Presidency and Protected Lands
Theodore Roosevelt took office as President of the United States in 1901. Over the next eight years, he used his new powers to create the United States Forest Service and establish 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. All told, Roosevelt’s legacy added up to approximately 230 million acres of public land. He was also a passionate public advocate for conservation, giving speeches on stewardship of national resources during and after his presidency.
Roosevelt was not the first prominent conservationist in the US. However, he was the most powerful and influential one of his time. He is one of only two presidents to be born in New York City. Despite his urban roots, Roosevelt is often called the “conservation president.” He used the power of his office to change the way Americans viewed their natural resources. But his work as President of the United States was only the logical extension of his lifelong passion for conservation.
Roots of the American Conservation Movement
In Roosevelt’s day, the “conservation movement” was relatively new to the US. It developed in the 1860s and 1870s, driven in part by reactions to the industrial revolution and its effects on the environment and artistic depictions of natural grandeur, especially scenes of the western frontier of North America.
Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh were among the first generation of the new American movement. Teddy Roosevelt was part of the next generation.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born in Manhattan in 1858. At the age of 8, he founded the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History,” his personal collection of zoological specimens that grew as Roosevelt collected them himself and persuaded others to donate and recruited friends to help.
At age 12, he donated several of his specimens to the American Museum of Natural History (co-founded by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., his father). His collection continued to grow, and he donated the bulk of it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1882, after his election to the New York State Legislature. Nevertheless, he continued to collect animal and insect specimens (often doing the taxidermy himself) throughout his life.
The Boone and Crockett Club
Between 1883 and 1886, Roosevelt realized that commercial hunting, poor land management, and similar practices were destroying the land (especially in the West). Hunting methods of the time were harsh, such as the practice of “water-killing” deer. Deer were driven by teams of hounds and humans into lakes, where hunters waited in boats to shoot or club the panicked animals as they swam to escape. Such methods were driving many animals to extinction and threatening entire ecosystems.
In December of 1887, Roosevelt gathered a group of conservationists, hunters, scientists and business leaders to form the Boone and Crockett Club. They chose famous hunters Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett as symbols of their new hunting ethic: “fair chase.”
The Boone and Crockett Club promoted sustainable hunting practices. “Fair chase” dictated that an ethical hunter would kill only those animals that were free in their natural habitat. The club used the influence of its prominent members to promote fair chase through public education and by pushing legislation that gradually evolved into the ethical and legal code that governs hunting today.
The Boone and Crockett Club is still active today; it is the oldest conservation organization in the United States. It provides classes in hunting ethics and conservation and continues to advocate for the environment. Yet Roosevelt’s greatest and most lasting legacy is the network of national parks, monuments, forests, and protected wildlife areas that he started and subsequent presidents (and Congress) expanded. If you have been to any of these facilities at any time in your life, you owe a nod of thanks to our nation’s 26th president.