Roosevelt’s Words

By Chris Hunt, Guest Writer, 7-03-07 Visiting the nation’s capital is an exercise in contrarianism. All around the city are reminders of the righteousness of the Republic in the form of monuments and memorials to those who have shaped our country’s history, but in word and deed, the not-so-subtle stone and steel lessons these structures are meant to convey are deftly, almost skillfully, ignored.

I’ve been to Washington, D.C. a few times now, and each time I try to take in something new—a monument, a museum, a neighborhood. I’ve found the monuments to be the stuff of inspiration and national pride, but I’ve also discovered their sage advice is readily overlooked.

My last trip to D.C. further cemented that belief--I was given perhaps the most strident reminder that, no matter how many monuments we erect or memorials we construct, these edifices do not translate from ideal to action. It would seem to me that the many who choose civil service for a career are those who ought to spend a little time revisiting the messages we’ve laid out in the shrines we build to honor the great men and women from our nation’s past.

There’s a monument to one of those great men that virtually gushes with good advice, and it was there, on Theodore Roosevelt Island, that I recently gained a new appreciation for irony.

I walked a trail along the Potomac River, across a footbridge over the water and onto an island that is today managed by the National Park Service as a nature preserve (as urban wildernesses go, the island is really quite beautiful). I was with a friend of mine, and we’d spent an afternoon in nearby Georgetown unwinding after a long week of lobby visits with members of Congress and working to drum up media interest in a sportsmen-driven effort to improve energy development practices on public land in the West. My friend, a lifelong hunter and angler, once explained to me that one of his first visits to the island a couple years back resulted in an epiphany that moved him to double his efforts in his work as a conservationist.

I poked fun at him when he described his experience, jogging along the trails of the island in a D.C. in a downpour, only to emerge from a tunnel of overhanging trees right at the foot of the Theodore Roosevelt Monument, and the inscribed slabs of granite that speak largely to the importance of conserving our natural resources for the benefit of our descendants.

I didn’t take my friend too seriously--I’d been to too many monuments to do much more than simply appreciate the sentiment. The intent of a monument is wonderful. The message, though, too often gets lost in the haze.

But this one was different.

Until I, myself, stood before the bronze statue of Teddy Roosevelt, complete with the steadfast countenance and the commanding posture, one arm extended and his eyes glaring intently toward the suburb of Arlington, Va., I never really quite understood what my friend meant by the term “epiphany.”

Inspired? Sure. But mostly, I was angry. Angry that, for decades, this shrine to one of most forward-thinking leaders in world history has been literally under the noses of the politicos in Washington, and the ideals it puts forth have been summarily dismissed.

On one of the stone tablets, for the world to read, is inscribed this quote from our former president and one of the greatest conservationists the world has known: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”

We have failed mightily.

Roosevelt, in his time, also talked about the sanctity of wild places and need to keep them intact so future generations of Americans can know their country was built atop an untamed land that, to this day, continues to provide for the everyday needs of the average citizen. He talked about the importance of experiencing the wilderness, of understanding its value left just as it is, so that one day, our children’s children might wander a lonely trail into the woods and gain an understanding of wild things and wild places.

It translates well to me. It speaks of a healthy respect for the open country we have here in the West. It speaks of mountains, rock, ice, dust. It speaks of stalking wild animals and casting dry flies to trout finning in clear, cold water. It speaks of shoe leather, sweaty ballcaps, threadbare fishing vests, the smell of pine mixed with a whiff of gun oil, and lungfulls of thin air laced with damp sage.

Sadly, the things of which Teddy speaks don’t contribute much to election campaigns. They don’t lobby Congress. They don’t attend fundraising dinners and pay hundreds of dollars for a plate of lukewarm chicken Parmesan. Roosevelt’s voice, one of the first to speak on behalf of the wild and untamed heart of America, is but today an echo--a forgotten reminder etched in stone on a tiny island in the middle of a polluted river in our nation’s capital city.

Yeah, I’m angry.

I’m angry when someone tries to tell me the price of gasoline depends on our ability to drill for natural gas atop Colorado’s Roan Plateau or in the Wyoming Range, or that a new road into the backcountry is absolutely necessary for the enjoyment of the wilderness, even though the mere existence of a new road would ruin anything wild about its destination. I’m angry that oil companies, ATV manufacturers, timber companies and mining interests have been able to use our system of government to exploit the last, best places we have left. And I’m angry that many we’ve elected have chosen to mute the prophetic messages of a great man enough to make those who should be heeding his words seemingly forget he ever existed. (You can read the Roosevelt’s Words here.)

As I stood at the feet of Roosevelt with my friend, the noise of the city was far away, and I was emotionally overcome with the remorse of missed opportunity, of wonderful, unheeded advice that some even today can’t recognize in hindsight.

An epiphany? I’ll leave that to my friend--he earned it in blinding thunderstorm. Me? I’ve been blessed with some 100-year-old advice. I intend to follow it.

Editor’s note: Chris Hunt is a former newspaper editor in Idaho, and now works for Trout Unlimited’s Public Lands Initiative.