The stock market has plunged to half its value. Unemployment has doubled. And the president struggles to rebuild the economy of a politically divided country. The scene may feel familiar to us today, but this was the world of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.
Yet, by the end of his presidency, Roosevelt could look back on a recovered economy, an assertive global presence, markets freed from monopolies and more lands and waters conserved than any president before or since.
Of those Herculean accomplishments won during tough economic times, none has brought greater benefits today than Roosevelt's attention to the nation's water, land and forest resources. Through the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and other conservation initiatives, he established a framework that continues to provide life-giving benefits to our nation's people.
For example, the Forest Service alone provides water for 123 million Americans, 3 million forestry and recreation jobs, lumber for 864,000 homes and 193 million acres for Americans to explore, hike, fish and hunt.
This year, Americans celebrate 100 years of one of Roosevelt's most important conservation achievements: the Weeks Act. This precedent-setting law sponsored by Rep. John Wingate
Weeks, a New Hampshire-bred banker and future secretary of war, created 52 National Forests east of the Mississippi - including West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest (nearly 920,000 acres) and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (of which nearly 125,000 acres are in West Virginia).
In Roosevelt's era, our eastern forests were hardly the emerald gems they are today. Poor logging practices razed vast swaths of them down to stumps. Entire mountainsides were reduced to muddy sloughs unable to hold fertile topsoil or water. The Weeks Act restored forests on 20 million acres of "lands nobody wanted" and protected the lives and livelihoods of communities across the American East.
In looking back today at President Roosevelt's conservation leadership,
Americans should recognize we have a proud legacy to uphold, and still have much work to accomplish. These main problems now jeopardize West Virginia's forests:
- First, Smokey Bear has done too good a job. The historic suppression of any and all fires by federal and state agencies has shifted our forests away from the oaks and pines that originally made up many of our forests. Many of our trees actually depend on occasional, slow-burning, low-intensity fires to release their seeds and reduce competition from other trees.
- Second, pests and invasive species also are taking their toll on forests. The American chestnut, a tree that once represented a quarter of our Appalachian forests, was nearly extirpated last century with the accidental introduction of a deadly blight found in shipping crates. Today our forests are similarly threatened with the recent invasion of the emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid.
- Another challenge to our forests is the continuing fragmentation caused by development, roads and other land uses. Not only has fragmentation contributed to the decline of native plants and animals and enabled the spreading of non-native invasives, it makes it increasingly more difficult to restore large-scale ecological processes such as managed fire.
- Finally, the growth of energy development such as shale gas and wind will potentially add to the impacts of past energy development like coal mining. With past energy development, West Virginia never comprehensively addressed how to reduce harm to our most important places. With mineral ownership oftentimes separated from surface ownership, it will be a difficult but necessary discussion to have in the face of these new energy developments.
As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was notoriously sickly and myopic. In attempts to heal his body he threw himself into the outdoors. The prescription worked, and that sickly boy grew into a rugged cowboy, a leader of Rough Riders, and ultimately, a farsighted president.
In this age of video games, text messaging and Twitter, one can imagine Roosevelt offering a similar treatment to our nation's growing population of sedentary children. If we are able to conjure the bipartisan spirit of the Weeks Act and remedy the health of our forests, maybe our forests can once again be places that foster the development of future presidents, and the health of our nation.
Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy, wrote this essay for the group's October newsletter.