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Theodore Roosevelt - Legacy of a Conservation Leader

By: C.M.Shorter

Theodore Roosevelt
(Oct. 27, 1858–Jan. 6, 1919)
26th American President & Conservation Leader
Theodore Roosevelt - 26th American President & Conservation Leader
Photo Credit:
John Singer Sargent's 1903 Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt

We are all familiar with the legacy of America’s early conservationists and naturalist John Muir and his efforts to protect Yosemite, and know of Henry David Thoreau and the beauty he described from his beloved “Walden Pond” in the 19th Century, and learned of the “Origin of the Species” from the works of Charles Darwin.    However, there were very few effective conservation plans at the turn of the 20th Century. Plume traders and hunters were taking our nation’s Great White Egrets, Heron, Bald Eagles and other migratory birds in untold numbers at the height of breeding season with no regard for the young.   In fact, many species like the great American Bison (Buffalo), Black Bear, Grizzly Bear, Elk, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Lion, and were being hunted to the brink of extinction.  With a U.S. population that had once numbered over 5 billion birds, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) by the start of the 1900s, had already been hunted to extinction.

It was during this time President Theodore Roosevelt came into office.  President Roosevelt was the youngest man (then 42) ever to assume the office of the President. Roosevelt, then Vice President was sworn into office taking his Presidential Oath of Office immediately following the assassination of President William McKinley on September 14, 1901.  Roosevelt’s presidential terms ran consecutively from 1901 to 1909.   Not surprising, President Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russian-Japanese War.  This historic youngest President of the United States, a Harvard graduate, was a man of the land.  

Roosevelt had spent 2 years working the Maltese Cross Ranch in the rugged Badlands of North Dakota.   After his ranch days Roosevelt rode in the position of Lieutenant Colonel with the Rough Rider Regiment into ground battle during the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt had traveled to Africa as a big game hunter during his life at a time when the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society still sponsored these types of safaris and many of these animals, preserved by taxidermists, are displayed at the Smithsonian & American Museum of Natural History.  Roosevelt had traveled to Yosemite with John Muir, who became founding father & first President of the Sierra Club, and saw first hand the natural resources of his own homeland being depleted everywhere.  He saw the raw, untouched natural scenic beauty of Yellowstone with its myriad of hot springs and geysers, the etchings of time that formed the Grand Canyon in Colorado, the Giant Sequoia and Redwood trees in the fern forest of the Pacific Northwest, the rugged span of the Badlands where Dinosaurs once roamed, the marvel of “Half Dome” at Yosemite and he saw lands in need of protection. 

From the tiny Songbirds to the once Great Bison herds of the American plains, over hunting and human encroachment was taking its toll.   The once mighty Buffalo then counted no more than 100 animals per herd with a total population of less than 1,000 animals.  Many species were dwindling and in dire need of conservation protection & preservation for future generations.   Roosevelt greatly respected the diversity of species and sought to preserve their natural habitat.  His love of the land cast into stone his strong beliefs that much of the American land should forever remain unscathed & preserved as “A Land for all People”. 

President Theodore Roosevelt became one of the greatest conservation icons of our time.  It is said that more Federal land was protected under the Roosevelt administration than by any other President.   Protected national forests acreage increased from just over 40,000,000 acres to almost 200,000,000 under his conservation stewardship.   At the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration there were 5 National Parks in the United States:  General Grant, Mount Rainier, Sequoia, Yellowstone & Yosemite.  Roosevelt not only added land to Yosemite but authorized legislation to create 5 more National Parks:  In May of 1902 Crater Lake National Park in Oregon home to a lake at the top of an extinct volcano; followed in 1903 by Wind Cave National Park the 4th longest natural cave known in the world with its limestone caverns, intricate calcite formations known as “boxwork” and underground passageways in South Dakota;  Sullys Hill a wooded area by Devil’s Lake in North Dakota in 1904 which later became a National Game Preserve were granted protection.  In 1906 Platt National Park in Oklahoma was designated along with the famous Pueblo Indian cave dwellings of the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.  The list of National Parks continued to grow during the Roosevelt administration to include Devils Tower, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Olympus.  When Roosevelt lost his battle to declare the Grand Canyon a National Park he instead deemed it a National Monument in 1908, and the Grand Canyon was subsequently granted National Park status in 1919.

On March 14, 1903 Roosevelt granted Federal protection to Pelican Island off the East Coast of Florida, becoming the first of 51 Federal Bird Reservations established during Roosevelt’s term.   Pelican Island was established to protect the Eastern Brown Pelican, its habitat and the rookeries of Florida’s natural wildlife and other migratory birds.   These Federal Bird Sanctuaries ranged throughout the United States from Alaska, California, Oregon, Puerto Rico into the Gulf of Mexico and included Hawaii.  Habitat was protected for many wildlife bird species including Black Skimmers, Laughing Gulls and Pelicans at the Breton Island Reservation in Louisiana;  Cormorants, Petrels & Puffin at Three Arch Rocks Reservation off the coast of Oregon to the Noddy & Sooty Terns found on the Dry Tortugas Reservation in the Gulf of Mexico.  The wildlife found at Pelican Island’s sanctuary thrives today, with last count boasting over 30,000 breeding pairs of Pelicans and stands in testimony to the wisdom of this protection over a century ago. 

Roosevelt understood full well that preservation of the land and its resources provided the habitat that was the key to preservation of the animal species and the beauty of the natural wilderness.   In 1906 President Roosevelt signed into law the “National Parks & Monument  Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities”, more commonly referred to as the Antiquities Act, or the National Monument Act which celebrates its 100th year anniversary in 2006.  The Antiquities Act preserves archeological sites on public lands requiring Federal Agencies to manage and preserve these natural resources for scientific, commemorative and culture values.  It is estimated that well over 200,000,000 acres of land were granted protective status by President Theodore Roosevelt during his terms.  Roosevelt dedicated for preservation over 150 National Forests, 51 Bird Preservations, 18 National Monuments, 21 Federal irrigation projects under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, and designated 5 National Parks.   In 1905 Medicine Bow Forest Reserve in Wyoming had lands from Colorado added to it by Roosevelt.   This forest reserve was renamed the “Roosevelt National Forest” in 1932 in tribute to Roosevelt.  However, it is near Medora in the Badlands of western North Dakota, where Roosevelt cut his conservation teeth as a cattle rancher, that today stands Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947 to honor this remarkable man as a great Conservation Leader and serve as a tribute to the legacy he gave to not only to the American People but to the world.

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