June 8, 1908 – Nearly a month after calling together a conference of the nation's governors that focused on the environment, Theodore Roosevelt appointed members of a National Conservation Commission to prepare America's first inventory of natural resources.
Traditionally, Americans have judged Presidents on two major criteria: national security and the economy. What has gone unnoticed—even during the last 35 years, which have been dominated, at one time or another, by energy crises—is the environmental component of these two issues.
In a prior post, I discussed how Franklin D. Roosevelt came to conceive of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the proudest achievements of the New Deal. But the first President to make environmentalism part of the President's agenda—indeed, central to it--was his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. "The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life," he told Congress in his Seventh Annual Message.
T.R.'s longstanding fascination with nature, dating back to his taxidermy hobby and continuing with his adult days ranching in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory, have been much discussed by his major biographers. Less well-known is the parlous state of the nation's natural resources at the time he became President; how he used the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency—not just publicity, but also the more controversial use of executive orders—to advance the movement; and how chosen successor's William Howard Taft firing of Roosevelt's friend, Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot led to the split between the liberal and conservative wings of the GOP that, to one degree or another, endures to this day.
By the time Roosevelt succeeded the assassinated William McKinley in the Oval Office, the frontier had been declared officially closed. The nation was simultaneously facing an exploding population – an increase of one-fifth in ten years—and, in the West, the catastrophic inability of farmers and ranchers to scratch out a living from the inhospitable soil. Congress' solution to the latter problem—public land laws—ended up establishing a de facto "water monopoly."
Roosevelt's proposals in his First Annual Message to Congress, for irrigation projects, resulted in the National Reclamation Act, which funded a civil-engineering force within the National Geological Survey and began the process of constructing dams and aqueducts for the nation's arid land—one-third of the total area of the U.S. at the time.
The President did not frame the issue in aesthetic terms, much as he appreciated the beauty of nature, but in terms of utility and morality. (Restricting grazing and logging, he argued, protected watersheds, a necessity for a growing population that needed drinking and irrigation water and flood control.)
Executive orders represented T.R.'s primary means of moving his conservation agenda. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, only 158 executive orders were issued during the terms of the 10 Presidents running from Abraham Lincoln to William McKinley. During Roosevelt's seven and one-half years as President, he issued 1006 such orders. Collectively, they embodied his notion of what he thought of as the Jackson-Lincoln model of the strong President, and of the notion of the Chief Executive as "the steward of the public welfare."
This broad use of Presidential authority caused a ruckus during T.R.'s tenure, when Congressmen began to squawk about what was being done to their lands. It remains a major bone of contention today, largely because subsequent US. Presidents followed Roosevelt's lead in using this mechanism. In the 20th century, nine (counting T.R.) issued at least 450 executive orders each.
From May 13 to 15, 1908, TR acted as host for the National Governors Conference—not only the first time that organization met, but also the first and last time that members of the three federal branches of government got to together for purposes of "common good."
One outgrowth of this conference was T.R.'s appointment, on June 8, of members of the National Conservation Commission. Four areas were covered in this inventory of resources—water, forests, lands, and minerals—with each section headed by a chairman and with Pinchot overseeing the executive committee.
The rationale for the inventory was simple: before the government could act, it needed to know the extent of the problem—what resources it had and what it didn't. Six months later, the commission's work was done, as they presented a three-volume report. Pinchot's concepts of resource management—many looking to the latest European techniques—were included in the report.
At the conclusion of his second term, Roosevelt had:
* created the national wildlife refuge;
* quadrupled the number of acres in national forests; and
* preserved eighteen areas as national monuments, including the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest.
Pinchot did not stay on long with the Taft administration when Roosevelt stepped down. The forestry chief clash with Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger over the disposition of land. Taft, more inclined than T.R. to let states or private individuals control these lands, sided with his cabinet secretary and dismissed Pinchot. The news disturbed Roosevelt profoundly. From that point on, he became ever more inclined to take on his chosen successor – which eventually came to pass when he ran as the Progressive candidate for President in the election of 1912, thus splitting the GOP vote and smoothing the way for Woodrow Wilson’s victory.
Roosevelt had managed to placate the party regulars in office while enacting much Progressive legislation, but his electoral apostasy lost him and the liberal wing much influence for the next decade, thereby paving the way for Harding and Coolidge in the 1920s. Other issues have come to the fore in the years since—notably intervention abroad and the agenda of the Religious Right—but, in one way or another, they are reenacting the battle waged by T.R. and Taft early in the 20th century.