What would TR do?
By MARTHA MARKS, REP President
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this keynote speech to the Southern Appalachian Forest’s “Great Forest Campaign” conference of in Henderson, North Carolina, on April 12, 2002.
Thank you for inviting me to be your keynote speaker tonight. I’m delighted to be with you in this beautiful setting.
However, it seems more than a little bit presumptuous of me to stand up here and attempt to offer a roomful of forest activists advice on how to return your Southern Appalachian forests to their traditional greatness. After all, I’m a suburbanite, a county commissioner in Illinois (of all places), and a Republican (of all things). And even though the one part of my elective office that I dearly love is the “other hat” that all Chicago-area county commissioners wear — that of “forest preserve commissioner” — I suspect that my ten years of work in that capacity is a mere shadow of what most of you have invested in protecting your magnificent forests. I’ll take both of my hats off to you for that!
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I could say a lot about the century-long efforts of Chicago-area residents to preserve our natural heritage. To date, we have saved over 200,000 acres of high-quality woodlands, wetlands, prairies and riparian corridors in our urban corner of the state, and that’s no small feat. Our forest preserves are so special that, collectively, they’re recognized as one of The Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places.” They even have an organization called Chicago Wilderness to advocate for them and build appreciation of the rare plants and animals that find shelter there.
OK, I know you’re chuckling to yourselves that “Chicago Wilderness” is just about as funny an oxymoron as “Republicans for Environmental Protection.” (Although, of course, neither one really is an oxymoron!) Unfortunately, the curious tale of how this one woman came to be so closely involved with two apparent oxymorons is a story for another evening, and another speech.
So, rather than tell you how I came to be associated with not one but two oxymorons… rather than delve into the nitty-gritty of forest protection, which you folks know far better than I… and rather than pretend to advise you on the ins-and-outs of pushing your agenda through a stubborn State Legislature, a cantankerous Congress or a White House that can most kindly be called tone-deaf on the environment.
What I really want to talk about tonight is a good old friend of mine:
President Theodore Roosevelt.
Well no, I can’t exactly call TR a personal friend of mine. But I do often feel the spirit of TR as I walk in his footsteps in this challenging game of building support for conservation and environmental protection within the Republican Party. And since I do have the privilege of calling his great-grandson a personal friend of mine, perhaps my sometimes-eerie feeling of connection to the Grand Old Conservationist of the Grand Old Party isn’t really all that far-fetched after all.
To give you an idea of how it feels to be a Republican conservationist walking in TR’s footsteps, I’d like to tell you a true story from just a few years back. Our upstart little organization, REP, wasn’t quite 4 years old in the spring of 1999 when we decided to launch a series of national meetings to encourage Republicans to start addressing environmental issues once again.
Not being timid souls, we invited Theodore Roosevelt IV to join us in Florida for the first-ever Republican Environmental Summit. As part of the lure, we scheduled a field trip to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first one established by his great-grandfather, the president.
To our delight — and total amazement — Ted accepted our invitation to be the keynote speaker at that ground-breaking event. And with that he helped us launch a series that continued last July with our 2nd Republican Environmental Summit.
That second Republican Environmental Summit met in Washington, focused on energy, and attracted a crowd of distinguished Republicans, including Ted (again), Susan Eisenhower, Russell Train, Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, the Lt. Governor of Illinois, and three dozen other elected officials from around the country. I can tell you now that there will be a 3rd Republican Environmental Summit in 2003… and many more to come in future years. But back in 1999, we didn’t know if this concept had a chance. It was a gut-wrenching effort for our fledgling organization to pull off such a high-profile event. And while we didn’t draw the huge crowd we had hoped for, and not all the luminaries we invited showed up… we did hold our first GOP Enviro-Summit, and it was worth the doing. But there’s no way we could have managed it without the generosity and cooperation of a marvelous man named Theodore Roosevelt IV.
That said, I have to tell you… even more exciting than the symbolism and substance of that first-ever GOP Enviro-Summit was the emotion of the next day, when we attendees traveled to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge with the great-grandson of the man who had protected it. Just before we boarded a boat to go out to the tiny refuge, we shared a poignant moment: the meeting of Ted Roosevelt and Wayne Kroegel, grandson of the man who in 1903 attracted the attention of President Roosevelt with his tale of poachers killing the egrets, pelicans and other birds that nested on a 4-acre mudflat in the Indian River. We learned that, in response to a letter from German immigrant Paul Kroegel, President Roosevelt asked:
“Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation?”
The answer was no, and he replied,
“Very well, then I so declare it.”
And of course, TR went on to create fifty more national wildlife refuges.
He doubled the number of national parks from five to ten.
He added 150 million acres to our national forest reserves. All told, he protected 230 million acres… greater in size than Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia… combined!
The Republican Party could certainly use an infusion of TR’s can-do conservation philosophy today!
And that brings me to the point of my talk tonight. Given the growing urgency we all feel to preserve the natural world that future generations of humans and other species will depend on… and given the challenges inherent in your ambitious “Great Forest Campaign” (not the least of which is the regrettable anti-environmentalism of so many leaders of my party), I’d like to pose a thought-provoking question:
What would TR do?
Yes, what would TR do???
Well, since he would no longer have the White House as his own personal Bully Pulpit, I suspect he’d welcome invitations to speak at gatherings like this. Were he here with us tonight, he’d be the one standing up here right now… urging the rest of us to charge ahead like his Rough Riders and fight like bloody hell for the things we believe in.
I’m sure he’d start off by telling you about the special connection he had to the Southern Appalachian region. He’d mention that on his mother’s side, his family taproot reached to north Georgia. He’d want you to know what a special feeling he had for this region. Wise man that he was, TR would point out that our native plant and animal species hold a special kind of knowledge and treasure that cannot be replaced if lost.
Unfortunately (he’d say), much of that knowledge and treasure is being lost today, and there are precious few government, civic, or corporate leaders — at any level — who seem to know, or even care, about its loss. I’m sure he’d bemoan the fact that so many people seem so focused on treasure of a different sort.
If President Theodore Roosevelt were here with us tonight, I think he’d lay out the following Seven-Step Strategic Action Plan. For simplicity, I’ll call these TR’s Tips.
- Articulate what’s at stake.
- Think big.
- Think long-term.
- Act boldly.
- Fight the special interests.
- Embrace a bigger vision.
- Restore a bipartisan consensus for conservation.
And now I’d like to talk about each one of those for a few moments.
TR Tip #1… articulate what’s at stake.
Looking at the country as a whole, TR would point out that national forests help protect us from flooding, cleanse our air and protect us from global climate change, while providing clean drinking water for 60 million Americans in 33 states… all for free. He’d remind us of their role in our nation’s history and their value today for wildlife habitat and healthful outdoor recreation. Hiking. Fishing. Hunting. Camping. Canoeing. (I don’t think he’d express much appreciation for those exhaust-spewing, ear-splitting, wildlife-chasing snowmobiles, however.)
When he came to talk about the Southern Appalachian region, TR would emphasize the immense natural treasure that remains here. I suspect he wouldn’t focus so much on what’s been lost, great as it is, but rather make sure that people know how much there still is left to save…
- Almost three million acres of national forest lands
- Three thousand species of native plants
- One hundred fifty species of native trees
- Nesting habitat for thousands of warblers and other neo-tropical songbirds
- Untold numbers of fish, mussels, snails, crayfish, insects and mammals large and small, including surviving populations of umbrella species like the black bear
TR would say:
- Find a way to make people in your region more aware of the treasure that lies around them.
- Put your most inspiring speakers, writers, artists and photographers to work winning converts to our side.
- Get them on television and radio programs throughout the region.
- Place their watercolors, photographs and essays in your Sunday magazines and “lifestyle” publications.
- Use their talents — and your own — to build a brigade of Southern Appalachian Rough Riders to help you win this battle.
TR Tip #2 … think big.
You’re already doing this one. And no question about it… TR would be intrigued by the grand vision you’ve articulated in Return the Great Forest. He’d recognize its potential to tie in with similar plans elsewhere in the country, like Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Taken together, regional efforts like yours and theirs could turn out to be the silver bullet that prevents devastating future losses to America’s natural heritage.
TR would point to America’s legacy of federally owned lands and waters: the millions of acres of national forests, parks and monuments, estuary reserves, marine sanctuaries, tallgrass prairies and wildlife refuges that We the People already own. He’d make the case that — with better stewardship — our public lands could form the heart of a new national landscape-, watershed- and wildlife-conservation strategy.
He would want such a plan to include private lands, as well: creeks and valley bottoms, mountain treasures, and hardwood forests lovingly tended by caring individual stewards.
He’d want it to include all manner of places, from the Florida Keys, to pocket parks in Chicago, to vast wilderness in Alaska.
And in his mind, undoubtedly, that plan would include the Great Forest of the South, which we have come together this weekend to celebrate and protect.
TR Tip #3 … think long-term.
Being a realist, TR would see Return the Great Forest as a decades-long effort, and he wouldn’t be put off by that fact. He would tell you to craft a long-range strategy and implement it carefully, step-by-step.
I can hear him right now, standing up here and hollering at us with his finger in the air and his moustache twitching…
“This is a bully plan! So, plunge right in, celebrate each victory that comes along, keep your eyes on the long-range goals and don’t ever let ’em tell you it won’t work. It will work! Just keep your Rough Riders charging up that hill.”
TR Tip #4… act boldly.
I think TR would challenge you to promote this regional initiative in a dramatic fashion. You’re off to a first-rate start with this conference. And from here on out… who knows?
Perhaps you’ll decide to punch it up further with a Rough Riders Rally in each of the appropriate state capitals. And then some day, not too far off… imagine the headlines:
“A million Southern Appalachian Rough Riders charge across the Mall and up the Capitol steps…”
Don’t laugh. It can happen, if you set your minds to it.
TR Tip #5… fight the special interests.
President Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to expose the land-rapers and the wheeler-dealers, to get the public on his side, and shame the Congress into doing the right thing. Well, folks, we may not have TR’s bully pulpit, but we do have the same opponents. The land rapers and wheeler-dealers are still with us. The Congress still has to be shamed into doing the right thing.
Fortunately, we do have one very big stick to use in this battle: the American people.
The public is already on our side. Polls show that most Americans are profoundly pro-conservation. Most Republicans are profoundly pro-conservation.
Unfortunately, the American people are also profoundly lethargic and uninformed. Just last night one of the attendees here was telling me about a young relative of his who was astounded to learn that there is logging in our national forests. Logging! She was shocked!!!
So our challenge is to find a way to separate the American people from their remote controls, get them up off their couches and away from the potato chips, help them know the truth about what is going on in the national forests that they own, and energize them to speak up for what they repeatedly tell the pollsters they believe in.
Most of our elected officials will stand up to the special interests when the public demands it. But only when the public demands it. So it’s up to us to make sure that the public does demand it.
TR Tip #6… embrace a bigger vision.
Given his family’s Georgia taproot, TR would know that the Southern Appalachian region tends to be populated with rather conservative people. Traditions run deep here, and old mind-sets die hard. So clearly, as TR would tell us, our top challenge is to set your Return the Great Forest vision in a verbal framework that even the most anti-environmental, self-described “conservative” politician cannot possibly reject or deny.
And to that end, I think TR would urge us to frame our vision in four great traditional conservative values:
- piety toward nature
Responsibility… because society is intergenerational. We are duty-bound to pass on a conservation heritage that, like a family investment, will pay dividends in health, prosperity, and quality of life to our descendants. We are the stewards of that family inheritance, and if we don’t care for our inheritance, nobody else will.
Prudence… because it is the most practical, business-like way of ensuring a safe and healthy future. Prudence compels us to protect our natural capital… those forests, wetlands, estuaries, endangered species, and so on, where our clean air, clean water, seafood, miracle drugs, you name it… are all produced. That’s our natural capital. It’s only prudent to protect it.
Do our leaders exercise prudence today? Most of them would say they do, but if challenged to explain how they exercise prudence in protecting our natural capital, I bet most wouldn’t have a clue how to respond. TR would tell us that our task is to ask that challenging question, and ask it, and ask it, and ask it and ask it until America’s leaders start talking with us. And once they start talking with us, we can lead America’s leaders to the answers we want them to give. We can teach them what being prudent really means.
Patriotism… because by protecting the lands and waters that give America life and make it strong, we assure its ongoing prosperity. TR knew that nature is the ultimate, irreducible source of our sustenance, or, as he put it:
“the final basis of national power and perpetuity.”
That’s good, but I happen to prefer the TR line that we use on the REP brochure:
“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
REP recently produced a car-buying guide called “Protect America’s Freedom.” We believe that true patriotism calls on us to conserve gasoline and keep dollars out of the hands of unstable Middle Eastern dictatorships that fund terrorism. That shows a whole lot more patriotism than flying the American flag on a gas guzzler!
Piety towards nature… because man is not the lord of creation. He is but a part of it. And the more religious a man is… the more fervently he believes in the Creator… the more humbly he must approach the other works of the Creator.
It seems to me like that should be a key argument here in the Bible Belt.
As the great conservative writer Richard Weaver wrote in 1948:
“Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it.”
I think TR would say Amen! to that.
Finally, TR Tip #7… restore a bipartisan consensus for conservation.
Well… given his long absence from the Bully Pulpit, would TR have any thoughts as to how to mobilize hordes of conservative Republicans to support the concept of conservation once again?
Would he have any clue how to stop the barrage of anti-environmental legislation and policies we now face?
Would he have any idea how to build a bipartisan consensus for forest protection, or get GOP elected officials from this region excited about your bold vision for the Great Forest?
Well, you have to admit… that would be a tall order for one person, even one apparently so admired by the current occupant of the Oval Office.
I like to think this is where Republicans for Environmental Protection would pop up on TR’s radar screen…
I can see him now, standing up here, peering out over all of us as we sit out there peering back at him.
(Here Martha removes her earrings.)
He’d survey the crowd, looking for one particular face, and then he’d spot it, at that table back there in the corner.
(Here Martha removes her necklace, then turns the collar of her jacket under and buttons it at the top button.)
He’d reach out and point his finger at…me. Me!!! I like to think a big grin would spread across his face!
(Here Martha puts on old-fashioned reading glasses and finishes morphing into TR.)
And then he’d start booming it out again…
NOTE: At this point, Martha “morphed” into Teddy Roosevelt. Click here if you’d like to read what he/she said.