Teddy Roosevelt, “Uncle Remus,” and supporting the Weeks Act
One hundred years ago today, on October 8, 1910, former president Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Southern Conservation Congress in Atlanta, Georgia. Roosevelt was just one of many speakers during the two-day meeting called to “discuss the problems of utilizing to the best permanent advantage the resources of the South as a whole.” The meeting itself evolved out of an effort to form a Georgia conservation association, but then it quickly grew into a region-wide meeting.
Initially Roosevelt was coming to Atlanta for a completely different and unlikely reason. He was to be the featured speaker at a fundraiser on October 8 to establish a memorial for John Chandler Harris, the man who had gathered together and published the immensely popular “Uncle Remus” stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and other characters. Roosevelt had befriended Harris, who was known as “Uncle Remus,” and had hosted him at the White House prior to the latter’s death in 1908—one of the few times Harris left his home towards the end of his life. Ever the politician, Roosevelt had declared on a visit to Atlanta in 1905: “Presidents come and go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature.” When word reached the organizers of the Southern Conservation Congress that Roosevelt would be in town in October of 1910, they invited him to address the congress.
As with elsewhere, interest in conserving natural resources in the South had blossomed during Roosevelt’s term in office. Timber and naval stores were critical industries in the South during Reconstruction, and also critical to the economic development of the region. Timber went into housing and construction not only in the South but in the new Midwestern cities; railroads around the country were huge consumers of logs for railroad ties. Lumbermen were quickly cutting their way through southern forests, with harvests reaching a peak of nearly 140 billion board-feet in 1909. The South, including the Carolinas and Virginia, were producing 47% of all timber in the U.S. Nearly 50% of the South’s original woodland area was gone by then. (For more on this, see the first chapter of Mountaineers and Rangers: A History of Federal Forest Management in the Southern Appalachians, 1900-81.)
Joining Roosevelt on the dais was none other than Gifford Pinchot, the former Forest Service chief and a close friend and conservation adviser of Roosevelt’s. Pinchot spoke first on the “Principles of Conservation” in which he emphasized that “far-sighted” southern leaders had been working for twenty years toward the creation of the Appalachian Forest Preserve and now had the opportunity to achieve victory if only the Senate would pass the bill before them. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt and others echoed that sentiment. That bill was the Weeks Bill, which called in part for granting the federal government the power to purchase private lands in the East to protect watersheds.
In its “Statement of Principles and Policies,” the Southern Conservation Congress explicitly backed passage of the Weeks Bill, declaring that “the federal government has the constitutional right amounting to a national duty to acquire lands for forest purposes in the interest of a future timber supply, watershed protection, navigation, power, and the general welfare of the people.” The following March, President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act into law. Three years later the federal government purchased about 100,000 acres from George Vanderbilt’s widow in North Carolina to establish the Pisgah National Forest—the first national forest in the South created under the Weeks Act.
Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks to the Southern Conservation Congress neatly encapsulate the conservationists’ rationale for supporting government intervention in natural resource management. His discussion of the South’s changing economic prosperity is particularly interesting.