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1908 Conservation Conference

This page is authored by Jim Farrell, St. Olaf College.


In class, students re-create the intellectual and political positions of people involved in the Conservation Movement of the early 20th century. Based on an actual Conservation Conference called in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it adds other characters to offer a fuller understanding of the diverse participants involved in environmentalism a century ago.

Learning Goals

In writing a first-person speech for the Conservation Conference, students learn to do basic historical research that brings them into contact with basic concepts, including agency, contingency, context, and causality. It helps them understand the ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and it gives them another chance to use their historical imagination to "play" a character at the conference, and to set that character in conversation with other players of the time period.

Context for Use

By the time of this assignment in the course, students have already seen me role-play a Minnesota pioneer of the late 19th century (which I also recommend--it's great fun), so they have an idea of what a Chautauqua presentation might look like. This particular assignment works well at a specific moment in American environmental history, but I've also adapted it to do a 2008 Conservation Conference, including participants like President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, William Clay Ford, Wendell Berry, David Orr, Vandana Shiva and other diverse environmentalists of our own time. And I don't think it needs to be limited to history--I could imagine similar "conferences" in English, political science, sociology, etc.

Description and Teaching Materials

1908 Conservation Conference

On May 13-15, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a thousand people, including all of the nation's governors, at a White House Conference on Conservation. Among the conservationists of the era (broadly defined) were Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, W J McGee, Francis G. Newlands, John Muir, Robert Underwood Johnson, John Burroughs, Gene Stratton-Porter, Alice Hamilton, Mira Lloyd Dock, Ellen Swallow, and Daniel Burnham

Many such Americans had begun to understand the impact of cities and civilization on the natural landscape, as well as the importance of nature to people, and they had started to organize the first concerted conservation movement in American history. In his essay on "Efficiency, Equity, Esthetics: Shifting Themes in American Conservation," Clayton Koppes details some of the assumptions and accomplishments of this conservation movement in the 20th century.

October 31 and November 2, we will re-enact that 1908 conference. Each group will represent one of these people at the conference, planning an 8-minute speech to the conference, and then taking part in a discussion session. The speeches should include a little biographical information, and a sense of how this person got involved with the conservation/preservation of nature. They should also illuminate the speaker's position in the situation/strategy of the conservation movement. What do you see as the essential problem of the conservation movement? Why? What ideas and assumptions underlay your focus? Where (historically) did your ideas and assumptions come from? How do you understand progress in this area? What solutions will you propose to the conference? Why? What have you accomplished so far? What kinds of successes have you had? How do you see the other participants at the conference? Who are you aligned with? Who are you opposed to? Why?

At our conference, we will build an interpretation of the conservation movement out of these biographical interpretations. Groups should plan an 8-minute presentation for the class, including actual quotations from your historical figure. Don't be afraid to be dramatic or innovative: you may dress in character, and you probably will want to use Powerpoint for photos and charts and illustrations if that's useful.

On November 9, groups should submit a written version of their speech. These position papers may just be a transcript of the class presentation. But they might be revised to answer arguments heard in the conservation conference. In any case, they should include:
  1. a picture of the person, and some other visuals (cartoons, photos, maps, books, etc.) that illustrate the person's place (or the places they were interested in) in American environmental history.
  2. your speech, with the speaker's actual words set in bold.
  3. a bibliography of works consulted, and of useful links. 1908 Conservation Conference (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 28kB Jun7 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

For most of the characters at the 1908 conference, materials are easy to find. But for a few of them--especially the women who weren't actually at President Roosevelt's conference--I have needed to help students find materials. And in some cases, particularly in the representative from the General Federation of Women's Clubs, I've allowed students to combine characteristics of several different historical characters.


Assessment involves the clarity and complexity of the character's position, as well as their ability to contextualize their argument in the larger conversation about conservation/environmentalism at the time.

References and Resources

There may be resources available for historical role-plays, but I've developed this assignment pretty much on my own.

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