With this one quotable speech, Teddy Roosevelt changed the way America thinks about nature
President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for his speeches.
His lines included “speak softly and carry a big stick.” And he said “the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic.” He also said “the government is us; we are the government, you and I.” These words have deservedly been remembered. But Roosevelt was also a conservationist. And he often put his skills to use in support of that cause.
The Conference of Governors was held at the White House May 13-15, 1908. State leaders met with Roosevelt and conservation authorities. They were from across the country. They discussed the question of what should be done with America’s natural resources. This might sound common now. But back then it was something new. Roosevelt opened the conference with a speech. It was titled “Conservation as a National Duty.”
Conservation “is the chief material question that confronts us. It is second only—and second always—to the great fundamental questions of morality,” he said. Americans had “become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources,” he explained. Americans had “just reason” to be proud of what they had done. “But,” he went on, as follows.
"The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted. We must ask what will happen when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation."
He said these fates could be avoided by planning ahead. “One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight,” he said. “We have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future. And if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”
“As a historian and a frontiersman,” Roosevelt probably understood the importance of the social pressures that he was fighting by saying that resource use should be limited. That's according to historian Leroy G. Dorsey. “For centuries citizens worshipped the notion of a God-blessed virgin land that belonged to them. They embraced an ownership that allowed them unfettered use (and misuse) of the land. They used it for survival, profit, and as a means to understand American identity,” he writes.
Roosevelt had been president since 1901. He worked to establish the national park system. And he worked to create national wildlife refuges. That's according to the Department of the Interior. He also created the United States Forest Service.
But Roosevelt’s opening speech in 1908 was a pivotal moment in conservation, Dorsey writes. It positioned conservation “in a way that reassessed America’s past actions and presaged its possible future if nature was not saved.” The speech got national attention. It “led to profound changes in American attitudes about conservation.”
The speech’s most important contribution was making conservation sound like “a public (rather than private) and moral (rather than economic) issue.” That's according to historian Jessica Sheffield. And Roosevelt did so on a grand stage. His event involved all levels of government. And it created a spectacle for press to report on. Newspapers wrote at length about the event. They also wrote about Roosevelt’s speech.
“By linking conservation to themes of civilization, American patriotism and morality,” she writes. “Roosevelt turned the conservation issue from one of private use of resources into a public concern about the future of the United States.” It was a theme he built on in his final State of the Union address. That happened later that year.