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Teddy Roosevelt and the Surprising Roots of the National Governors Association

During his presidency, Roosevelt did more to conserve America’s natural resources and its places of special beauty than any other president. He convened state executives to aid in the cause, which led him to create the NGA.

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When Roosevelt became president in 1901, he used his lifelong passion for wildlife and wilderness to direct public policy; while in office, he launched programs that would eventually protect 230 million acres of land.
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We take annual conferences of the National Governors Association for granted, but nobody had ever thought of bringing America’s governors together until Theodore Roosevelt galloped onto the national stage in 1901, ascending to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 14 of that year.

It’s not hard to imagine Roosevelt, a strong Hamiltonian nationalist who essentially invented the modern presidency, calling the nation’s governors together in Washington, but one might expect the subject to have been “America’s Place in the World,” or “Preparedness,” or the “Future of the Constitution.” Although all those themes were of great importance to Roosevelt, who may be said to have dragged the American people into the 20th century, his purpose in convening the governors’ conference was American conservation.

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President Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park in 1903.
Conservation was one of Roosevelt’s lifelong passions. Although it may seem odd that an ardent big game hunter who brought down quadrupeds on four continents, a leader who embraced America’s industrialization and sent the entire U.S. Navy on a round-the-world friendship cruise, and who demanded that America take its place as a leader, perhaps the leader, in the global arena, should emerge as America’s greatest conservation president, the contradiction is more apparent than real.

Employing the philosophy later adopted by Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, Roosevelt argued that hunters were in fact the best conservationists, because they sought to protect and perpetuate habitat and game species so their children and grandchildren could enjoy hunting. Like his friend John Muir, Roosevelt wanted to preserve the most magnificent and sublime places on the American continent, but he was more interested in conserving America’s public lands and their resources for future generations. Roosevelt championed the “wise use” and “sustained yield” standards advocated by his friend, U.S. Forester Gifford Pinchot.

Cowboy and Conservationist

Roosevelt’s extensive sojourn in the American West, including his four years playing cowboy and rancher out on the Dakota Territory frontier (1883-1887), made him realize, before most others, that the resources of America were not infinite. In fact, the rapid population growth and industrialization of the nation in the post-Civil War years had led to an orgy of resource exploitation, what Roosevelt himself called the “skinning” of the landscape.

The great railroad network, including four transcontinentals, enabled a hectic transfer of gold, copper, lead, silver and other minerals (not to mention buffalo hides) from places scattered across hundreds of millions of acres to factories and smelting plants in the nation’s great industrial cities. Steam power and locomotion propelled what some historians have called “the great barbecue” of the last decades of the 19th century.
Map of the eastern half of the United States showing relief by railroads, and unfinished railroads, stage coach lines, roads, hachures, drainage, major cities and towns, canals and telegraph lines. Created in New York by John Disturnell, 1851.
Andrew Carnegie contended the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes. His 1889 work The Gospel of Wealth asserted that all personal wealth beyond that required to supply the needs of one's family should be regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the community. During his lifetime, he is said to have given away more that $350 million.
Roosevelt, who devoted a long and passionate section of his first annual message to Congress to the issue of conservation, extended his invitation to the nation’s 46 governors on Nov. 13, 1907. The conference took place in Washington, D.C., May 13-15, 1908. All but one of the nation’s governors attended, plus scores of dignitaries (and politicians) including Speaker of the House of Representatives Joseph Cannon, Sen. Francis Newlands of Nevada (author of the 1902 Reclamation Act), TR’s military aide Archie Butt, Navy reformer William Sims, all nine justices of the Supreme Court, the entire Roosevelt Cabinet, except for William Howard Taft, who was in Panama, and Secretary of Commerce and Labor Victor Howard Metcalf, who was in San Francisco.

Andrew Carnegie attended the governors conference. So did railroad baron James J. Hill, himself a serious conservationist, preferring, however, private initiative over government regulation. Roosevelt made sure that 21 editors and reporters were on hand to inform the 88 million Americans of the importance and grandeur of the conference and to report its findings. One woman — one only — was invited to attend. Her name was Sarah S. Platt-Decker, president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. It was still “a man’s world.”

The Rough Rider and the Governors

A number of governors had never been to the White House before, some never to Washington, D.C. According to historian Edmund Morris, “they were noticeably awed by the splendor of their reception.” On the eve of the conference, TR’s White House laid on a lavish feast (clams on the half shell, fresh caviar, strained gumbo, squabs, and cold salmon, plus dessert) designed to fill the delegates, some of them from out on the frontier, with awe and, well, squab.

Governors of the U.S. states and territories pictured with President Roosevelt during the 1908 Conservation Congress.
At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 13, 1908, President Roosevelt delivered the opening address, “Conservation as a National Duty,” in the East Room of the White House. He called conservation of America’s natural resources “the weightiest problem now before the nation.” In a speech that ranged over the history of civilization, Roosevelt said:

You have come hither at my request, so that we may join together to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation. So vital is the question, that for the first time in history the chief executive officers of the states separately, and of the states together forming the Nation, have met to consider it. It is the chief material question that confronts us, second only — and always second — to the great fundamental questions of morality.

Roosevelt said that urbanization cut off much of the American population from the nation’s land and its resources. The people had lost sight of their dependence on nature. This alienation from daily contact with the soil had led the country unwittingly to deplete the natural resources of the continent, the inheritance of our children. Roosevelt linked this first National Governors Conference to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when 12 of the original 13 states gathered to repair the broken Articles of Confederation and craft “a more perfect union.”

“The Constitution of the United States,” he declared, with considerable stretch of imagination, “thus grew in large part out of the necessity for united action in the wise use of our natural resources.” The president recited a long list of endangered or depleted resources, declaring that, “The mere increase in our consumption of coal during 1907 over 1906 exceeded the total consumption in 1876, the centennial year. This is a striking fact.”

Roosevelt’s stirring remarks were met with applause, at times thunderous applause, laughter, and at times friendly guffaws, as he worked the crowd, teased his frenemy Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who sat directly in front of the podium, and reminded his audience that they were now men of destiny holding the future health and prosperity of America in their hands. At the end of his speech, Roosevelt said, “One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight.”

The ebullient president was not content merely to deliver the welcome address. Fitted out in an elegant tailor-made suit and top hat, Roosevelt worked the crowd with his usual feverish mix of curiosity, friendliness, passion and bombast. He shook every hand, shouted salutations across the room, laughed in his infectious way, slyly punctured the egos of several of his attending adversaries, including William Jennings Bryan, reminisced with friends about their shared western adventures, remembered names of people he had met long ago. Theodore Roosevelt was a man of tremendous energy and charisma, dominating every room he ever entered in adulthood.

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President Theodore Roosevelt and Forester Gifford Pinchot at the first national governors conference. Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first head of the U.S. Forest Service which grew out of the Department of the Interior. Pinchot promoted conservationism — the efficient management of natural resources by trained professionals.

Making Forestry a Thing

The driving force behind the conference was Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), a gifted and deeply determined forest scientist who served as TR’s chief conservation adviser. Pinchot’s zeal did not faze Roosevelt, but he often overstepped his authority, annoyed industrialists, westerners, and, more important, members of Congress. In fact, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor Taft fired Pinchot for insubordination in 1909.

After the governors conference ended, TR created the National Conservation Commission, put Pinchot in charge of it and called upon it to make an exhaustive state-by-state inventory of America’s natural resources. The conference proceedings were published in three lavish volumes. Almost immediately, the indefatigable president called for a North American Conservation Conference (which soon occurred) and then a global conservation conference (which didn’t, in part because Roosevelt retired from the presidency on March 4, 1909, at the end of his second term).

The Need for Collective Action

Roosevelt called the governors conference for several reasons. At a time when the communication infrastructure of the United States was still relatively rudimentary, he wanted to have the opportunity to evangelize all the state executives and resource managers at the same time in the same place, to make sure all the governors had the opportunity to hear from Gifford Pinchot, James Garfield and of course TR himself. The vast network of the nation’s railroads could now bring everyone to the national capital at the same time. He wanted to hear the opinions and perspectives of every state, to assess the conservation mood of the whole country region by region and state by state, and gauge how his ambitious conservation agenda was being received in every corner of the country, particularly the American West.

Like his friend John Wesley Powell, formerly the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the author of the famous Arid Lands Report of 1878, President Roosevelt understood that resource questions and challenges did not conform to arbitrary state boundaries. Several states “shared” the Colorado River, the Columbia, the Missouri, and states “shared” timber reserves, minerals, mines, and parks. Conservation of America’s resources would require interstate cooperation. Where better to inaugurate that process than in a gathering of all the states in a single focused conference?

While most of the speeches at the conference were in line with Roosevelt’s conservation ethos, and several governors praised Roosevelt’s conservation leadership fulsomely, not all was harmony. Speaking for many westerners, Gov. Edwin L. Norris of Montana decried federal intrusion within his state boundaries, objecting to the designation of National Forests and Monuments, all by executive order, from faraway Washington.

Norris particularly objecting to TR’s executive order, issued days before the conference, creating Lewis and Clark National Monument (now Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park) near the headwaters of the Missouri River. Norris acknowledged the need to conserve the nation’s forests, but he did not believe such federal action should occur without serious consultation with state governments and the economic interests. Norris said, “I would suggest, Mr. Secretary of the Interior (James R. Garfield), that there be no more” federal forest reserves in Montana. “We have sufficient.”

Undeterred, in his excellent 1913 Autobiography, Roosevelt declared, “It is doubtful whether, except in time of war, any new idea of like importance has ever been presented to a Nation and accepted by it with such effectiveness and rapidity, as was the case with the Conservation movement when it was introduced to the American people by the Conference of Governors.”

A Stunning Legacy

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Roosevelt's library at his Sagamore Hill estate in New York displays many nature scenes, mounted animals and books on many topics.
( Audrey C. Tiernan Photography)
During his consequential presidency, Roosevelt did more to conserve America’s natural resources and its places of special beauty than any other president. Without much congressional help, he doubled the number of National Parks from five to 10. He added 150 million acres to the National Forest System, established by Congress in 1891. He signed the National Monuments and Antiquities Act in 1906 and named, by executive order, the first 18 National Monuments, beginning with Devils Tower in Wyoming.

Roosevelt was a great lover of birds. He invented the National Wildlife Refuge System by executive order on March 14, 1903, and named the first 51 Federal Bird Sanctuaries, as they were then called, beginning with Pelican Island in the Indian River in Florida. He established five National Game Preserves, in part to save the buffalo from extinction.

As his presidential tenure came to a close, Roosevelt created a new American institution and an extra-constitutional norm: the National Governors Association. The nation’s governors have met at least once a year since 1908, now routinely twice, though not usually in Washington, D.C. The focus is varied and seldom singular, and though resource conservation is never far from the agenda, it is no longer the central theme of the conferences. Like almost every other entity and institution in the national life of the United States, recent governors conferences have been increasingly characterized by intense partisanship, mutual distrust and the red state-blue state divide.

There are two basic categories of American presidents — caretakers and change-makers. Theodore Roosevelt occupies First Chair of the change-makers. Altogether he set aside 230 million acres of public land for permanent protection from adverse or exploitative economic activity. Roosevelt was fully present in nearly every moment of his colorful and larger-than-life career, and yet he exhibited profound foresight about America’s natural resources — including some of its most breathtaking landscapes. Few have equaled his passion and none his executive achievement.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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