Theodore Roosevelt IV is a Managing Director in Investment Banking at Barclays Capital. He is the great-grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt and carries on the former president's commitment to conservation. Among his many civic responsibilities, Mr. Roosevelt is Co-Chair of the Presidential Climate Action Project's National Advisory Committee, Chair of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Trustee of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a member of the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society (United States), and a Trustee for the American Museum of Natural History, the World Resources Institute, and The Cultural Institutions Retirement System. He is also a Counselor for the China–U.S. Center for Sustainable Development.May 26, 2020
Eighteen years ago, serendipity took me to the banks of the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Getting there was not easy. I joined a friend in Fairbanks, intending to charter a small plane to fly over the Brooks Range to meet other friends on the Kongakut. Well, intense storms waylaid us to – and nearly stranded us in – Prudhoe Bay. God may have been setting me up for contrast: the work of human hands versus His.
Prudhoe Bay is essentially an industrial site. Oil fields cover more than 200,000 acres with over 1000 wells, pumping stations, roads, drilling pads, transit lines, processing plants and the origin of the huge Alyeska Pipeline. The visual impact of the site on what had been an unsullied wilderness was profoundly disturbing. Thankfully, through improvisation and local good will, my friend and I were able to acquire a small plane and escape to our intended destination. We landed on the gravel banks of the Kongakut River with the eerie midnight sun as guide. Our friends welcomed us warmly with cold beer.
Around 2:00 at night, tucked gratefully away from the cold in a sleeping bag and tent, a strange symphony roused me – staccato clicks, deep grunts, and gentle mewing. Puzzled, I got up and opened my tent. Flowing around our three tents were countless caribou cows with their calves like salmon swimming upstream around big boulders. When I stepped out of my tent the cows were not unduly alarmed, they just gave my tent a wider berth. Each cow made a strategic decision as she crossed the Kongakut River: cross where it was wide and braided or narrow and deep with swift water. If they chose the latter option, their calf was likely to be swept away and possibly drown. With that observation came the realization that the harsh environment exacted a steep toll on the caribou. How much greater would it be if we opened the coastal plain to drilling and replicated a version of Prudhoe Bay?
Among the losses: this great migration under the midnight sun, yes; one of the last truly wild places, yes; also a unique human culture, the indigenous Gwitch’in would lose their way of life. Is this the choice we want to make: the ephemeral sourcing of energy over an eternal landscape? Sadly, the Trump Administration has now opened the Coastal Plain of ANWR to drilling. It is an obscene decision; one for which we have been laying tracks for a long time.
We are coming full cycle in a decades-long series of economic disruptions and cultural dislocations for which coastal elites are partly responsible, and which they ignored to their peril. A lack of understanding and willingness to address the costs of globalization, technology, and poor education for too many Americans has resulted in a political backlash that led to this Administration. What has been unresolved and neglected now needs to be faced and addressed more adequately and with more respect for differing views and ways of life. Conservation must become – in short – truly bipartisan. Or, it will fail. That means that we must be willing to consider solutions generated from those living closest to the resource. Rural communities continue to support President Trump, despite the toll taken on them by the ongoing trade wars. As they tell me, they see his policies as a temporary disruption versus liberal policies which they fear will erase them from the landscape.
Much of our rhetoric around climate change rings an ill-considered death knell for rural ways of life. The opposition to pastoralists is one of the most misguided climate change prescriptions, even as scientists increasingly find that it is the plains that hold the greatest possibility for carbon sequestration. The problem in terms of improving the health of that ecosystem? Removing people and herds from it are a dead end. Those lands require well managed grazing by herbivores, which are also instrumental in helping reduce the tinder load on national forests. In short, environmentalists ceded solidarity with rural working people to Trump. We failed to re-member: there are also people in these places – with histories and families and cultures and ways of life as valuable to them and our nation as any other.
Under the umbrella of rural economic restoration and cultural protection from environmentalists, Trump’s land use policies are now at full destructive throttle:
The most obvious example of this is the Administration’s opposition to the science of climate change. Even the scientists on the Environmental Protection Agency Advisory Board, appointed by the Administration, disagree with several of the most far reaching decisions taken by the administration to weaken existing environmental regulations, including curbing vehicle tailpipe emissions, and restricting the use of scientific data to draft health regulations. The longer we delay in the response to climate, the higher the cost.
Nature and humankind will not be saved solely by the preservation of public lands in Alaska and the West, but they are a vital part of a mosaic of ecosystems that must remain resilient and intact in the face of climate dislocations and upheavals. Place by specific place, with good will, local knowledge and input, and human application, we need to ensure optimum health in our land and water systems, as well as for the rural communities dependent on them. We cannot afford to draw down natural capital; we must be building it up. That often means investment in the communities dependent on these resources, who are best positioned to defend and restore them.
This Administration has the least interest in conservation or the environment of any prior administration. I am not certain that Trump can change, but we can. We can open the door to better conversations with one another and with Congress. We are not a people who sacrifice what endures for what is ephemeral. We can stand with ranchers and the health of the high plains; we can stand with the Gwitch’in people as they follow the world’s longest migration; we can stand with what we love and what has always inspired us: the great sweeping places that once built greatness in us.