This essay evaluates national wetlands policy during the first decade of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1890s the national government began to assume new responsibilities for natural resource management. By the end of World War I, Congress exercised some form of control over western irrigation, flood control, and range and mineral policies. Yet Progressive Era national policymakers were also deeply interested in wetlands drainage. In the early 1900s they launched an abortive movement to nationalize drainage in the hopes of creating new farms, improving public health, and relieving urban congestion. The failure of the movement illustrates that centralization, which scholars identify as a primary theme of Progressive Era conservation, was neither inevitable nor inexorable. Ironically, the growth of the embryonic administrative and regulatory state sometimes precluded the development of centralized natural resource programs by pitting different natural resource agencies, local communities, and constituent groups against one another in a bitter and irreconcilable feud over power and funding.

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