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Defying Conservationist Ethics


By Karrah Johnston, Volume 101 Staff Member

Over the course of his presidential campaign, President Donald Trump routinely championed former President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy. Trump continually asserted that he would follow in the “great environmentalist[’s]” footsteps by bolstering domestic production of energy resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas.[1] He fiercely advocated for expanded energy production by curtailing restraints on producing such energy resources from public lands within the United States.[2] This campaign commitment was seemingly solidified when the Trump administration updated the White House website with its proposed energy plan within hours of the President’s inauguration.[3] The President’s America First Energy Plan derides regulations for damaging American wages and promotes developing domestic energy resources, noting that “[w]e must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”[4] Despite President Trump’s eager assertions, his proposed energy policies and enthusiasm for increased energy production on federal lands would likely be reviled by Roosevelt.

Interestingly, various commentators and politicians alike have noticed numerous similarities between President Trump and Teddy Roosevelt extending beyond the realm of energy procurement on public lands. Both are New Yorkers known for praising the merits of physicality and strength, as well as ardent nationalists conveying an outsider spirit, with the capacity for directing populist rage, and the ability to utilize the media as a weapon.[5] However, beyond these comparable characteristics, Roosevelt was a staunch utilitarian conservationist, elevating conservation to a prominent level in national discourse.[6] That is, Roosevelt fervently urged that natural resources should be sustainably managed, as future generations have the same rights to these limited resources that present generations do.[7] Although Roosevelt encouraged the utilization of the nation’s natural resources, he was particularly wary of the growth of corporate power and its ability to influence the democratic process.[8] Roosevelt advocated for conservation as a means of curbing corporations and trusts, viewing conservation “as a fulfillment of the democratic ideal” in its assurance that present generations would not irretrievably disturb precious resources to the detriment of future generations.[9] Even amongst the present generations, Roosevelt noted the moral imperative of conservation, proclaiming that “natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.”[10] Many members of Roosevelt’s own party harshly fought and criticized him for “locking up” a perceived excess of federal land from timber procurement and mineral development.[11] He clearly was not a zealous advocate for energy production at all costs or as a means of simply benefitting big business interests.

Apart from an intention to further develop energy resources on public lands, the Trump administration’s America First Energy Plan is largely vague as to how it will accomplish its numerous lofty and conflicting goals of energy security, clean coal technology, air and water protections, and “responsible stewardship of the environment.”[12] Although the Trump administration’s rhetoric about returning to sound energy principles by utilizing energy resources procured from federal lands suggests that such lands were off limits to energy exploration for the past eight years, the Obama presidency actually supported increased oil and gas drilling and “failed to significantly limit industry’s access to the public’s vast fossil fuel resources.”[13] While the Obama administration largely focused on reducing greenhouse gases and promoting renewable energy alternatives, the administration did ultimately increase protections of public lands.[14] In November 2016, the Bureau of Land Management—tasked with managing federal oil and gas activities on its public lands—promulgated a new regulation requiring existing oil and gas producers to dramatically reduce the venting, flaring, and leaks of gases, many of which are harmful to the environment and contribute to climate change.[15] This regulation has already been targeted by the U.S. House of Representatives, suggesting that it may be one of the first policies the Trump administration seeks to undo in paving the way for broader access and utilization of energy production on public lands.[16]

Severing regulations in an attempt to open federal lands to increased oil and gas drilling at the expense of the environment and future generations is antithetical to the conservationist spirit espoused by Roosevelt. Roosevelt was vigilant about overreaching corporations, attacking the monopoly power of the world’s largest oil company, whereas President Trump selected the Exxon Mobil CEO to serve as his administration’s Secretary of State.[17] Roosevelt explicitly considered conservation ethics to be a moral imperative for all humankind, invoking a “patriotic duty” to prevent the depletion of vital resources so that future generations could enjoy them as well.[18] Roosevelt proclaimed that conserving the vitality of our nation’s lands and resources was of the utmost importance, stating that:

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on.[19]

Meanwhile, President Trump purports to be a Roosevelt adherent while repeatedly contending that pressing environmental concerns such as climate change are nothing but a hoax.[20] It is incomprehensible that Roosevelt would support unnecessary expansion of domestic energy on public lands by slashing regulations intended to reduce massive methane emissions while also improving air quality and human health.[21] If the Trump administration pursues its domestic energy plan by cutting such regulations, it will exacerbate already alarming climate change obstacles.[22] Given Roosevelt’s passionate rhetoric that there is a moral responsibility for current generations to leave our land and resources in the same condition, if not better, for future eras to equally enjoy, it is utterly inconceivable that Roosevelt would support the Trump administration’s plans for unfettered access to deplete energy resources on the nation’s cherished public lands. Such proposed actions will not only threaten the lands themselves, but also the quality of life for future generations.

  1. Jennifer Yachnin, Trump Vows to Honor “the Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt”, E&E Daily (Dec. 7, 2016),
  2. Id.
  3. See Bobby Magill, Decoding Trump’s White House Energy Plan, Climate Central (Jan. 20, 2017),
  4. An America First Energy Plan, White House, (last visited Feb. 24, 2017).
  5. Evan Fazio, Is Trump the New Teddy Roosevelt?, Chi. Trib. (Feb. 7, 2017),; Cristiano Lima, Boehner: Trump “Reminds Me of Teddy Roosevelt”, Politico (Dec. 7, 2016),; James W. Ingram III, How Donald Trump Compares to Teddy Roosevelt, San Diego Union-Trib. (Feb. 24, 2016),
  6. Jim DiPeso & Tom Pelikan, The Republican Divide on Wilderness Policy, 33 Golden Gate U.L. Rev. 339, 348, 350 (2003). During his presidency, Roosevelt expanded the acreage of national forests from forty-two million acres to one hundred seventy-two million acres and established fifty-one wildlife refuges. Julie A. Oseid, The Power of Zeal: Teddy Roosevelt’s Life and Writing, 10. J. Ass’n Legal Writing Directors 125, 133 (2013).
  7. DiPeso & Pelikan, supra note 6, at 350.
  8. Id. at 349.
  9. Id. at 349–50.
  10. Jedediah Purdy, The Politics of Nature: Climate Change, Environmental Law, and Democracy, 119 Yale L.J. 1122, 1157 (2010).
  11. DiPeso & Pelikan, supra note 6, at 351.
  12. An America First Energy Plan, supra note 4.
  13. Elizabeth Shogren, Obama’s Energy Legacy in the West Could Outlast the Trump Administration, Wired (Jan. 4, 2017),; see also Mark Jaffe, What Does a Trump Administration Mean for Western Public Lands?, Denver Post (Nov. 26, 2016), (noting that while the Bureau of Land Management presented 12.1 million acres of its lands for oil, gas, and coal leases from 2013 to 2015, the agency only obtained bids on thirty-one percent of the land offered).
  14. Shogren, supra note 13.
  15. Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Conservation, 43 C.F.R. §§ 3100, 3160, 3170 (2017); Shogren, supra note 13; see also Elizabeth Williams, Judicial Review of Interior Department Decisions Affecting Claims of Oil and Gas Interests in Public Lands, 67 Am. L. Reps. Fed. 2d 433, 2 (describing the process for leasing onshore oil and gas resources on federal lands: “(1) the [Department of the Interior] develops land use plans, or resource management plans (RMPs), describing, for a particular area, allowable uses, goals for future condition of the land, and specific next steps; (2) the Board of Land Management (BLM) issues an oil and gas lease if it determines that the issuance of that particular lease is consistent with the RMP; and (3) the lessee obtains BLM approval of an application for permit to drill (APD) before commencing any drilling operations or surface disturbance preliminary to drilling operations.”).
  16. See Devin Henry, GOP Begins Public Lands Overhaul, The Hill (Feb. 12, 2017),
  17. Rex Tillerson–The Wild Card Diplomat, BBC News (Feb. 1, 2017),; Joe Romm, Donald Trump Is the Anti-Teddy Roosevelt, ThinkProgress (Dec. 13, 2016),
  18. See Romm, supra note 17.
  19. President Theodore Roosevelt, New Nationalism Speech: A Speech Delivered at the Dedication of the John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kansas (Aug. 31, 1910),
  20. Louis Jacobson, Yes, Donald Trump Did Call Climate Change a Chinese Hoax, PolitiFact (June 3, 2016),
  21. See Chris Mooney, Obama’s Government Just Released a New Oil and Gas Rule—And Trump’s [Administration] May Not Like It Much, Wash. Post (Nov. 15, 2016),
  22. See id.