The Democratization of Conservation

We have much to worry about in western North Dakota these days. I try to limit my worrying to the dangers posed by unbridled oil development to the countryside and its residents, both domestic and wild in the part of the state in which I grew up and have lived most of my life.

Many are worried about it. Tomorrow, the state’s top leaders will let us know if they are worried as well, when the Industrial Commission   decides at least the near-term the fate of a whole bunch of “extraordinary places.”

            No one believes the Bad Lands, or Bullion Butte, or the Little Missouri River, are going to go away. Many believe that unless we pay more careful attention to them, though, they are going to be irreversibly harmed. One of those men is Shane Mahoney.

            Shane Mahoney has never been to North Dakota, although I have invited him here, and he promises if his travels take him this way, he will stop.  Mr. Mahoney is the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Biodiversity, Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, headquartered in St. John’s Newfoundland. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute of Biodiversity, Ecosystem Science and Sustainability there. He is widely recognized as a leading authority on North American conservation history and policy and has been in the forefront of debates on issues of sustainable use within both the United States and Canada. He lectures widely to conservation organizations in the U.S. You can learn more about him here.

            I recently came across part 1 of an essay he has written recently on the “democratization of conservation.” Mr. Mahoney has given me permission to share it with you, and also part 2 when it is published. I’m sharing part 1 right now because his message is timely here, and because we can all relate to the man who, he says, truly democratized conservation: Theodore Roosevelt.

By Shane Mahoney

Wild nature staggers today before the onslaught of human population growth and the loss of habitat. Never in the geologic history of planet earth has the wondrous fabric of life been so torn and diminished. We live in the tidal swirl of disappearance, diminishment and extinction, racing beneath wild seas, across expansive savannahs and amid deep forests—indeed throughout all landforms and ecological systems. The patterns are evident in countries of wealth and of poverty; of nations powerful and weak; of cultures old and new; of societies learned and those yet striving for literacy—indeed all of mankind—white, black, yellow and red. Nature’s recession is a lesson in democratic decline. Nature’s recovery will be realized by democratic resurgence, the commitment of the many, and the engagement of the citizen-leader.

On September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley who was attending the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. The president died of his wounds a week later, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the nation’s 26th president. Through these tragic events, the course of American history changed.  For North American conservation, it was changed irrevocably. Beyond question in the area of natural history, Theodore Roosevelt was the most learned of American presidents (with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson), and with respect to enacting policies for the protection of wildlife and their habitats, he remains indisputably the greatest. His tenure marked a crucial turning point for wildlife in North America. It emerged from its era of wanton destruction into one of conservation and restoration—a philosophical and practical overture remarkable for its power and longstanding authority.

Hunter, naturalist and scholar, Theodore Roosevelt made concern for wild nature a respectable study for political elites and for political agendas. This, beyond any other, was his greatest achievement. While it is common for writers and historians to emphasize his policies and legislation for wildlife, it was the cultural change he made in the political mindset toward conservation that has the limitless power for improvement and progression. Because of this, the already emerging public concern for wildlife, spearheaded by hunters and anglers throughout both the United States and Canada, could now find acceptance in legislatures and political meetings, forging a chain of action that linked local grassroots and everyday concerns for nature with corridors of power. Thus did the democratization of conservation occur. Hunters drove the debate at their community levels, and America’s most prominent citizen-hunter, President Roosevelt, made it a national and international priority. Seldom had the potential of democracy to befit all citizens been so concretely defined.

Like all aspects of democracy, however, the common good is attained by the individual effort, and in his individual striving for wildlife conservation, Roosevelt set an example for us all, hunter and non-hunter alike. During his presidency (1901-1909), the national forests were expanded by some 150 million acres—five national parks (including Sully’s Hill National Park in North Dakota, which later became Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve, located just south of Devils Lake) and 18 national monuments were established, 51 federal bird reserves were created, along with four game preserves. But even these incredible endowments—and inheritance of inestimable wealth proclaimed for the citizenry of the time and for generations unborn—do not complete Theodore Roosevelt’s achievements in conservation. In 1887 he was instrumental in founding the long influential Boone and Crockett Club, and in 1908, organized the first ever Conference on Conservation, bringing together the governors of states and the leadership of organizations and societies concerned with wildlife’s welfare. For the first time in the history of the New World, a national gathering was called to advance the idea of resource conservation, rather than exploitation. Determined from that meeting was a “Conservation Pledge,” a short hymn for the wild beauty and abundance of the American landscape and a call for citizen action to protect it. This doctrine was eventually disseminated to schools and agencies throughout the United States.

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