Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TR to the Fore. No Private Future

At the beginning of the new century, there was no Forest Service, no Park Service. That is to say, there were no professionals, trained, experienced, and/or educated into occupations directly relevant to administering certain types of public lands. A new book by Timothy Egan (The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America, 2009) gives us a wham-bam picture of the Progressivism of one century ago with TR (as I will call him here), Gifford Pinchot, and the beginnings of the Forest Service, doing battle with the evil ones who tried to throttle public land management in its cradle. A new century, a new president, a new American ideology, new, new, new.

Yet, there was the General Land Office with those forests and lands still in its hands. It is possible to give GLO some praise. We have met some of its field employees. The prevailing laws and ethos for a century had been to move public lands into private hands. All too willing, and often soiled, grasping, hands. The notion of forest RESERVES and NATIONAL parks was a joke, an oxymoron, an offense against common sense and human nature. Yet the GLO, with little incentive, did recognize the Grand Canyon as a public place, not just another carcass to be offered up for carving. And what the Progressives did, led most publicly by the trumpeting TR, was to clear space and imbed the notion of permanent National, Public, Lands as a pillar of American governance. Egan chooses a great 1910 fire in the forests of Idaho/Montana to tell this story. The emergence of the Grand Canyon National Park tells it as well.

So far in our story, I would make these divisions:
Decade I: Powell, with Harrison fronting, begets the Grand Cañon Forest Reserve.
Decade II: Bureaucratic dithering; the idea of a National Park gains adherents.

These years also give us the elements to help imagine a land base divided up among private parties. The prospectors and mine developers had free and wide access: down at the river, on mid-level mesas, along the rim. Not just holes and tunnels and trails, also structures and industrial machinery. And almost always, these were accompanied by efforts to attract the tourists that were arriving, what was increasing into a spread from Grandview to the westerly Bass holdings. Logging, not yet industrial strength, was part of any mining or tourist operation. Cattle had been grazed (there were ranches) for over twenty years. The development and chicanery around the Bright Angel trail was being sanctified by the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad and its grandiose plans to civilize the rim with tasteful architecture. As at the Tusayan inholding today, there was no regulation. Whatever anyone wanted to boom and boost, and could raise dollars for, he could do. Remoteness and lack of water may add to cost, but as we know well, industrial mass tourism destroys distance and sucks in water and other necessary resources. Unrestricted private action at the Grand Canyon would have spread east, west, and north, down and up and along. The future I projected had dams been built (see Sep 22 entry "Dam the Future!") would have begun and proliferated 70 years earlier. Indeed, even on public land protected for over a century, government agencies and protected concessions have degraded TR's vision, allowing us to have a taste of what is wrought by Canyon-insensitive, penurious, short-sighted development. The worst was prevented; the best has been avoided.

So now:
Decade III: Bully for action!

Here are some specific date markers for TR:
Sep 1901: He becomes President
May 1903: As part of a western tour, TR goes to and into the Grand Canyon, leaving it exhausted
Feb 1905: Transfer Act places National Forests (nee Forest Reserves) under Gifford Pinchot's Forest Service in the Dept. of Agriculture
Jun-Nov 1906: Legislation and proclamation by TR creates a Game Preserve in the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve (sic)
Jun 1906: Act passed for the preservation of American antiquities
Jan 1908: Using the antiquities Act, TR proclaims the first Grand Canyon National Monument, co-existing with the Grand Canyon National Forest
1909: TR leaves office. WHTaft President; new Secretary of the Interior; neither a conservationist.

Let TR set the tone. Here is that iconic speech of May 6 1903 as "reported"(but see below) by The New York Sun the next day:

I have come here to see the Grand Cañon of Arizona, because in that cañon Arizona has a natural wonder, which, so far as I know, is in its kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I shall not attempt to describe it, because I cannot. I could not choose words that would convey or that could convey to any outsider what that cañon is. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest, and in the interest of the country.
Keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.
I was delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe Railroad in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the cañon. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the cañon.
Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see. Keep the Grand Canyon as it is.

What more could a friend of the Canyon ask for? And how we have used this quote! TR knew what the seemingly small, incremental actions of individuals could do, even to this out-of-sight natural feature. He understood exactly how to approach the Canyon, unfiltered and without "improvements" by private or public action. I would like to believe that when he admonished us to beware our tendencies to "mar" places and urged us to keep it for our children, he saw a future for the Canyon where people, passing through a natural scene and coming to the rim, were awed, transported, curious, educated, and all the other mental gymnastics that come when we deal with course-changing events.

So, did he say it? Although my search is not yet over, I am always a bit suspicious when Reference A footnotes Reference B that is footnoted by Reference C that … eventually, is referencing A. We can picture the scene: TR, fresh out of the Canyon and chatting with the locals, takes the chance to lecture, improve, and inspire. A reporter, traveling with the TR tour or a local stringer, standing on the edge of the crowd, takes down the words in a rush; maybe he has shorthand. He hands in the telegram at the new Santa Fe station, and wired off to the New York newspaper, the words are immortalized. And forgotten; at least for some decades until bit by bit they resurface in the 1960's, when the fight over the dams was fiercest. I don't want to be a skeptic; my researches here are just too shallow, and so for now it is best to leave it as it is, a vigorous punchy speech that presented his, and all Canyon friends', vision of the future we want the Grand Canyon to have.

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