How the West Was Saved
Douglas Brinkley’s fine new book – The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America – tells the great story of how Roosevelt, the New Yorker born of privilege who became a westerner by choice, came to preserve during his presidency vast amounts – 230 million acres total – of national forest land, monuments, wildlife refuges and parks.
Roosevelt’s remarkable foresight keeps on giving. More than 100 years after TR’s aggressive use of Executive Orders and the Antiquities Act marked him as the nation’s foremost conservationist, we are still debating what to do with all he set aside. Thank the 26th president for not foreclosing our options all those years ago.
When some westerners speak dismissively of the unique American legacy of public ownership of vast amounts of beautiful, rugged, economically valuable, and often largely untouched land they tend to refer to the acreage as “federal land.” But that is inaccurate. The land belongs to all of us just as TR envisioned and every generation since Roosevelt has faced the task of reconcilining its stewardship responsibilities with the unrelenting pressure – and unrelenting need – to harvest timber, extract minerals, generate energy and generally support a modern society.
The debate over that stewardship of public land has often been shrill and polarizing, but that may be changing at least a little.
In a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic Jonathan Weber, publisher of NewWest.net, an on line magazine covering the west, extolled what may be a gathering trend – attempting to resolve age old disputes about western land management using collaboration and compromise right here in the west rather than resorting to bombast and lawyers.
Weber points to the approach pioneered in Idaho by Rick Johnson, the Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), that has helped engineer recent new wilderness protection for the magnificant Owyhee Canyonlands in extreme southwestern Idaho and will soon, we can hope, finally see through the Congress the long sought, often delayed protection of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in central Idaho.
Johnson – no relation, but a friend – has learned what some in the conservation community, and the national media, have yet to see: pragmatic, common sense conservation must be built from the ground up and it will always involve compromise. ICL has made common cause with two pretty conservative Idaho Republicans – Senator Mike Crapo and Congressman Mike Simpson – in the interest of moving the ball on wilderness protection, while also acknowledging the local need for economic stablity and jobs.
Montana’s new Democratic Senator John Tester is working the same trapline and I”ll be surprised if we don’t see more use of the model across the vast American west. It seems to be working.
I marvel at Teddy Roosevelt’s vision that encompassed creation of the remarkable system of national forests that provide us raw materials, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and solitude. At the same time the man who hunted every type of African game and proudly saw to it that mounted heads graced the walls of his home and many musuems was also the bird loving creator of Deer Flat and Minidoka Wildlife Refuges in Idaho.
When I spent last Christmas at the picturesque old El Tovar lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon – the park was saved by Roosevelt from the designs of early Arizona miners – and walked in the snow along the trial overlooking what may be the most spectacular site in the country, I couldn’t help but feel immense gratitude for the old Rough Rider’s certainty that this marvelous place must be conserved for all of us and forever.
Thankfully TR had the vision to act as he did; mostly unilaterally and often in the face of powerful opposition. But, thanks as well for a new generation of westerners, of many political stripes, who realize a different time demands a different approach.
The great writer Wallace Stegner often made the point that westerners live with many myths, including the myth that the west was built by the hands of rugged individuals acting on their own. Not true, Stegner said. The west has been built through cooperation and government action including reclamation projects created 100 years ago and 2009 stimulus spending on everything from renewable energy to road and transit projects.
The west’s story has always involved much hard give and take. The west’s true rugged individuals realize that fact and are willing to summon the courage and sustain the energy to work and worry over the compromises that continue to make the west a place of hope, opportunity and awe.
As Roosevelt once said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Good advice and not a bad slogan for the future of the American west.