Nature and Nuture or: The First of Many Posts about Teddy Roosevelt

January 11, 2016

“The civilized people of today look back with horror at their medieval ancestors who wantonly destroyed great works of art, or sat slothfully by while they were destroyed.  We have passed that stage.  We treasure pictures and sculptures.  We regard Attic temples and Roman triumphal arches and Gothic cathedrals as of priceless value.  But we are, as a whole, still in that low state of civilization where we do not understand that it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.  Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals – not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.  But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”

                              – Teddy Roosevelt, “Our Vanishing Wild Life,” Outlook, 25 Jan. 1913


Today, January 11th, marks the 107th anniversary of the day that Teddy Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon to be a National Monument.  While we will eventually talk more – probably much more, and in much greater depth – about dear ol’ Teddy, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk briefly about his efforts as a conservationist.


The Grand Canyon.  If you've never been, you should go.   


Theodore Roosevelt always loved the outdoors.  As a sickly child, who would later overcome his ailments through exercise and sheer force of will, he developed an intense interest in zoology.  Sitting in his family’s Manhattan brownstone, the young Teddy would study, draw, stuff, and display the various animals he killed or caught (I know, I know, at this point in the story he sounds like a budding serial killer, but it was a very different time then).  He wanted to grow up and become a naturalist, and though his life took a different path, his love of nature remained with him until the day he died.


In 1884, following the tragic deaths of both his first wife and his mother within twelve hours of each other (the former from childbirth complications, the latter from typhoid fever), Teddy fled the urbane East Coast in order to drown his grief as a cattle rancher in the Dakotas for the next three years.  While, for most of us, the emotional distress and bone-chilling cold of the northern states would be the main takeaways of that experience, Teddy was something of a different breed.  Though he was a lifelong hunter, he would always remember the loss of various species and habitats he viewed during his sojourn.  He later wrote,


“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”


 Teddy as a Badlands hunter.  Taken 1885 in New York City by George Grantham Baine.


During his early years in politics and his time as Police Commissioner of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, soldier in the Spanish-American War, Governor of New York, and finally, Vice President under William McKinley, conservation remained forefront in his mind as one of the vital issues of the day.


Upon McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency of the United States, a position he would retain until 1908.  Under his somewhat overbearing authority, those years were wonderful years for those who care about conservation.   In 1905, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service (USFS), which administers the country’s national forests and grasslands (there are currently 193 million acres protected and overseen by the USFS).  He also cobbled together and signed the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which funded irrigation projects in 20 western states; sponsored the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the President the power to create national monuments from public land in order to preserve areas of importance or beauty; and sponsored the 1908 Conference of Governors with a focus on efficient use of natural resources, and delivered the keystone address entitled, “Conservation as a National Duty.”  During his tenure in office, Roosevelt proclaimed 18 new national monuments, established 51 federal bird reserves, 150 national forests, 4 national game preserves, and 5 national parks (Crater Lake, Wind Cave, Sullys Hill, Platt, and Mesa Verde; he also enlarged Yosemite).  Teddy Roosevelt officially protected approximately 230 million acres of land, more than all of his predecessors combined.


Though he was far from a perfect man – and I’m looking forward to writing more about the sheer bizarreness of the man in future posts – we owe him a great debt of gratitude, not just for the acres upon acres of unspoiled land that we have because of him, but also because he first popularized the ideas of good stewardship.  He lived in a time where many people considered nature’s resources inexhaustible (as I think could not be more amply demonstrated than by the picture below), but he was one of the first, and almost definitely the loudest, to stand up and state that our natural treasures should be protected, rather than exploited.   


Over a century after Teddy Roosevelt’s call-to-arms, we are still struggling to fulfill the promise of a country that vehemently protects its natural beauty.  We still examine our untouched spaces with greedy eyes, wondering what we can take from them, rather than what we can do for them.  His words from the quote at the top of this post still ring too true.  I hope that, in another hundred years, humans will be able to look back at our time as we often look back at his: a bygone era where people were destructive, careless, and more than a little short-sighted, but that still managed to plant the seeds for a better future.


 Buffalo skulls in a pile, waiting to be ground into fertilizer.  Mid-1870s.  Unknown photographer.


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