Our president is presently ensconced in his natural habitat, an exclusive golf course resort in New Jersey.
This is truly sad, not merely Twitter-sad.
With this whole glorious country spread before him —from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam— our leader has chosen to embrace a fake landscape that only the well-to-do can frequent. He won’t be bumping into many wild things, or coal miners, on this trip.
It wasn’t always thus. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt left Washington and went camping in Yosemite Park with naturalist John Muir. It was just the two of them —no Secret Service or flacks, and no communication with civilization for three days. Imagine that. Teddy slept on a mattress of pine bows.
Roosevelt had been curious about the natural world since he was a boy and was a self-taught botanist and taxidermist. He brought critters home dead or alive to study. As a young adult he spent time in America’s wildest places, from the Dakota badlands to the Rocky Mountains.
Roosevelt was both a tree-hugger and a trigger-puller. In 1880s, with buffalo clearly on the brink of extinction, he set out to find and kill some of the few remaining specimens left in the Dakotas. He shot one from a great distance, but only wounded it, and he never found his target. When he managed to kill a large bull, he broke into an impromptu celebratory dance, like a wide receiver after scoring a touchdown.
A cynic might suggest that Roosevelt, who evolved into a great conservationist, only wanted to preserve wild animals so people like himself could kill them. But Teddy was more complicated than that. He loved all the things that accompanied the shooting: the pristine landscape, the camaraderie of the hunt, the creatures he wasn’t gunning for, and the challenge of enduring harsh conditions.
As a citizen scientist he understood that a healthy environment was crucial to the survival of all the world’s creatures, including his own species. He had witnessed first hand what ranching and unregulated hunting had done to the American bison.
If he hadn’t fully realized it by 1903, by the end of his three days with John Muir, Roosevelt was convinced that places like Yosemite needed to be protected or they would eventually be despoiled by the woodsman’s ax, the miner’s shovel, or the hunter’s rifle.
Over the next six years his administration spearheaded the establishment of five more national parks, 18 national monuments (such as the Grand Canyon), 55 bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and 150 national forests. He also signed the Antiquities Act, which tasks federal agencies with preserving “scientifically, culturally and historically valuable sites.” According to the National Park Service, 15 presidents from both parties have used the act to establish 170 national monuments, some under the oceans.
Our current president, who frequents golf courses and high rises almost exclusively, has asked the U.S. Interior Department to look into national monuments over 100,000 acres that have been created under the authority of the Antiquities Act act since 1996 —with an eye toward rolling back what he calls a federal “land grab.” His proposed federal budget also guts funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by a whopping 31 percent.
Roosevelt, like the current denizen of the White House, was a Republican and scion of a wealthy New York family. The similarities end there. For example, one willingly went off to war, the other demurred.
But their differences on the environment are the most glaring. One saw many of America’s wild places and historic sites as assets for future generations to enjoy. When he signed the Antiquities Act, Roosevelt told the nation: “We are not building this country for a day. It is to last through the ages.” Polls show that the vast majority of Americans today agree with that vision.
The other views public parks, monuments and forests offhandedly, as places that can be encroached upon or liquidated for immediate economic gain. In fact, his stance on climate change evinces a cavalier attitude toward the planet as a whole.
This great divide between Republicans past and present is likely to continue as long as the current president continues to vacation in the unreal world of man-made resorts.
David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.