If you hunt, fish, or savor the great American outdoors, you need to appreciate what happen on Oct. 14, 1912. That was the day Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning for the president of the United States as the Progressive or Bull Moose Party candidate, was shot by a would be assassin.
The bullet meant to kill Roosevelt went through his metal glasses case and a folded 50-page speech, and lodged just short of his heart. Wounded, TR then went to his political rally anyway. “I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible,” he told the audience in a low voice. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
As a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt had been president from 1901 to 1909. He entered the 1912 campaign seeking a return to the White House because his successor, William Howard Taft, had abandoned the conservation reforms TR put in place.
Those reforms included conservation of wildlife, fish and forests. TR set aside 230 million acres of America as wildlife refuges, national parks and monuments, game ranges and national forests. It was nearly 10 percent of America, and it introduced the nation to conservation. Protecting fish, wildlife and public lands also severely frustrated the robber barons of that era.
The counterattack began the moment Roosevelt left office. Taft froze the U.S. Forest Service’s education budget, fired conservationist Gifford Pinchot and began passing public resources back into control of the robber barons. Montana’s copper baron and U.S. Senator William A. Clark opposed conservation of any kind and seized any opportunity to attack the idea of public lands. Clark declared“…foresters now infesting the West should be called in, paid off, and abolished.”
Roosevelt re-entered the political arena to defend his reforms. He entered all the Republican presidential primary races held that year. Of the 12 races, TR won nine, Robert Lafollette won two, and the incumbent President Taft won only one. The political party bosses, however, gave the nomination to Taft.
TR and his followers then formed the Bull Moose Party and the battle was on. Montana had a dog in this fight. U. S. Sen. Joseph Dixon, R-Mont., took on the job as TR’s campaign manager. Dixon, also a former publisher of the Missoulian newspaper, would later serve as Montana’s governor.
A century later, we find ourselves in a political campaign that seems like 1912 all over again. The 2012 Republican Platform calls for Congress to take public lands and water in the West and pass them into “private ownership.” During the presidential primary debates, three candidates — including Mitt Romney — proposed selling or transferring federal lands like national forests to private interests or the states.
Closer to home, when gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill was a congressman he resisted the creation of a wildlife trust fund that now acquires critical habitat and public access. More recently he has come out in favor of crippling Montana’s beloved stream access law. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Denny Rheberg, R-Mont., running for a seat in the Senate, continues to champion abandonment of wildlife values on some of Montana’s most productive wild places.
Hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts have to hope that this is where the similarity between 1912 and 2012 ends. But that is up to you and your fellow voters. Be sure to ask candidates at every level where they stand on the retention of public lands, protection of our current stream access law and sustaining our proud wildland legacy.
“A vote is like a rifle,” Roosevelt wrote in his 1913 autobiography. “Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” TR took a bullet for us — for the cause of conservation — a century ago on Oct. 14, 1912. The least we owe his legacy — and our own outdoor heritage — is to make certain our votes are well-aimed in November.
- Jim Posewitz, of Helena, worked for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for 32 years. He is currently retired.