The Wilderness Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt
January 7, 2010
Most people have some knowledge of the historical mark left by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a Rough Rider, a trust-buster, a president who spoke “softly and carried a big stick.”
But, as is the case with most important historical figures, there is so much more to discover upon further examination. That is why biographies are so valuable. Biographies make connections between people – their character and the forces at work in their lives – and events. By giving us a deeper understanding of a person’s character and the forces that came together in the development of that character, we can better understand why things happen, especially where presidents are concerned.
While other presidents seemed to ignore or tolerate corruption, why did Theodore Roosevelt fight it? Why did TR go after Standard Oil? At a time when most wealthy Americans refused to use government as a tool for attacking social ills, like poverty, why was TR sympathetic to the plight of the poor and “a traitor to his class”? When most white Americans at the time harbored racist views, why did TR challenge that hatred by inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House? By studying a person’s life, we not only learn about events, but also, we learn why those events took place.
Did you know that Theodore Roosevelt was a champion of wilderness? Did you know that he saved 234 million acres of American wilderness during his term as president? Did you know that the American bison, the brown pelican, elk and many other species were likely saved by Roosevelt’s creation of forest, bird and game preserves?
Why did this happen? To find the answer, we need to look into Roosevelt’s life and learn what motivated his actions. To that end, I have just finished reading Douglas Brinkley’s new biography of Roosevelt, “Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”
In this terrific book, Brinkley focuses on Roosevelt’s all-consuming passion for wilderness areas at a time in our history when those areas were being despoiled by private interests. We find that Roosevelt’s love of the natural world, especially wilderness areas and the wildlife found there, was founded upon core influences in his life.
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Brinkley takes us back to Roosevelt’s youth, and we find a child who is cursed with asthma. Not much would have been expected of him at that age. In his forced sedentary life, he studied birds, gathered specimens for his own museum and became enamored with the work of two great figures that stirred his interest in the natural world: Charles Darwin and John James Audubon. Fresh air seemed to relieve his asthma, so he spent a good deal of time out-of-doors. Using Audubon’s magnificent guide books, he did his own detailed study of birds he encountered and applied Darwin’s principles in an effort to understand the variations of species he observed. (He would remain an avid and highly respected ornithologist throughout his life.)
Theodore Roosevelt (he hated being called Teddy) would conquer his illness and become a devotee of “the strenuous life.” He would ride horses, camp, hike, climb and push himself to the limit of his endurance. Time spent in the wild was invigorating. Later, knowing the value of the wilderness experience in his own life, he would be driven to protect wilderness areas for the people. He felt industrialization and the unbridled pursuit of private interest had robbed the American people of their soul.
Another seminal influence in Roosevelt’s life was his father, who was a leading New York philanthropist and devoted to public service. Theodore senior impressed upon his son the importance of caring for those who were less fortunate. Through his philanthropic activities, he instilled values that animated Theodore junior’s life. His progressivism, his fight against corruption and his disgust for those who put private interest ahead of public interest can be traced back to his father’s influence.
Early on, TR was disturbed by the near-extinction of the American bison, the mass killing of pelicans and other birds for their plumage, the fading herds of elk and the efforts by ranchers to wipe out predators like wolves and coyotes. (An aside: Roosevelt was a notorious hunter. Some could rightly argue that he was a hypocrite who was interested in saving wild animals so he could shoot them. John Muir, in fact, pointedly chastised him for his “childish” interest in hunting. Roosevelt’s counter to this complaint was that he was collecting specimens for museums or for Sagamore Hill, his home, and that his interest was scientific). Particularly in the West, the land was viewed as a source of private gain. Railroads, oil companies, mining and timber interests (the dominant political powers of that time) looked upon public land as a resource to be taken and used for private gain. Virtually no one stood in the way to argue on behalf of the land, the animals and the future.
Later, when TR was elevated to the presidency, these forces – the loss of wild animals and wild places, an abiding interest in the natural world and his political progressivism – combined to make him a “Wilderness Warrior.” Roosevelt used the office to change the agenda, and he was not alone in this effort; John Muir, John Burroughs, George Bird Grinnell, William Hornaday, C. Hart Merriam, Gifford Pinchot and many others fought to raise the public’s awareness and conserve our important natural heritage.
During his presidency, Roosevelt established or enlarged 150 national forests (including 15 in Colorado). He created six national parks (including Mesa Verde), four game preserves, 51 federal bird reservations and 18 national monuments. Eventually, some of the national forests and monuments would be elevated to national parks status or attached to national parks.
Clearly, those of us who appreciate our natural environment, its wildness and its beauty can focus that appreciation on the one person who led the fight: Theodore Roosevelt. His lasting legacy will not be found in his exploits as a Rough Rider or trust-buster. We need only to look around at the beauty of the land, the trees and wild animals to appreciate what Theodore Roosevelt has given us. Our duty is to protect it and pass it on to our children, as he passed it on to us.
Len Shipman was a professor of political science for 30 years. He lives in Summit County and is president of the Summit County Library Board.