Whenever we’re in Washington, my wife and I try to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial on Roosevelt Island. Everyone else goes to the Lincoln or the Jefferson or the Washington, and they are all wonderful. But the TR is different. There are almost never any crowds. That’s because it is hidden in the middle of the woods at the heart of the island. In fact, Susan and I discovered it quite by accident a few years ago as we were hiking through the woods.
You walk along a system of trails through thick forest, and then all of a sudden everything opens up in front of you and you find yourself in a clearing. Teddy is standing in the middle of it, in bronze, and he is ringed by massive stone panels, into which are chiseled some of his statements about manhood, the state and development. The site is peaceful, almost holy, and beautiful - usually.
But not last time we visited, at least not after EarthFirst arrived.
My wife is kind of an amateur naturalist (she and the kids are gradually working on a survey of the flora and fauna of Wilson’s Run, the valley adjoining our property), and they were enthusiastically identifying trees and wild flowers. That’s when the clamor started. Loud noises began to drift up from the south trail and echo around the pavilion.
Suddenly a hundred or more young men and women were stomping their way into the memorial, all wearing green shirts, on which were printed the words “EarthFirst”. They were chatting, flirting, and texting away. No one was looking at the trees. No one was reading the quotes on the obelisks. There were TV cameras, and they were getting tape on all of this. I leaned over to Susan “That’s for the funders”, I told her. “They’ll want to show the video to their board.”
We knew the TR Memorial would not be a memorial for the next hour or so, but a stage, on which young people (bored by the specific flora and fauna around them) would congratulate themselves, before the cameras, for their love of ‘the earth’. So we left, sadly, the sound of speeches, zeal and sanctimony trailed us into the woods for a hundred yards or so, until it was swallowed by the forest.
I wished that they had actually stopped for a moment to read the memorial, especially the part where TR admonishes us that, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” That’s probably the thing that mob needed most (even more than “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.”) Maybe if they came to understand that Teddy was not an early version of themselves; that the founders of their movement fought him, they might have a moment of self-doubt about whether the earth really should be put first. Teddy certainly didn’t think so. He thought people came first.
Teddy was a conservationist, not a preservationist. Not surprisingly, this meant that he wanted to conserve natural resources, not preserve them. To conserve is to save in order to use later. Cash reserves are money set aside for the future. Fuel reserves are there in case you need them later. Preserves are not supposed to change. Like a museum or an archeological site, they are to be frozen in time.
TR and his Director of Forestry Services, Gifford Pinchot created a system of ‘wildlife Reserves’. They argued that it would not be fair for one generation to do all the logging and all the digging and to leave nothing behind for future generations. They didn’t think of these reserves as something pristine, which would be rendered somehow ceremonially unclean by the signs of human development. They just wanted to share natural resources and beauty with future generations, like ours. In fact the shift in language from ‘resources’ to ‘the environment’ signals the shift in world-view from conservation to preservation. A resource, by its very nature, is to be used, sparingly, perhaps, but nonetheless, used.
This is why the Roosevelt-Pinchot philosophy is known to historians as the ‘wise-use’ movement. It’s why the administration’s forestry handbook contained explicit instructions for how to extract lumber and minerals from the protected lands. That’s why the memorial lauds ‘development’, which contemporary environmentalists forbid in places like ANWR.
The preservationists of the time, like Sierra Club founder, John Muir, fought against them. While Roosevelt/Pinchot sought to make nature useful to humanity, by opening it to efficient use, and protecting it from destruction, Muir claimed that nature was to be useful to nature itself, not to man. For Roosevelt earth is for us, for people. For Muir man and land were equals. It wasn’t the conservationist Roosevelt who put ANWR’s oil out of our reach, but the environmentalist Carter.
In other words, the activist/extras who stomped their way across the memorial that day, did it under a slogan (EarthFirst) against which Teddy most heartily disapproved.
This article originally appeared on TCSDaily.com
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