Theodore Roosevelt was a cowboy, soldier, writer, author, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and leader of the free world, to name just a few.
But above all else, he considered himself a conservationist. And nearly a century after his death, Teddy can still teach the nation, and its next president, a great deal about leadership, fortitude, and preserving the outdoors for future generations.
Roosevelt was far from perfect. His hard-charging imperialist agenda and glorification of war as president would alienate even the most hawkish voters today. But Roosevelt’s bullheadedness also lent itself to a greater purpose in the White House – an unwavering dedication to protecting the great outdoors. And seeing the current list of candidates being paraded on TV today, one thing is clear: we need another Roosevelt now more than ever.
Roosevelt likely accomplished so much in conservation because he cared for the outdoors for personal, rather than political, reasons. From an early age, Roosevelt was a passionate outdoorsman and amateur biologist. As a child he tirelessly collected and cataloged specimens, choosing to later study natural history at Harvard. He escaped into nature whenever he could to hunt, camp, and hike. But as he spent more time outdoors, he became gradually aware of what was being lost.
During a trip to the Badlands in 1883, Roosevelt lamented the depletion of big game species and habitat. In 1887, he helped found the Boone and Crockett Club, which supported restricted use of natural resources, and successfully fought to protect Yellowstone from commercial interests. His crusade to preserve the outdoors would persist for the rest of his life.
Roosevelt was a lifelong sportsman, and believed hunting carried with it an immense responsibility for respecting nature. A famous story about Roosevelt recounts a bear hunting trip to Mississippi in 1902, where he refused to slaughter a helpless black bear tied to a tree. While the bear didn’t have a happy ending (it was killed to be put out of its misery), it brought to the public eye Roosevelt’s “Credo of Fair Chase,” a practice adopted by most outdoorsmen today, focusing on pursuing game ethically.
While it’s still hard for many non-hunters to understand, many sportsmen say hunting is less about the kill and more about how it brings them closer to nature and reminds them of the importance of preserving wildlife for the future. Hunters and fishermen today remain among the largest and most vocal contributors to conservation causes, but without Roosevelt’s example, their motivations could’ve been much more selfish.
But Roosevelt knew it would take more than a sportsman’s personal code to guard nature, and he wasn’t afraid to use his political power to conserve America’s natural resources. In his time in office, Roosevelt set aside more nature preserves, national parks, and federal land than all previous presidents combined. Among his accomplishments are five national parks, the United States Forest Service, and 150 national forests.
All in all, Roosevelt placed approximately 230 million acres under federal protection, an area larger than modern-day Texas. The last five presidential administrations combined haven’t even protected a third of what Teddy did in two terms.
Conserving the outdoors definitely can be a political minefield, prone to attract criticism. From the construction of pipelines to the development of electric cars, the conflict between industrialists and conservationists remains a contentious political topic to this day.
But the American outdoors was never more in jeopardy than in the 19th century. During the country’s rapid expansion, unregulated logging, mining, and hunting were chewing through natural resources, and by the time Roosevelt was inducted into office, many politicians and businesses were used to seeing the frontier as an unlimited resource.
Despite being a Republican, Roosevelt was able to separate his party’s close ties with business from the big picture.
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources.” 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 have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
It’s an attitude that is only just now starting to take root in America, but Roosevelt was well ahead of his time. He knew the difference between conservation and preservation, understanding that while it was necessary to take from nature to support the needs of the day, America also needed to sustain its environment for the future.
Business leaders, and the politicians in their pocket, despised Roosevelt for limiting their access to natural resources, but the president’s actions may be the only reason there are any left today. Elected leaders today could learn a lot from Roosevelt about listening to their conscience instead of just their corporate donors’ interests.
Roosevelt’s legacy can still be found throughout the country, but it’s in danger of fading away. The number of hunters, fishermen, and outdoor enthusiasts in general are declining, while children spend less and less time outside. Businesses consistently lobby to invade national parks and bypass environmental regulation. And with a struggling economy, voters are hesitant to attack any industry that harms the environment, so long as it provides jobs.
This upcoming election, you’re unlikely to hear the candidates even mention the environment, despite pleas from scientists that it’s never needed more attention.
The country undoubtedly needs to recover and continue to grow, but America also needs a presidential candidate that, like Roosevelt, knows it can’t come at the cost of the environment. The nation’s next leader must be willing to fight to preserve wild areas and utilize renewable resources, and most importantly, not be afraid to make a few powerful enemies in the process.
Roosevelt knew that the fate of the environment and the future of the country was inexorably linked, and he refused to sacrifice the well-being of both by bending to the demands of big business.
No candidate today can hold a torch to Roosevelt, but while Republicans continue to idolize Reagan and Democrats fawn over FDR, it’d be nice for them to also remember Theodore Roosevelt, a president who cared considerably more about the outdoors and conserving nature than he ever did for partisan politics.