A historical departure

It was really not so long ago that a U.S. president devoted his administration to protecting the nation’s forests, plains and wildlife. Against the protests of the country’s biggest corporations, he protected historic sites, preserved the nation’s great open spaces and made conservation of natural resources one of the federal government’s top priorities. And that president was a Republican.

Teddy Roosevelt is probably better known today for leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill than for likening free-flying birds to artistic masterpieces. But while the Spanish-American War has been reduced to textbook paragraphs, Roosevelt’s greater legacy is the 230 million acres of land he placed under government protection in national forests, bird reservations, game preserves and national parks and monuments.

Unfortunately, the nation’s 43rd president seems to have little regard for the cause the 26th administration championed. Documents released by the Energy Department on Tuesday reveal Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with more than 100 energy industry executives and lobbyists while formulating the George W. Bush administration’s national energy policy last year, but he failed to meet with any representatives from environmental organizations.

Although the merits of particular environmental proposals can be questioned, this perspective at least deserved to be heard by the energy secretary. Even if the Bush administration had already considered and rejected the arguments environmentalists would likely make, those views at least deserve the courtesy extended to their opponents in industry – with whose perspective the president is no doubt just as familiar. That, after all, is the duty of a democratically elected president who is supposed to represent all Americans.

Teddy Roosevelt’s view of his duty to all Americans extended beyond current citizens to those “unborn generations” still “within the womb of time.” Their needs, he believed, were weightier than corporations’ temporary interests. “The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method,” he wrote in a 1916 book. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt held true to this philosophy and outmaneuvered the industry lobbyists of his day.

Of the founding of the National Forest System, for example, Roosevelt wrote gleefully in his autobiography that “when the friends of the special interests in the Senate Ö woke up, they discovered that sixteen million acres of timberland had been saved for the people by putting them in the National Forests before the land grabbers could get at them.”

Sadly, the Bush administration appears to believe the advocates for ensuring that the natural resources fueling industry today are still abundant in the future do not even deserve acknowledgment. In seeking the counsel of industrial leaders and ignoring those whose interests in environmental resources are, individually, less tangible, Bush has fallen far from the views of his fellow Republican’s concern for all Americans’ future.