Say anything.

Uncle Sam wants you … to cooperate on conservation. Not only that, he’s willing to listen. At least that’s what he says.

Earlier this week, St. Louis hosted the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation. The invitation-only event was modeled after Teddy Roosevelt’s 1908 Governors’ Conference, which brought all the country’s governors, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and other national leaders to the White House to make conservation a national priority.

The purpose this time around was to celebrate what Interior Secretary Gale Norton called a new chapter, built on the four C’s: “communication, consultation, and cooperation, in the name of conservation.”

In a videotaped message, President Bush reminded the assembled “conservationalists” that Roosevelt — who established, among other things, the first national wildlife refuge, the U.S. Forest Service, and 23 national parks and monuments — “called conservation a patriotic duty.” Although he didn’t show up at his own White House conference on conservation, this president eagerly took credit for improving the environment too. “Our air is cleaner, water purer, and land better protected than four years ago,” he told the crowd. But then he turned modest. “Not all wisdom is found in the nation’s capital,” he said with that sly grin of his. “Local communities have the best ideas about how to use air, land, and water. All we have to do is listen.”

Ah.

The three-day conference brought together around one thousand attendees who were ready to talk. They were more or less evenly divided between federal officials working for environmental, land-management, and wildlife agencies; state and local officials; representatives of nonprofit conservation organizations; and private landowners and businesspeople. “Business attire,” it had said on the invitation, and it was mostly a pretty tightly wound, buttoned-down, suit-and-tie crowd, with a few rowdy cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats thrown in. They gathered at the America’s Center, a typical convention hall that could be anywhere, but is, in fact, in the center of America, just blocks from the Gateway Arch on the muddy Mississippi.

Federal officials announced precious little in the way of new initiatives over the course of the event. Norton said they would be developing cooperative conservation legislation to submit to Congress, but couldn’t say much about what it would be, because, well, it too would be the result of collaboration. And let’s not forget consultation and communication. And what was that fourth C? Oh yeah, conservation. Or was it cooperation?

But at a plenary session on the last day of the conference — after Norton and other cabinet members had been called back to Washington, D.C., to coordinate the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina — federal officials issued an intriguing invitation. They asked for input on the proposed legislation (or, rather, the non-proposal for legislation), and anything else that could help the federal government better cooperate with citizens on conservation.

Now, I know some of you are rolling your eyes and saying, “Yeah, right.” More than a few folks at the conference did the same thing — though surreptitiously, not wanting to attract undue attention from the young staffers monitoring the scene, BlackBerries in hand and earbuds in place. (It was hard to tell the aides-de-camp from the service secret at this shindig.)

But suspend your cynicism for a moment — in the name of cooperation, for goodness’ sake! — and presume that they meant it. Then presume that suggestions should come not just from the select few who were invited to participate in the White House’s version of cooperative conservation, but from all the citizens of this great democracy of ours. Here’s what the federales said they want to hear. If you can interpret it, you’ll find ways to reach them at the end.

Flowers, power.

Lynn Scarlett, the assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget in the Interior Department and Norton’s guru of cooperative conservation, invoked Mao Zedong’s dictum to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” She said she wants to hear what works best at the grassroots. “I think the greatest gift you can give is something you’re already giving,” she told the gathering. “My greatest concern is that we will get so entranced, we will muck it up in Washington by trying to shoehorn it into a one-size-fits-all.”

In his own poetic plea, Marcus Peacock, the deputy administrator for the U.S. EPA, combined Mao and The Carpenters. “It’s a fertile field,” he said. “We’ve only just begun. I go with the thousand flowers. I’d like specific ideas of where that could be pursued, right now.” Well, that leaves things pretty wide open. What could the EPA be doing better to cooperate in protecting and cleaning up the environment in your community? How about “white lace and promises”?

No frilly talk from Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The military-minded “Connie,” as his colleagues called him, didn’t seem too pleased with the idea of letting a thousand flowers bloom. “This has started a stampede of messages to come to government,” he said. “I sit back and hear a cacophony. If we can have a coherent national voice, we can do better.” The vice admiral thinks “we have a good setup” already for cooperative conservation. He wants suggestions for a unifying national voice and vision. Any ideas?

Speaking of military minds, Alex Beehler, an assistant deputy undersecretary at the Department of Defense, said he wants to hear “specific ideas and opportunities” for expanding conservation buffer zones around military bases. The military is flush these days, unlike most other agencies, and eager to work with conservation organizations, communities, and landowners to expand no-growth zones around its installations and training grounds using conservation easements, acquisitions, and other tools. Is there a base in your area? Would you like to cooperate with the military to defend nature? They’re looking for a few good ideas.

The references to thousands of blossoms proved all too much for Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, and the man in charge of the Forest Service. “I’m a little alarmed at the number of people in a Republican administration quoting Mao,” he said. While the audience laughed, Jim Connaughton — panel moderator, conference host, and chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality — reminded him: “It is a red book.”

Rey said he wanted some good news. “I’d like to hear when an employee is doing a good job,” he said. “Lord knows I hear the opposite.” The current generation of federal land managers “is being asked to do something different than they were trained to do,” he added. In a joke that left itself open to multiple interpretations, he said, “It’s like replacing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall with elephants from Safari Land three days before Christmas.”

OK, then, that really opens the door. Are there federal employees you know who are doing a good job for conservation? How about it? Can we get a positive feedback loop going? And anybody know any terpsichorean techniques for repurposing pachyderms?

It seems at least some in the Grand Old Party have realized they need to learn how to dance with conservationists. So have at it. I know there are plenty of people out there doing a lot of fancy footwork to improve our environment.

Just a word of caution: Don’t be surprised if your toes get a little tender.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Lynn Scarlett: Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20240, 202.208.3100

Marcus Peacock: EPA, Ariel Rios Building, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20460, 202.272.0167

Conrad Lautenbacher Jr.: emailE=(‘conrad.c.lautenbacher@’ + ‘noaa.gov’) document.write(‘<a href=”mailto:’ + emailE + ‘” mce_href=”mailto:’ + emailE + ‘”>’ + emailE + ‘</a>’)

Alex Beehler: emailE=(‘Alex.Beehler@’ + ‘osd.mil’) document.write(‘<a href=”mailto:’ + emailE + ‘” mce_href=”mailto:’ + emailE + ‘”>’ + emailE + ‘</a>’)

Mark Rey: emailE=(‘Mark.Rey@’ + ‘usda.gov’) document.write(‘<a href=”mailto:’ + emailE + ‘” mce_href=”mailto:’ + emailE + ‘”>’ + emailE + ‘</a>’) , 202.720.7173

The Council on Environmental Quality said it would accept suggestions on its website. CEQ can also be contacted at 722 Jackson Pl. NW, Washington, D.C. 20503, 202.395.5750.