One of former President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite folk sayings has a unique connection to Minnesota. Roosevelt often referred to it as a West African parable, but historians have not been able to authenticate the origin. Therefore many have concluded it was Roosevelt who actually coined the renowned phrase and likely only added the African parable to give it some gravitas.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.”
September 2, 1901
Its connection to Minnesota came in September of 1901 when Roosevelt first used the phrase in a public speech which would later be known as “The Big Stick” speech on American foreign policy as it related to the Western Hemisphere. The Minnesota connection was that the speech was delivered from the grandstand of the Minnesota State Fair. At the time Roosevelt was vice president to William McKinley and used the Minnesota State Fair speech to simply reaffirm America’s long-standing foreign policy known as the Monroe Doctrine. The basic tenet of this doctrine was that any interference in the Western Hemisphere by European countries would be opposed by the United States and in return the United States would stay out of European affairs. This reaffirmation was hardly newsworthy except for the bold “big stick” analogy and for the fact that McKinley would be assassinated only 12 days later, making the flamboyant Roosevelt the youngest President of United States. After his ascendancy to the presidency, Tthe quote went viral in newspaper editorial cartoons throughout the United States and Europe.
Teddy Roosevelt, a pioneering champion of conservation, would likely be bully about the “speak softly/big stick” strategy guiding Minnesota’s conservation community as it ensures the investments from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment are actually used for their intended purposes. With Minnesota’s deep budget crisis, the temptation to raid Legacy dollars for a short-term budget fix is great.
Fortunately the voters of Minnesota created a big stick to protect Legacy dollars from short term budget fix raids by including in the constitutional language a requirement that the new investments should supplement traditional sources. This means that existing programs to protect our lakes, rivers, and streams along with enhancing our parks and wildlife lands cannot be cut and then backfilled with funds from the Legacy Amendment. Voters made it clear they want to see existing efforts continue with more restoration and protection from the Legacy funds on the landscape and not budget gimmicks. Even in these tough economic times, polling shows they continue to overwhelmingly support enhancing our conservation efforts and not raiding this constitutionally- dedicated account for a short-term budget fix.
With that big constitutional stick in hand, Minnesota’s conservation community would be wise to take Teddy’s advice to speak softly. Keeping that advice in mind, Conservation Minnesota has put together its annual report revealing recent spending trends in the conservation area. This is the first opportunity we have to take a close look at how Legacy dollars are being spent and whether the voters’ intent to supplement existing funding is being followed. The full report entitled, “Building a Legacy” can be found here [add link]. There are some interesting findings that break some common myths in the public and at the Legislature.
For example, this Sunday’s Star Tribune featured an article entitled, “While State Struggles, Legacy Money Flowing” which gave the impression that dollars for conservation funding are at record levels. The Conservation Minnesota report shows the reality is that the dedicated funding amendment almost gets us back to the level of funding for conservation that existed a decade ago. For the last decade conservation funding has seen significant erosion of their share of the state budget. For the previous three decades conservation funding was almost 2% of the state general fund budget but during the last decade it has dipped to just over 1% of the state general fund as of 2008 when the amendment was adopted. What the report shows is that with the infusion of the new Legacy dollars, overall spending on conservation has almost returned to what Minnesota came to expect prior to 2001. The report also shows that in order to slow the significant decline in conservation investments this last decade outdoor enthusiasts chose to pay more in fees. Therefore, even after the amendment’s adoption conservation is still getting less despite outdoor enthusiasts paying more.
Thankfully the new Legacy investments are flowing into the backlog of neglect that has occurred over the last decade. Compared to the record low commitment to conservation, the investment dollars are a breath of fresh air and as best we can tell are going to the programs the conservation community intended when supporting the amendment. Given the overwhelming backup in needs that have developed over the last decade, this new funding will have challenges to keep up with the demand. For example, one major focus of the Legacy dollars is to test all of our lakes, rivers, and streams as required by the 1972 Clean Water Act. For the first time in our history we are are well on our way to accomplishing a neglected duty and what we have found so far with the new testing is that 40% of our lakes and streams are polluted beyond acceptable standards. Now the hard work begins to clean up the mess we’ve created by our neglect.
The report also shows some cracks beginning to develop in existing funding for parks and trails, landfill cleanup, and Wildlife Management Areas. In light of that, the conservation community needs to softly remind the Legislature that the citizens of Minnesota intend to create a legacy for future generations and not a short-term budget fix. We respect the crisis they face but the overwhelming backlog of neglect of our lakes and special places demands attention. This is why the voters want the conservation community to walk softly and carry a big stick because Minnesotans know we have far to go to protect our great outdoors for future generations.
Star Tribune link if you want to put it in the blog: