In the United States and Europe, some industries have of late been attempting to bridge the gap which exists between business interests and natural resource conservation. Companies and organizations raising this new banner of cooperation are heralded, mostly by each other, as pioneers. However, a careful glance at American history shows that there is nothing new in the idea of industrialist-as-environmental champion. One of America's most famous railroad tycoons, James J. Hill, was known in his time as an ardent conservationist. He believed in local control and sustainable resource use. While similar to Powell's views in many ways, Hill's bear separate examination because his role in society was so different from any of the other conservationists discussed in this essay.
Hill was born in Canada in 1938 and moved to Minnesota as a young man. Starting as a shipping line clerk and progressing through various positions in the transportation industry, he began his major business dealings by forming the Red River Transportation Company and buying the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which at first only ran to the Canadian border. With an eye to the west, Hill expanded the infant line - renamed Great Northern - first to Montana, then to Washington State. The venture received no federal grants. Together with J.P. Morgan, Hill purchased ninety percent of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, ensuring Great Northern's access to Chicago and St. Louis, and towards the end of his life Hill became involved in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He was well known as a philanthropist as well as a financier, contributing to the Roman Catholic seminary in St. Paul and endowing the Hill Reference Library, which operates in St. Paul to this day.
Hill's interest in conservation originated in the concern for the nation's food supply which was briefly popular at the turn of the century. Hill's own business was based on the transport of agricultural products, and he was in a good position to observe fluctuations in the grain markets. Falling grain yields in the Great Plains sparked his concern for the nation's agriculture, and by extension, for its use of water and land resources.
In addition to the familiarity it earned him with agricultural management, Hill's experience with finances gave him an educated perspective on the economic aspects of resource conservation. He was particularly vocal on the subject of tariffs. He called them "a great enemy of conservation," pointing out that by excluding such product as timber from other countries, the United States was accelerating the depletion of its own.
Like Powell, Hill believed that the federal government was the wrong body to manage natural resources. Instead, he advocated state control. "The machine is too big and too distant," he said of the Federal government, "its operation is slow, cumbrous and costly." Conservation, to Hill, did not mean absolute restriction of access to resources, but rather "the freest and largest development of [natural resources] consistent with the public interest and without waste." The resources, he believed, existed for the enjoyment and sustainable use of the people in the states: he eyed with cynical disapproval the reserves of the Forest Service. "The worst scandals of state land misappropriation... are insignificant when compared with the record of the nation."
Hill viewed agricultural land management as the premier issue of conservation; land mismanaged, he believed, might lie forever fallow, a tragic loss. Hill himself used his sizable financial resources for agronomy research and dissemination of his findings to farmers. He believed that sound farming methods would both increase yields and conserve the quality of soil, ensuring that agricultural land would remain healthy and fertile.
He hired a university agronomy professor, Dr. Frederick Crane, to do soil analyses for farmers in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana. Hill used his own greenhouse as a laboratory, and paid farmers to cultivate experimental plots on their own land, following Dr. Crane's instructions. The experimental plots were a tremendous success, yielding 60-90% more than the conventionally farmed acreage, and Hill became more convinced than ever of the importance of scientific farming and proper resource use.
Hill's reputation as a conservationist grew over the years. In 1908, President Roosevelt invited him to a governor's conference on conservation of natural resources, and appointed him to a lands commission. Hill was never an enthused commissioner, preferring action to discussion, but he did make his views on conservation known. The following is an excerpt from a speech he made to the National Conservation Congress in St. Paul in 1910:
"Shall we, on the one side, deny to ourselves and our children access to the same store of natural wealth by which we have won our own prosperity, or, on the other, leave it unprotected as in the past against the spoiler and the thief? Shall we abandon everything to centralized authority, going the way of every lost and ruined government in the history of the world, or met our personal duty by personal labor through the organs of local self-government, not yet wholly atrophied by disuse? Shall we permit our single dependence for the future, the land to be defertilized below the point of profitable cultivation and gradually abandoned, or devote our whole energy to the creation of an agriculture which will furnish wealth renewed even more rapidly than it can be exhausted? Shall we permit the continued increase of public expenditure and public debt until capital and credit have suffered in the same conflict that overthrew prosperous and happy nations in the past, or insist upon a return to honest and practical economy? This is the battle of the ages, the old, familiar issue. Is there in the country that intelligence, that self-denial, that moral courage and that patriotic devotion which alone can bring us safely through?.... Out of the conservation movement in its practical application to our common life may come wealth greater than could be won by the overthrow of kingdoms and the annexation of provinces; national prestige and individual well-being; the gift of broader mental horizons, and best and most necessary of all, the quality of a national citizenship which has learned to rule its own spirit and to rise by the control of its desires.