Humans are almost unique among life forms in our ability and, indeed, our insatiable desire to change our environment to suit our needs. We have been manipulating our environment since our earliest times, but our tools to do so are vastly more powerful than those our ancestors of only a century ago possessed. The beaver, once common throughout the Northern Hemisphere, is just about the only other species that is recognized for its ability to deliberately alter its environment to better suit its needs. In doing so, it improved the environment for other species. Fish, waterfowl and even humans benefited from the beaver’s work. Our ancestors revered the beaver for this ability even as they, too, sought to improve their environment to suit their needs.
The perceived improvements we have wrought on our world are, and have been, mostly short-sighted; designed to address an immediate need. Even though humans are unique in our ability to envision the future and our impact on it, seldom have we based our actions on anything but short-term goals. The long-term effects of our actions are generally left for the next generation to deal with. We have cleared forests, plowed under grasslands and drained wetlands wherever we have gone. We have exploited natural resources to the greatest degree our technology and economy allowed. When a resource was gone or worn out, be it a forest or the soil itself, we have moved on to find new resources to exploit.
Don’t get me wrong. Humans have also demonstrated an amazing ability to restore and manage resources once we realized that our past actions are not in our (or the world’s) best interest. It was just a little more than a century ago, in 1901, that an assassin’s bullet struck down President William McKinley. That set the stage for the swearing in of Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, and the era of modern conservation was born. No president before or since has been so dedicated to the notion that our world was a special place, and that the most special parts of it were worth protecting for all time. It was not, in his mind, because those places could earn someone a profit, but because humans could not improve on what was already there. TR, as he was known, practically invented the “bully pulpit.” Using it, he rallied the nation to the new and almost radical concept that our natural resources, particularly those of scenic and wildlife value, had value for the general good of the people that exceeded their potential value to private industry.
Railroads, timber and mining interests, the power players of the day, were caught off guard by this new kind of president. Not only was this president locking them out of potential areas that they would easily have exploited for great profits only a few years before, he had captured the minds and imaginations of the common people. The nation was ready for the idea of public land, jointly held and managed for the good of not just a few, but for all. They were ready to see our commonly held resources managed sustainably; not for a few quick years of profit, but for all time. Hunters and anglers were TR’s natural allies in this new movement, but so were naturalists, hikers and others who recognized the more spiritual values that the great outdoors and nature provided. It was was with their encouragement and backing that TR, pretty much independently, expanded national forest land by almost 150 million acres. National monuments, those special places not quite up to national park standards, were invented and 18 were set aside. Fifty-one federal bird reserves, the ancestors of our national wildlife refuge system, were created by presidential decree. The ancestors of federal and state resource management agencies came into being during TR’s nine-year term of office. The idea was born that wilderness had value in its wildness that trumped the exploitable timber and mineral resources it contained.
We celebrate conservation’s success stories of the past, like saving the American bison from extinction (TR had a hand in that, too), and of recent years, like the return of trumpeter swans, bald eagles and peregrine falcons. None of these could have happened without great expense and dedicated human effort. At the same time, we have seen dramatic declines in once common game species like the ring-necked pheasant. Deer populations have trended steeply downward in some areas of Iowa in the last couple of years, where some felt they were too numerous only a few years ago. Pheasants are basically homebodies that don’t travel very far from where they were hatched. They did move around as local habitat changed, though. That ability is now radically altered. The land no longer provides them with travel corridors. Islands of habitat that could support them are now separated by miles of clean-farmed corn and beans without the benefit of so much as a fence row. We humans continue to alter our environment for primarily short-term benefits. The world has never seen the fabric of life that supports us all so strained and frayed. We need another TR to awake the nation and the rest of the world to a new era, where conservation values not only hold their own, but triumph over short-term gains that are possible from resource exploitation.