The Conservation Constitution

The Conservation Movement and Constitutional Change, 1870–1930

Kimberly K. Smith

Winner: Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Award

Over the course of the twentieth century, the United States emerged as a global leader in conservation policy—negotiating the first international conservation treaties, pioneering the idea of the national park, and leading the world in creating a modern environmental regulatory regime. And yet, this is a country famously committed to the ideals of limited government, decentralization, and strong protection of property rights. How these contradictory values have been reconciled, not always successfully, is what Kimberly K. Smith sets out to explain in The Conservation Constitution—a book that brings to light the roots of contemporary constitutional conflict over environmental policy.

“This superb book explains how understandings of the US Constitution evolved to support federal conservation efforts from the civil War through the 1920s. This book will be invaluable for those interested in environmental history and policy and public law. Essential.


The Conservation Constitution provides the first in-depth account of the constitutional developments surrounding conservation policies during the long Progressive Era. No book until now has focused on the intersection between the conservation policies and the constitutional conflicts of the time. By combining these two themes, Kim Smith skillfully identifies the unique doctrinal strategies that helped establish the constitutionality of conservation, in particular wildlife and forest preservation. The book fills a long-missing piece in US environmental-legal history, and it does so with erudition, originality, and sensitivity to the nuances of evolving legal doctrine.”

—Noga Morag-Levine, professor of law and the George Roumell Faculty Scholar, College of Law, Michigan State University

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In the mid-nineteenth century, most Progressive Era conservation policies would have been considered unconstitutional. Smith traces how, between 1870 and 1930, the conservation movement reshaped constitutional doctrine to its purpose—how, specifically, courts and lawyers worked to expand government authority to manage wildlife, forest and water resources, and pollution. Her work, which highlights a number of important Supreme Court decisions often overlooked in accounts of this period, brings the history of environmental management more fully into the story of the US Constitution. At the same time, illuminating the doctrinal innovation in the Progressives’ efforts, her book reveals the significance of constitutional history to an understanding of the government’s role in environmental management.

About the Author

Kimberly K. Smith is professor of environmental studies and political science at Carleton College. She is the author of many books including Governing Animals: Animal Welfare and the Liberal State and, also from Kansas, African American Environmental Thought: Foundations, Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace, and The Dominion of Voice: Riot, Reason, and Romance in Antebellum Politics, winner of the 2000 Merle Curti Intellectual History Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Additional Titles in the Environment and Society Series