The federal government became the agency of choice to manage our natural resources during the turn of the 20th Century because the bulk of the citizenry believed that private corporations and organizations were too corrupt, self-serving, and greedy to be trusted. When Theodore Teddy Roosevelt assumed the Presidency by accident after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, resource conservationists finally had the friend they needed in The White House.
Usually depicted immaculately dressed in a three-piece suit with his intensely honest stare framed by a bushy moustache and chained glasses, Roosevelt epitomized a true man’s man. While his unfailingly politeness and courtesy earned him consistent favor with women, his reputation as a “rough-riding” adventurer and big-game marksman always garnered heroic accolades from men.
Teddy Roosevelt, protector of wildlife and natural resources, became known as the “conservation president” soon after taking office.
In ironic twists for such a lifelong outdoorsman, Roosevelt was born in 1858 in the middle of America’s most populous city—a Manhattan brownstone—and home-schooled as a sickly child. But he didn’t let these inconveniences sway him away from what he loved to do. At the age of seven, he formed a local nature club with some of his cousins and they quickly started riding herd on every critter they could find creeping and crawling in their urban “stomping grounds”. Within a few years, the boys had collected, analyzed, and mounted enough specimens for display to start what they called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”.
In another ironic twist of fate, Roosevelt’s love of the rugged outdoors was significantly enhanced because of a dual tragedy in his life. On the same day—February 14, 1884— both his mother and his wife tragically died. To deal with the unbearable grief he was feeling over this twin loss, Roosevelt packed up, left New York City, and moved to the Dakota Territory for two years. While there, he left his infant daughter in the care of his elder sister while he worked as a cowboy and cattle rancher in the peaceful solitude of the American West’s wide-open spaces.
Soon after he took office, Roosevelt quickly began earning his reputation as “The Conservation President”. He dedicated himself to protecting both wildlife and natural resources as an avid adventurer and lover of nature. He realized that dramatic action would be required to prevent the rich natural resources and incomparable landscapes of our country from disappearing as quickly as the American bison—leaving future generations without a legacy of natural splendors.
As President, Roosevelt was faced with a quandary that was a carry-over from the banner years of the “Industrial Age”. He knew that the deep pocket entrepreneurs —who controlled the bulk of the nation’s wealth—were so busy trying to make more money that they didn’t have time to worry about protecting the nation’s fast-disappearing natural resources. He also knew that these same power players did not have any desire to give up the man’s dominion over naturephilosophy that had governed their lifestyles for decades. But he also sincerely believed that the long-term happiness of most Americans was directly associated with how intelligently and properly natural resources were managed.
On the surface, these conflicting ideologies presented a beguiling crisis. But good old “Uncle Teddy” had a plan. He believed that—with enough foresight—natural resources could be used, economically and recreationally, while simultaneously being conserved for the long-term. In other words, Roosevelt was onto something that would become the world’s first plan for sustainable resource management and he set about proving that his plan could work.
Management of the nation’s vast tracts of national forests perfectly epitomized Roosevelt’s beliefs on sustainable management. In his opinion, the national forests had to serve multiple purposes. While they had to provide a wide array of recreational opportunities—including everything from hunting and fishing to hiking, mountaineering, and birdwatching—the national forests also needed to pay their own way. This meant portions of the forests had to be selectively logged and sold for building construction and pulp. The trick was to accomplish this sustainably in a manner that provided some income while not detracting from the broad visitor enjoyment of these magnificent resources. Then the areas where timber harvests occurred had to be immediately replanted with trees for use by future generations.
As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks, the first 18 national monuments, the first four national game preserves, and the first 24 reclamation—or federal irrigation—projects. Many of these federal designations were bitterly opposed by commercial interests. For example, the Nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Pelican Island in 1903 raised the hackles of the millinery trade—as we’ve previously discussed—since it was specifically established to thwart the acquisition of wild bird feathers.
All told during his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected more than 230,000,000 acres of public land—an area equivalent to the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. Outside of his political career, Roosevelt also published more than 25 books about a range of subjects—including history, biology, geography, and philosophy as well as an autobiography comprised of four volumes.
Roosevelt’s pragmatic side also shone through in his creation of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902 to manage water resources in the 17 western states. Reclamation’s goals were to provide a mix of economic benefits—hydropower, irrigation, and flood control—while also maintaining a litany of recreational activities. The boating, fishing, and water skiing provided by federal water projects were received as a huge benefit by western residents—many of whom were just settling into new villages, towns, and cities.
Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep at age 60 on January 6, 1919, at his Long Island estate, Sagamore Hill, after suffering a coronary embolism. On January 16, 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously conferred Roosevelt with the Congressional Medal of Honor—the highest award for military service in the United States —for the Battle of San Juan Heights that occurred more than 100 years earlier.
“Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
President Teddy Roosevelt had an idea about how to get the nation’s wealthy elite and middle and lower classes working together for a common cause. Then he applied his unwavering dedication—some might even call it his “Bull Moose” stubbornness—to make his plan work. Thanks to Roosevelt’s gritty combination of foresight and fortitude, our nation put into place the world’s first plan for sustainable resource management and long-term conservation. Roosevelt’s accomplishments more than a century ago are even more apropos today, as we work toward bringing a divided nation together and deciding how to live sustainably with the goal of combating Climate Change.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books.
Photo caption and credit: Teddy Roosevelt, protector of wildlife and natural resources, became known as the “conservation president” soon after taking office. Copyright Everett Historical/Shutterstock.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.