Thursday, July 19, 2018

Conservation president's legacy ours to enjoy -- July 19, 2018 column


It’s hard to escape distrust of the nation’s capital -- even at a rodeo in a little town in South Dakota.

I was learning about calf roping and steer wrestling from a former rodeo prize-winner – he had the big, silver belt buckle to prove it -- until he asked where I was from. I told him I live in the Washington area.  

“You aren’t from the government, are you?” he asked.

No, I’m a journalist, I said. That was worse.  

He peppered me with questions about fake news, news organizations’ “agendas” and why the TV networks – except Fox -- won’t give President Donald Trump a chance.

I defended my media colleagues but knew we’d be better off talking about bull riding in the ring than about bull slinging in Washington.  

I wasn’t surprised on my trip around the Dakotas that Trump is popular, but I found it ironic he’s popular among people who also revere a very different president.

Theodore Roosevelt is close to being a native son of North Dakota. He was an intellectual, a voracious reader, prolific author and historian, a believer in physical activity and the great outdoors. He was our conservation president. And he loathed incivility.

Roosevelt was vice president when he first used the proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick” in a speech in 1901.

“If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power,” he said.

Four days later, President William McKinley was shot, and Roosevelt soon became president.

Long before that, though, Roosevelt, at age 24, made the long train trip to the Dakota Territory for the first time in 1883. He wanted to hunt bison before they became extinct.

Enchanted with the land and the life, he bought an interest in a ranch during the trip.

The next year, he returned to the wild, vast, silent country for solace after he suffered heartbreaking loss. His wife, who had given birth to their first child just two days earlier, and his mother died hours apart on Valentine’s Day in the same house in New York.

In his diary that day, he wrote a large X and only one sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”

He raised cattle on the Little Missouri River, enjoying “the strenuous life” alongside cowboys he admired for their strength, work ethic and character. You can see the rugged North Dakota badlands much as he did by visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947 to honor the 26th president.

He used whatever spare time he had to sit in his rocking chair and read and write history. Then drought and a blizzard decimated his herd in 1886, and he went back East.

But his experiences in North Dakota changed him for good. His exposure to those cowboys led to an appreciation for the common man that would serve him well in politics and the White House.

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Roosevelt wrote.

The New Yorker who went west to hunt bison before they vanished from the West also developed something else in those wild, open spaces. Long a student of animals, he became outspoken in his desire to save them.

“The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” he wrote.

He signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and protected about 230 million acres of public lands – establishing five national parks, 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves and 150 national forests.

Since then, 16 presidents of both parties have used the act to enlarge the nation’s store of protected lands. Critics, however, say the presidential power to restrict land is too great. Trump is rolling back designations President Barrack Obama made under the act.

One can only wonder what the originator of the Bully Pulpit would think of that.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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