Finding Our “Big Stick”

John Tuma-smaller pic“Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.” – Teddy Roosevelt, September 2, 1901

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.

Its connection to Minnesota came in September of 1901 when Roosevelt first used the phrase in a public speech later known as “The Big Stick” speech on American foreign policy as it related to the Western Hemisphere.  The Minnesota connection is 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 President of United States.  After his ascendancy to the presidency, the 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 of protecting our home waters guiding Minnesota’s conservation leaders in the battle against aquatic invasive species (AIS). One of the most devastating of these potential invaders to Minnesota’s precious lakes and rivers is known as the silver carp.

The silver carp is one of 4 species of invasive Asian carp that has found its way into the Mississippi River basin during floods in the south where they were able to escape from fish farms that use them. They can grow to 60 pounds as they devour large amounts of plankton, devastating the aquatic food chain for the native fish. Additionally this particular carp is extremely dangerous — it is known to leap high out of the water when disturbed by boat motors. The result is that rivers are no longer fishable or safe to boaters.

On August 22, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirmed that a dead silver carp was discovered just north of Winona, Minnesota on the Mississippi River. This is the furthest northern confirmed sighting of this invasive species. That’s why the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) should be praised for their foresight in investing in several initiatives to combat invasive species like the silver carp. Probably one of the most significant efforts funded by the LCCMR is the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC) located on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota just a stone’s throw away from where Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous speech.

Director Dr. Peter Sorensen and his team at MAISRC are focused on developing biologically and economically sound solutions to control key aquatic invasive species like the silver carp from negatively affecting our precious lakes and rivers.  Their strategy is to develop an in-depth understanding of the biology and ecology of key AIS to determine if there are weaknesses they can exploit without harming native species. Click here to learn more about the good work being done by the LCCMR and MAISRC. It’s the kind of work that old Teddy would have been proud to support, big stick and all.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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