “the people” versus “the interests.” Muckraking journalists took down corruption from city halls to corporate boardrooms. Roosevelt used the power of government to tame big business. One of the biggest victims was James J. Hill himself: Roosevelt had ordered the investigation that led to the 1904 Northern Securities Co. v. United States case that broke up Hill’s holding company. Roosevelt also invited his political rival Bryan to the conference.

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Still, the participants overcame these differences and set their eyes on the nation’s shared future. As Secretary of State Elihu Root urged in his address to the group, they performed their duties not only for the sake of their parochial interests but also for “the common good.” Pinchot later wrote that the Conference of Governors established “a conception of the land they lived in that was brand new” and suggested the conference might be remembered as one of history’s turning points. More measured historians have called it one of the “climactic moments” of Roosevelt’s presidency.

Today, Roosevelt’s concerns about the risks to the “continuance of the Nation” have transformed into warnings about global catastrophes. Twenty-first-century environmental concerns extend past inventorying stocks of national resources. Now researchers aim to identify thresholds of global ecological viability. Our worries encompass the globe and whether the planet can maintain its resilience.

Meanwhile, the “common good” is more elusive than ever. While pulses of reform have occurred — the rise of regional planning in the interwar period, the emergence of land-use planning for conservation and urban development in the 1960s and 1970s — coming together over future shared interests feels like an ambition from the distant past. Imagine a similar conference today, in which Joe Biden invited Gretchen Whitmer, Ron DeSantis, and Elon Musk to share a stage.

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In our hyperpartisan moment, the ability to look beyond short-term advantage has become a dwindling resource. The 1908 Conference of Governors may not have been the grand historical turning point Pinchot imagined, but it can be a touchstone.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian and writer. His most recent book is “Making America’s Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands.” A version of this essay originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.