by Joseph Wallace
Who are the early heroes of the American conservation movement? For many of us, the history of environmentalism in this country doesn't go much further back than Edward Abbey, whose burly activism reminded us that the U.S.'s natural treasures were worth fighting for. Perhaps some look further into the past, to Rachel Carson, who shook us out of the 1950s lethargy that allowed us to believe that rampant pesticide use had no downside. And maybe some of us even remember the way Aldo Leopold's stirring, passionate journals inspired a new generation of conservationists in the 1940s.
But as for earlier heroes...hmmm...how about Teddy Roosevelt? After all, as President, he established the nation's first national parks and put into place the system that would eventually lead to a network of parks, preserves, and refuges across the country. He was--and was famous for being--an avid birder, hiker, explorer, and amateur naturalist. We've never had another President who spent so much time in the world's wild places.
Yet in recent years, Roosevelt's reputation as a conservationist has taken a beating. Why? Because his image has been reduced to that of a man carrying a big stick or, even more often, a gun. It's true: Roosevelt loved to hunt. He traveled the world, shooting elk, elephants, tapirs, whatever he could focus his gunsights on. Today, those habits are impossible to reconcile with an image as an environmentalist. How could such an enthusiastic killer be celebrated today?
And how about Carl Akeley? Nearly forgotten today, this man, a collector for New York's American Museum of Natural History in the 1910s and '20s, was the single individual most responsible for the establishment of Africa's first national park: Prince Albert National Park in the Belgian Congo (which now exists as a network of parks in Zaire, Rwanda, and Uganda). Akeley's mission in getting the park established was to protect the mountain gorilla and other endangered wildlife of the central African rainforests. We might not be fighting to save the last gorillas today if Akeley hadn't fought for the same cause seventy years ago.
But, like Teddy Roosevelt, Carl Akeley was a hunter. In fact, he's the man who shot the gorillas now on display at the museum. When he's remembered at all today, it tends to be as a Great White Hunter, an embarrassing relic of the past. Entire book chapters have been written about his bloodthirsty qualities.
I'm no hunter--I can't imagine ever pulling a trigger to kill some poor animall--but I think it's a shame that current standards exclude men like Roosevelt and Akeley from the pantheon of environmental heroes. More importantly, I believe that same revulsion makes us turn our backs on some of the movement's natural allies today, crippling our ability to reach our goals. Whenever I travel, particularly to the American West, I meet Roosevelt-style conservationists, men and women who love to hunt yet also treasure the wilderness they hunt in.
One man, whom I met at the Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte Swamp Preserve in Montana, would spend a month each fall tracking elk with a bow an arrow in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Some years he wouldn't kill an elk, but some years he would. (If, as I did, you think that bow-hunting is somehow "cleaner" than using a gun, remember that you're much more likely to severely wound, but not immediately kill, an animal with an arrow than a bullet).
Yet this man, this hunter, is one of the most passionate spokesman for the preservation of true wilderness I have ever met. Not only that, he votes in Montana, where his vote might actually count for something. And he's not alone--he's part of a group fighting to save those areas in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and other states that, without such opposition, will be opened to mining, logging, or other uses that are infinitely more destructive than hunting.
That's the crux, isn't it: Today, sport hunting is not a threat to any species in the continental United States (the world?). In fact, throughout modern history, the true villains have been market hunting and bounty hunting--as well as pollution and habitat destruction, of course. Teddy Roosevelt knew this a century ago, while also recognizing how important sport hunters could be to the preservation of wildlife.
Roosevelt said that those who opposed any hunting of any sort at any time were leaving the entire conservation movement open to attack. Such stiff-necked opposition, he wrote in 1914, tended "to make people, in their contempt for such folly, include in that contempt the whole movement for the protection of wildlife."
I remember reading an article in the Village Voice, probably a decade ago, that declared the environmental movement moribund. The only hope for revival, the writer said, was for mainstream environmentalists to compromise less, to adopt the moral superiority that characterized the animal-rights movement. I'm wondering: Is either the environmental movement or the environment itself in such good shape today that we can afford to set our moral standards so high? Is our goal actually saving whatever we can of what's left, or merely feeling good about ourselves as we watch our efforts fail?
Joseph Wallace is a freelance writer living in Pleasantville, New York. His latest book is The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs.
Copyright 1995 Joseph Wallace