At 7:00 a.m. on Friday I arrived at the steps of the Department of Interior and joined a line of other conference participants waiting to enter to attend the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors. It was a special day. I was one of 500 people from around the nation who would continue a 102 year old tradition started by the White House under President Theodore Roosevelt.
The first White House Conference was actually a Conference of Governors, called by President Theodore Roosevelt to consider the problems of conservation of natural resources. It was held at the White House May 13-15, 1908, and attended by the governors of the states and territories, the members of the Supreme Court and the Cabinet, scientists and various national leaders.
On the first day, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the opening address, “Conservation as a National Duty.” He explained to the attendees that “the occasion for the meeting lies in the fact that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue.” The conference served to place conservation issues before the public and stimulated a large number of private and state-level conservation initiatives. The declaration of the conservation conference was issued May 15, 1908 http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/
eight/conconf.htm It was a progressive document for its time. Wetlands, however, didn’t fare as well as many other natural resources in the declaration. That would be a task for future generations.
The conference was a watermark event for conservation in the United States; it brought the issue to public attention in a highly visible way. The conference led to the creation of the National Conservation Commission composed of representatives from the states and federal agencies as well as the First National Conservation Congress, an assembly of private conservation interests.
Succeeding Presidents would continue the tradition of holding a White House conference on conservation including John F. Kennedy (Remarks on the White House Conference on Conservation – 1962) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8684 ) Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton and most recently George W. Bush http://cooperativeconservation.gov/conference805home.html
Fast forward to 2010.
Usually if a conference can attract a cabinet secretary or one or two other high ranking officials, they show up about 15 minutes before their speech, make their presentation and leave. I understand this. They have incredibly busy schedules.
High ranking officials do not stay. They do not personally moderate panels. They do not wander in and out of breakout sessions listening to ideas brainstormed by individuals from all over the country.
Except last Friday they did.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson were all full participants in the daylong meeting. Nancy Sutley and Ken Salazar both joined my afternoon breakout session for a while. They all shared jokes. They wandered through the audience. They listened.
The President himself showed up to make a speech and sign a memorandum directing his administration to:
1) Reconnect Americans, especially children to America’s
2) Build upon state, local, private and tribal priorities for
conservation by determining how the federal government
can help and
3) Use science-based management practices to restore and
protect our lands and waters for future generations
To understand changes in national policies, it is important to not only listen to what governments say, but to also know how what they say differs from the past. This is because high level actions require many reviews and clearances. It takes a lot of work to get agreement about changes. It’s much easier to stick as closely as possible to the status quo. By spending an entire day engaged in discussions, Vilsack, Salazar, Nutley and Jackson demonstrated they were seriously committed to this work. The memorandum demonstrated that the entire Administration is expected to follow suit.
Conservation of natural resources including wetlands is important to Americans. But conservation will only happen if citizens value and care for these resources. They can’t care for something they don’t know. What’s different about this White House Conference is the high priority given to finding meaningful ways to give everyone the chance to learn about America’s great outdoors through their own experience. And then to engage in developing solutions.
What’s at stake? Well in the words of Teddy Roosevelt–
“We of an older generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship; but in your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted…. So any nation which in its youth lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal whose labor could with difficulty find him the bare means of life.”
President Obama’s Speech on America’s Great Outdoors site (video): http://www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors/
Presidential Memorandum – America’s Great Outdoors
White House site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/04/16/creating-a-21st-century-strategy-americas-outdoors
Department of Interior site: http://www.doi.gov/news/doinews/2010_04_16_newsA.cfm