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With This One Quotable Speech, Teddy Roosevelt Changed the Way America Thinks About Nature

In a speech at the start of the 1908 Conference of Governors, Roosevelt changed the national conversation about resource use

Roosevelt became known for meeting with conservation figures like John Muir, something that detractors thought was "unpresidential." (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for his oration.

Lines like "speak softly and carry a big stick," "the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic," and "the government is us; we are the government, you and I," have deservedly been remembered. But Roosevelt was also a conservationist, and he often put his skills to use in support of that cause.

At the Conference of Governors, held at the White House May 13-15, 1908,  state leaders met with Roosevelt and conservation authorities from across the country to discuss the question of what should be done with America’s natural resources. It might sound everyday now, but then it was something new. Roosevelt opened the conference with a speech titled “Conservation as a National Duty.”

Conservation “is the chief material question that confronts us, 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, and had “just reason” to be proud of what they had done. “But,” he went on:

...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, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.

By planning ahead, he said, these fates could be avoided. "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,” writes historian Leroy G. Dorsey, Roosevelt probably understood the significance of the social pressures that he was fighting by saying that resource use should be limited. “For centuries citizens worshipped the notion of a God-blessed virgin land that belonged to them—an ownership that allowed them unfettered use (and misuse) of the land for survival, profit, and as a means to understand American identity,” he writes.

Roosevelt had been president since 1901. During those years, according to the Department of the Interior, he had worked to establish the national park system and create national wildlife refuges. 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 riveted national attention, he writes, “and led to profound changes in American attitudes about conservation.”

The speech's most important contribution, writes historian Jessica Sheffield, was making conservation sound like "a public (rather than private) and moral (rather than economic) issue." And Roosevelt did so on a grand stage: his event involved all levels of government, she wrote, and created a spectacle for press to report on. Newspapers, which were bombarded with advance notice of the governors conference, she writes, wrote at length about the event and 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 later that year.

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