Sissifying the West


September 29, 2005


Browse in Environment

Theodore Roosevelt must be a tempting icon for the White House message crew to invoke. A virile Republican, a man’s man who carried the banner of imperialism with pride and the white man’s burden that went with it. Who said children of privilege couldn’t be tough?

Look closer, though, and you can see why a comparison with the Republican Roosevelt is not one the White House is eager to invite. TR didn’t just play act about patriotism, for example. He laced up his boots and faced the bullets, at age 40 no less. He stood up to corporadoes; and he had the kind of stubborn rectitude that would have served as insect repellent to a Karl Rove. Most inconvenient of all, TR was a lover of nature. “Roosevelt had a profound, almost Indian veneration for trees,” his biographer Edmund Morris observes. “Walking on silent, moccasined feet down a luminous nave of pines, listening to invisible choirs of birds, he came close to religious rapture.”

What the White House today would call a “tree hugger,” in other words.

TR’s devotion to wilderness was intense. When his first wife died he set off on horseback for the Dakota prairie. “All he carried, beside his rifle,” Morris writes, “was a book, a blanket, an oilskin. A metal cup, a little tea and salt, and some dry biscuits.” He wrote volumes on wilderness lore, and lobbied hard for the Forest Reserve Act, which passed Congress in 1891. Later, when he became President, he used that law himself to protect millions of acres of the Wild West forever.

Or so he thought.

Today the Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress are trying to dismantle Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. To them the outdoors is just a warehouse of commodities that would be better as fodder for corporate gain. In the process, they are revealing more about themselves than they realize, and in particular how far they are from the manly virtues they profess. Let’s put it bluntly. These folks are wimps.

First it was the snowmobiles in the national parks. Bill Clinton banned them, the Bush people let them back in, and now they want to loosen the rules further. Gail Norton, the Interior Secretary spent a day last winter cruising through Yellowstone on a snowmobile. “This has been a wonderful, wonderful, day,” she enthused after her sedentary trek. “From what I’ve seen, snowmobiles fit quite well with winter use.”

Of course. When you are on the snowmobile you are oblivious to the racket you are causing for others. (What did Samuel Johnson say about the smell of one’s own posterior emissions?) A quick pass doesn’t tell you much about the long-term impact upon wildlife and land. But the main thing is, are these people so soft, that they are willing to experience the outdoors only from the ease of a motorized vehicle? Teddy Roosevelt would have put on his snowshoes. Norton and her entourage weren’t even willing to break a sweat.

Then it was the cellular telephone towers. Already there are over thirty such towers in the national parks, six in Yellowstone alone. One provides a backdrop to Old Faithful geyser. The Administration’s budget cuts have created in the park service a desperate need for cash; and so more of these towers may be coming. TR went to the wilds to hear the “boding call” of the whippoorwill. He wrote in his journals of the “sweet, sad songs” of the hermit thrush, and the “soft melancholy cooing” of the mourning dove. The Bush people want us to hear the yak and clatter of cell phones instead.

Lets not forget the roads the Administration wants to build in national forests, the better to enable timber companies to remove the trees. And now comes Congressman Richard Pombo, a Republican from California’s Central Valley and a man who – it bears noting in this Theodore Roosevelt context – according to his official website never saw fit to serve his country. He wants to deplete it instead.

Pombo introduced the bill, now moving through the House, that would gut the Endangered Species Act,  He also has introduced a bill that would require the removal of 15 sites from the national park system, for sale to commercial and energy developers. Naming rights to visitor centers, museums, trails and the like would be auctioned off to corporations. All maps, visitors guides, buses, shuttles, vans and ferries would contain advertising. Pombo’s bill also would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the entire Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling.

Oh, and he specifically wants to remove Theodore Roosevelt Island in New York from the national park system, and sell it to developers.

There’s a lot to be said about Pombo’s vision for America. ANWAR could supply about one year’s worth of oil for the U.S. The sell-off of the national parks would provide a one-time infusion of cash; while the commercializing of the remaining ones would yield a relative pittance. What then? We’d be another year deeper into our financial and petroleum deficits; and we would have done nothing to address the waste that caused them.

Not a guy who is thinking about our kids and grandkids. Then too, a financial crash probably is coming; and when the financial system goes kerplooey, hard assets are the thing to own. To hold a fire sale of America’s crown jewels now would be stupid even by Washington standards. (Not that we ever should sell them. But there are degrees of stupidity, and Pombo has exceeded the norm.)

The worst part is how weak this all is. Pombo wants to sell off the nation’s precious heritage, just so people can drive a little further in their snowmobiles and their air-conditioned SUVs, and so trust fund babies don’t have to be inconvenienced with estate taxes. Poor babies. To Theodore Roosevelt, the national parks weren’t just about trees and birds. Even more they were about character.

“’Conservation’ is for the purpose of conserving nature, which is for the purpose of conserving manliness,” is how Harvey Mansfield of Harvard once summarized TR’s views, in an essay called The Manliness of Theodore Roosevelt. “Manliness wants risk, not comfort and convenience. Yellowstone, he said, would ensure to future generations ‘much of the old-time pleasure of the hardy life of the wilderness and of the hunter in the wilderness…kept for all who have the love of adventure and the hardihood to take advantage of it.”

Do snowmobiles, and cell phone towers, and oil derricks everywhere suggest a zest for risk, a willingness to test oneself against the wilds? Or do they show a sniveling attachment to comfort and convenience, a fear of the risks that wilderness represents?  Does a refusal to stand up for God’s creation in all its forms suggest manliness or cowardice?

And what about our willingness to step to the plate for those who will come after us? “The nation behaves well,” TR once said, “if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value.”

Let’s measure Representative Pombo by that test too. The White House as well, for that matter. Professor Mansfield thought he was taking a poke at liberals. But it turns out that TR and his courage have become a foil for the Administration and its helpers instead.