It's President's Day weekend on an environmental blog site. What could be better than highlighting the good stewardship deeds of America's chief executives?
Let's run through several of the better-known accomplishments, and then turn off the beaten path.
Theodore Roosevelt ... 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 bird and game reservations, 150 national forests established or enlarged. Check.
Fifteen presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, have used the Antiquities Act to protect great American natural and historic treasures. Check.
Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing Yellowstone National Park, America's first. Check.
Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. Check.
Jimmy Carter secured passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which doubled the size of our national parks and wildlife refuge systems. Check.
Now, let's talk about Rutherford B. Hayes. Rutherford who? Hayes was one of those obscure 19th century presidents with facial hair who left faint marks on our collective memory. History buffs will recall that Hayes, the Republican governor of Ohio, entered office in 1877 following the disputed election of 1876, whose ugliness made the 2000 affray seem like an ice cream social. The ill-mannered among Hayes' Democratic opponents referred to our 19th president as "Rutherfraud."
Hayes, with an earnest and upright reputation, pulled remaining federal troops out of the South, instituted civil service reforms, banned alcoholic beverages from the White House, and kept his promise to serve only one term.
Hayes also appointed Carl Schurz, a former Missouri senator and German immigrant, as his secretary of the Interior. In the days when management of extractable resources on federal lands could charitably be described as loose, Schurz laid the groundwork for establishing national forests and putting public timberlands under professional management.
In an 1889 speech, long after he had left office, Schurz recalled what passed for federal timber management when he took over at the Interior Department: "I observed the notion that the public forests were everybody's property, to be taken and used or wasted as anybody pleased, everywhere in full operation. I observed enterprising timber thieves not merely stealing trees, but stealing whole forests. I observed hundreds of sawmills in full blast, devoted exclusively to the sawing up of timber stolen from the public lands."
Schurz saw to the hiring of federal agents to run the thieves off public lands. He pushed unsuccessfully for legislation to withdraw federal timber lands from sale, regulate timber cutting, and impose fines and jail time for deliberately or accidentally setting forests on fire.
He warned about the consequences of resource mismanagement and depletion. In Schurz's day, as he recalled in his 1889 speech, conservation critics sneered at learning the lessons other countries had learned the hard way about forest depletion. To his critics, Schurz said: "Let me say to you that the laws of nature are the same everywhere. Whoever violates them anywhere, must always pay the penalty. No country ever so great and rich, no nation ever so powerful, inventive and enterprising can violate them with impunity." One can imagine Schurz's voice thundering across time in response to the sneers of today's arrogant anti-conservationists.
Schurz's conservation ideas bore fruit in 1891, when the Forest Reserve Act was enacted. The new law authorized presidents to establish forest reserves on public lands. Six years later, Congress passed legislation specifying the reserves' purposes: to protect watersheds and secure timber supplies from depletion. Between 1891 and 1901, Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley established 30 million acres of forest reserves. Theodore Roosevelt quintupled the size of what became known as the national forests system, which today, including national grasslands, covers 193 million acres.
Carl Schurz, the mostly forgotten Interior secretary for the mostly forgotten President Hayes, helped set this conservation achievement in motion.
There's your President's Day conservation lesson. Enjoy the weekend.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.