Make no mistake, the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is a historic conservation victory, decades in the making, of which Roosevelt would’ve been proud. The overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation, which will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and devotes $9.5 billion towards restoring crumbling recreational infrastructure in our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, Indigenous schools and public lands, will forever bear Trump’s seismograph signature.
But let’s come back to reality. Presidential conservation legacies are not defined by individual bills. They are a mosaic of actions, efforts and values.
Roosevelt earned his conservation legacy through hundreds of actions advancing “the great central task of leaving this land even a better land.” While he was far from perfect, holding the racist belief that White Americans were the “forward race,” Roosevelt’s conservation legacy — conserving 230 million acres by creating 150 national forests, 55 bird and mammal refuges, 18 national monuments and five national parks — transformed nascent concepts of conservation into treasured public landscapes that sustain us today.
Rather than build upon this foundation, the Trump administration has continuously eroded it. It reversed 100 environmental protections and proposed deep cuts for conservation programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. But the most direct assault on Roosevelt’s lifework is the administration’s insatiable demand for fossil fuel and mineral extraction to the exclusion of all else. It has driven unprecedented leasing of public lands and waters, motivated historic destruction of national monuments, undermined collaborative conservation efforts, greenlit devastating projects in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and the Arctic, and put at grave risk the outdoor recreation that powers local economies. It has threatened awe-inspiring places important to Roosevelt himself, including Superior National Forest’s Boundary Waters, the greater Grand Canyon and Manti-La Sal National Forest’s Bears Ears.
The Trump administration’s Orwellian justification for pursuing energy dominance is to misappropriate Roosevelt’s quote, “conservation means development as much as it does protection,” always failing to acknowledge that the rest of his “New Nationalism” speech abhorred the waste or exploitation of natural resources “monopolized for the benefit of the few.” The administration’s reckless liquidation of public resources for private gain bears no semblance to Roosevelt’s ethic of sustainable wise use for current and future generations.
The latest affront to Roosevelt’s legacy is Trump’s nomination of William Perry Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Despite his zealotry for selling off all public lands, his affinity for armed vigilantes and his anti-Black and anti-Native American writings, Pendley was elevated last year to serve as the unconfirmed acting head of the BLM, responsible for managing 245 million acres of land and leading 11,600 employees. Now that he has been formally nominated, senators should unite to reject his dangerous ascension to the post, just as they joined to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.
The measure of any president’s legacy requires weighing conservation and restoration efforts against short-term exploitation of natural resources. For this administration, signing the Great American Outdoors Act and the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, investing in wildlife corridors and expanding access, will forever be dwarfed by the tens of millions of acres of public lands and waters degraded, pollution increased, Indigenous sites desecrated, recreational opportunities forsaken and wildlife pushed toward extinction.
Enacting the Great American Outdoors Act is an outstanding, bipartisan conservation achievement for the history books, but let’s not delude ourselves: Mr. President, you’re no Theodore Roosevelt.
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