It’s Never Been Easy Being Green

Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff

Conventional wisdom laments that today’s political atmosphere has become so polarized that the nation isn’t able to establish consensus-based national policy on contemporary environmental and conservation issues like we did in the good old days when both major political parties and the public saw eye-to-eye.

My recent reading of Timothy Egan’s, “The Big Burn – Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America” reminded me that it has never been easy being green.

Egan, a Seattle-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, outdoorsman, and columnist for the New York Times, tells the story of the August 1910 wildfire that consumed an area the size of Connecticut. The fire swept through parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington and British Columbia in a matter of days, wiping out entire towns, and killing more than a hundred people.

Woven into the narrative of the events around the fire is the story of how President Theodore Roosevelt and Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot were able to establish vast national forests.  As they put it, these forests should be for the use and enjoyment of all the people, rather than for exploitation by wealthy individuals and corporations, which had been the case until then. Most of us take the concept of the National Forests for granted. Yet Egan explains how radical the concept was at the time, and points out that there were many powerful forces aligned against Roosevelt and Pinchot.

It makes the reader wonder, how on earth Roosevelt and Pinchot did it. But, Egan shows us that Roosevelt and Pinchot had powerful forces of their own: their vision of what was best for the long-term, well-being of the nation, their energy and personal commitment, and their trust in the American people. The battle of conservation of our National Forests versus consumption by private industry continued throughout the twentieth century. As the twenty-first century emerged, conservation had ultimately prevailed due to reasons both economic and ideological.

I found the story inspiring and relevant to today’s environmental challenges, be they global, national, or organizational. When applied wisely, the combination of a clear and unselfish vision, hard work, and belief in the decency and wisdom of others can overcome significant resistance.

We’ve all fought uphill battles, albeit not on the epic scale of Roosevelt and Pinchot. I’d like to hear your inspiring stories. How have you overcome resistance within your organization to proposed EHS policies? How have you persuaded entrenched interests to support EHS initiatives with long-term benefit to your organization?

About Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff is Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety for Danaher Corp. and President of NAEM’s Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveEvanoff.

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  1. Stephen Greene

    January 28, 2011


    Egan’s book has now been added to my list of books to read. While a disaster can be the turning point to a better approach, I am always looking for the ways to avoid the disaster in the first place. That is not very exciting and is usually dismissed with “what is the problem?”. Even with a disaster, over coming forces opposed to change can be challenging as your example points out. What is the old saying smart people learn from their mistakes, wise people learn from other’s mistakes.

  2. William D'Alessandro

    January 28, 2011

    Based on the pablum served up on green Web sites and in corporate sustainability reports, one might be surprised to learn there is such a thing as “resistance within your organization to proposed EHS policies.”

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