- - Monday, January 16, 2017


President-elect Donald Trump said in December that he will honor the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt and “conserve and protect our natural resources for the next generation.” Moving quickly to back it up, he nominated Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as his secretary of interior.

These are actions of no small consequence. Given the deep historical animus between conservationists and environmentalists, they portend a return to the rancorous public land wars that started more than 100 years ago, erupted again in the 1970s and have simmered ever since. Today that fight continues to divide urban from rural, and liberal from conservative America.

Environmentalists like to call themselves conservationists because they think it makes them look less extreme. The tactic, dating back decades, is part of a larger public relations strategy designed to craft an image that won’t alienate the average American.

Some of the biggest environmental groups — like the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, American Rivers and the Wilderness Society — claim that their values reflect those of Teddy Roosevelt, the father of conservation in America.

But the Rough Rider was no environmentalist, not by a long shot. And he would roar from the grave if he knew that environmentalists were using him as a propaganda tool. Big-game hunter, rancher and builder of great water projects like the Panama Canal, Roosevelt supported logging American forests, grazing American rangelands, mining American minerals and damming American rivers.

Roosevelt was a seminal and visionary conservationist. Along with his forestry chief Gifford Pinchot, he gave birth to a philosophy of rational conservation that shaped the American landscape for most of the 20th century. Pinchot best articulated the concept, which was both simple and elegant— “the farsighted use, preservation, and renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.”

This wasn’t the hands-off concept of conservation as twisted by modern-day environmentalists. This was the conservation of adults and nation builders — conservation through the wise multiple use of natural resources. And not just any use. In leasing the federal lands, Roosevelt preferred large timber growers and big cattle and sheep operations because of their economic efficiency.

One of Roosevelt’s passionate interests was reclamation of the arid West, and in 1902 he pushed legislation to use money from the sale of public lands to pay for large-scale irrigation. Within a few years of passage, 21 federal reclamation projects had been established and 3 million acres of irrigated land had been brought under cultivation.

Some of America’s biggest dams were built during Roosevelt’s tenure as president. He recognized that they were necessary “to equalize the flow of streams and save the flood waters,” but he was a fiscal conservative who opposed the cheap giveaway of hydropower rights. In 1903, he vetoed a bill that awarded a private individual the right to build a power plant in Alabama over concern that the right to generate hydropower should “be disposed of with full competition.”

From the start, Roosevelt’s “rational use” conservation philosophy clashed head-on with the elitist views of the preservationists. The latter were represented by Sierra Club founder John Muir, and they came to a head in 1908 over whether or not to build the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in California’s Yosemite Valley. The conservationists won. Today, the reservoir still provides huge economic, social and hydrological benefits, including water to the city of San Francisco.

Roosevelt created some 235 national forests, parks and preserves during his two terms as president, something that environmentalists point to when they genuflect before his legacy. But most of these weren’t created to lock up natural resources — just the opposite. They were created so that America’s resources could be developed responsibly for the public good.

Fortunately for the country, the philosophy of rational conservation prevailed for two generations, through a depression and two world wars, when America desperately needed its natural resources. The ethos finally fell in the 1970s to the dangerous notion that American resources should be locked away from the people and the economic and security needs of the nation.

Now, after a 45-year hiatus, the adults are back. Mr. Trump’s public embrace of Roosevelt’s conservation ethos, and his nomination of Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior, are good starts towards clawing America’s resources back from the clutches of the environmentalists. And toward validating Mr. Trump’s claim to the Rough Rider’s legacy.

Ensuring America’s energy independence alone will be a big step forward in making America great again. After all, the public lands don’t belong to the urban coastal elite, the rich environmentalists or the Birkenstock liberals. They belong to the people — all of the people, including those on the 85 percent of the American landscape that is now “Trump’s America.”

Jeff Goodson, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Office, is a lifelong conservationist.

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