Theodore Roosevelt: Cowboy Conservationist
Theodore Roosevelt was not just the 26th president of the United States, but a pioneer in the conservation of America’s natural resources. Theodore did not create the first national park, but he did add many new parks to the growing list of protected land. He also created the Forest Service, which regulates and protects the aforementioned lands according the laws, regulations, and codes set forth by the Federal government. This enforced the protection of the private lands that he and future presidents designated as protected land.
Roosevelt’s childhood kindled that fiery passion for animals, nature, and science in his home New York City. There, he was suffering from terrible asthma attacks, becoming underweight and sickly in his youth. From this he decided to improve his health through exercise, with dumbbells and boxing lessons. Not only did he grow physically but mentally read many books of science which inspired him to become a scientist. However, in his adulthood he was disenchanted with science which conducted most of its work in labs rather than in the field where Roosevelt would have preferred to be. He thereafter graduated from Harvard University and began his involvement in politics. When President William McKinley was assassinated, he then became the youngest U.S. President at the age of 42.
At the time he took office five locations were already under Federal protection: Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Mount Rainier in Washington State, Yosemite National Park in California, and Sequoia National Park with the General Grant Tree in New York. When Roosevelt first took office it was apparent that he had conservation efforts on the forefront of his mind, in his first annual message to Congress:
“Public opinion throughout the United States has moved steadily toward a just appreciation of the value of forests, whether planted or of natural growth. The great part played by them in the creation and maintenance of the national wealth is now more fully realized than ever before …”
During his Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt expanded federal protection to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, Sully Hill in North Dakota, Platt National Park in Oklahoma, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Thus, he increased forest reserves from 43 million acres to 194 million acres with those additions. This was not an easy task to say the least. Unlike today, where we are aware of the impact that we have on the environment and understand the importance of conservation efforts to preserve our natural resources for future generations, this consideration was not apparent in the minds of Americans at that time. In order to win public support for his efforts, Roosevelt had to emphasize this point and he had built up the reputation to do it.
Roosevelt, in the eyes of the American people, was a war hero. He rode as a colonel in the “Rough Riders” regiment, a mounted cavalry unit composed of volunteers that fought against Spain in the Spanish-American War. When Roosevelt charged on his horse up San Juan Hill zealously with his thick moustache and cowboy hat as the epitome of western cowboy imagery, he became an American icon. It was this image he hoped you use as a frontiersman of the United States to win public opinion.
In this he succeeded in swaying the public to his views on conservation, but Congress was not easily persuaded nor were the ranchers, miners, and other businesses who wanted the land for their own uses. For example, Roosevelt wanted to turn the entirety of the Grand Canyon into a national park, but many argued that doing so would prevent the access to natural resources. While he was denied the protection of the Grand Canyon, he was able to protect a portion of it-Crater Lake. As time went on, many more opposed his conservation efforts, making it more difficult to obtain more lands for protection.
So Roosevelt had to get creative in getting the power and authorization he needed to name new sites without Congress’ required approval. He then drafted a bill that gave him power to declare structures or objects of scientific or historical interest situated on land controlled by the government as national monuments. While at a glance this seemed innocent enough, and it was approved by Congress without a second thought, Roosevelt attained the authority he wanted. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, El Morro in New Mexico, Montezuma Castle in New Mexico, and the Petrified Forest in Arizona became national monuments. As a result, not only were the monuments protected but the surrounding land as well. In total, by the end of his terms, Roosevelt had declared 18 new national monuments.
To ensure that conservation remained after his term, Roosevelt used the power of the media (the newspaper at the time) to his advantage. He gathered the first Governor’s Conference on Conservation in the White House with members from the Supreme Court, members of Congress, scientists, members of the business community, and scholars to the discussion. This discussion of conservation efforts was made in front of the press, to spread the ideas of nature conservation. In his speech on Conservation as a National Duty he said:
“ 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 shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”
Roosevelt’s show of force was not in vain, conservation efforts continued through to the next generations of Presidents, making the “Rough Rider” Cowboy a major figure in our history’s national parks.