Jon Christensen: The White House and Conservation

Roundup: Historians' Take

Never before has an administration done so much for conservation by doing so little. The Bush administration is holding a White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation in St. Louis, next week, Monday through Wednesday, August 29-31.

That this administration is holding this conference at the end of August says something about the priority it puts on conservation. Not much. President Bush clearly has bigger issues on his agenda, even in Idaho, where he has been vacationing in the land of big scenic conservation this week.

But there is a cadre of free market, less is more, policy wonks in the Interior Department under Gale Norton, led by former Reason editor Lynn Scarlett, for whom this is their time to put their revolution in conservation on the map.

And they have made their mark all over the map of the United States: from New York City's watersheds, to the nation's largest military test and training complex on the Florida Gulf Coast, to the brownfields of Philly and the brown river of Detroit, to the vineyards and wide open spaces of the West, the oyster beds of the Puget Sound, and the coral reefs of Hawaii....

The current administration invokes a long tradition of White House conferences on conservation started by Teddy Roosevelt's Governors' Conference on Conservation in 1908, and continued most auspiciously by JFK and his interior secretary Steward Udall with the 1962 White House Conference on Conservation, and then by LBJ and, more importantly Lady Bird, and their White House Conference on Natural Beauty in 1965. In the past few days, historians have also pointed me to Calvin Coolidge's National Conference on Outdoor Recreation in 1924 and 1926, and the 1953 Mid-Century Conference on Resources for the Future at which Dwight Eisenhower gave the keynote address.

Are there others I'm missing?

There are two things that jump out at me from comparing this history to the list of projects and approaches that will be the focus of the upcoming White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation.

The first is that energy has been moved off the table. Conservation of the resources that go into producing energy is no longer part of this discussion. That's a big gap. But there are similar decentralized trends in energy conservation, in no small measure because the federal government has also declined to play a central role in that field.

The second is that many of the same core issues have run through all of the White House conferences on conservation: the special role that America's vast public lands have played in our history, their importance today and for the future; the realization that, for better or worse, often with limited understanding of the consequences, we are managing wildlife; that recreation has steadily grown to become the biggest way that most people have a relationship with nature, wildlife and conservation; and that people who work on the land have an invaluable and irreplaceable understanding of conservation.

What has changed? That's what I'm going to find out. I have some ideas. I'd love to hear yours.

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