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The redwoods hold a broader lesson. In 1908 President Teddy Roosevelt brought together the governors of 39 states and territories, the Supreme Court justices, virtually his entire Cabinet, and members of Congress and 68 professional societies. Never before or since has such a powerful group been assembled in the White House. Opening the conference, Roosevelt said, "You have come hither at my request … to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation … It is the chief material question that confronts us."

The President tallied the toll on America's resources, including the loss of half our original timber. He made an eloquent call to rebuild the nation's natural capital, or face hardship. He implored those in a position to exploit nature for excessive profit to take the moral high ground instead of robbing future generations.

At that time, a century ago, there were only about 300,000 white-tailed deer left in the entire United States. Today, even though the human footprint has increased exponentially, there are perhaps 30 million. This rehabilitation, in which states managed hunting, reintroduced the animals in hundreds of places, and restored habitat, has been so successful that many now consider whitetails a pest. The deer story Roosevelt helped inspire is a clear and simple demonstration that conservation can vastly increase the renewable resources we've hammered and wasted since Europeans arrived in North America.

Here is my message: President Obama, convene your own White House conference. The objective would be to build on what's being done in the redwoods and design a Marshall Plan for the proper use of all the natural assets in the United States. People will try to dissuade you, saying we can't possibly afford to think about saving nature when the world is mired in an economic crisis, confronting wars and the threat of nuclear terrorism. President Roosevelt, too, had his challenges—Japan and Russia at war, monopolists to control, the Panama Canal to build—but he understood that conservation was the principal material question facing humanity.

In the 21st century, as we face the consequences of global warming, this is even more vitally true. We need to generalize this simple notion: Rebuild our natural capital thoughtfully and reap the benefits. With increased production for humanity also come healthy ecosystems and global balance. We can—and must—do this not just with our forests and wildlife but also with the fish in our oceans and streams, the soils on our farms, and the grass in our pastures. The redwoods can show us the way. 

J. Michael Fay is a conservationist and senior explorer at the Wildlife Conservation Society and a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.
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