Theodore Roosevelt, The Environmentalist President

The time period following the Civil War saw great westward expansion throughout the United States. Limitless resources seemed to be there for the taking, and much environmental exploitation took place. Minerals, coal, and oil were extracted without any environmental safeguards, and large blocks of timber were cut to fuel this growth. This time also witnessed widespread destruction of game habitat; market hunting; the systematic killing of large animals like wolf, cougar, elk, and buffalo; overfishing; pollution; and destruction of wetlands and water degradation. This degradation and waste gave rise to the Environmentalist movement; one of the main proponents was our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt.

Photo courtesy of Biography.com

At an early age, Teddy Roosevelt was drawn to the outdoors through his hunting and fishing adventures. He was also fascinated by the natural world. In 1867, at the tender age of nine, Roosevelt authored his first of many books, entitled The Natural History of Insects. Roosevelt acquired a fairly extensive collection of insects and stuffed animals over the years, resulting from his prodigious taxidermy skills. In 1887, Roosevelt and George Grinnell, who was the editor of Field and Stream magazine, started the Boone and Crocket Club, one of the main goals of which was to raise awareness about the pressing need for the wise use of our natural resources. One of the most important actions the Boone and Crocket Club undertook was to lobby government officials in Washington to protect Yellowstone Park from exploitive practices, since there were no laws on the books to do so. Despite the wealthy mining, ranching, and timber interests operating in our Nation’s Capital at the time, the club was able to obtain protective status within the park when President Grover Cleveland signed protective legislation into law in 1894.

Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 after William McKinley was assassinated, and he served in that capacity until 1909. At 42 years of age, President Roosevelt was our nation’s youngest president. His administration was marked by an amazing amount of accomplishments, many of which helped shape America. The Roosevelt Administration is associated with the Progressive movement, which espoused reverence for scientific organization, technical competence, nonpartisan good government, and strong commitment for supporting citizens against trusts and monopolies. In matters relating to the environment, Roosevelt was a proponent of the wise use of resources, the protection of natural heritage, sustainability of natural resources, and accessibility to the resources for everyone to enjoy.

In 1903, at the invitation of a friend, President Roosevelt toured Pelican Island, off the coast of Florida, where very large colonies of tropical birds gather. The president was lobbied to create a bird sanctuary here to protect these birds from the widespread commercial hunting of birds for their plumes and feathers. Later that year, Roosevelt helped establish the Pelican Island bird sanctuary. This initiative lead to the establishment of Federal Bird Reserves. In total, 51 reserves were established across the country during the Roosevelt administration.

In 1905, Roosevelt created an agency called the Bureau of Forestry from a previous agency called the Division of Forestry. The original Division of Forestry’s main purpose was to serve an advisory role to track forest resources and appraise government officials about their status. The head of the Division of Forestry at the time was Gifford Pinchot. Roosevelt placed the new Bureau of Forestry under the direction of the Department of Agriculture, and began to acquire Federal Forest lands. Under Roosevelt and Pinchot’s leadership, these forest reserves would be managed using scientific principles to ensure sustainable timber and other natural resources for the nation. During the Roosevelt administration, nearly 150 million acres of National Forest lands were established, and a decentralized management system was developed to oversee these reserves. The Bureau of Forestry was later named the US Forest Service.

Another hallmark of the Roosevelt administration was the Antiquities Act, which became law in 1906. This law enabled the President to take into Federal ownership landmarks, historic or prehistoric sites, historic structures, or historic or scientifically relevant items. Besides helping to ensure the protection of prehistoric artifacts and archeological sites, it enabled the president to designate special sites. One of the first sites to be designated was the Grand Cannon. It should be noted that the Antiquities Act of 1906 was the impetus for the creation of the National Park Service which was formed in 1916.

Another of Roosevelt’s close advisors was John Muir. Muir was a proponent of limited use of Federal lands to protect the natural beauty, preserve historic sites, protect indigenous plants and animals, and serve as a place that people can visit to behold the splendor of nature. Under Muir’s guidance, the National Monuments and Parks were put under the direction of the Department of the Interior so that these sites would receive protective status. In total, 17 National Monuments and five National Parks were designated during the Roosevelt Administration. Roosevelt also used the Lacey Act, a law intended to limit market hunting of birds and bison, along with the Antiquities Act to begin the establishment of game preserves. In total, four game preserves were established during this era, and the seeds for what would become the US Fish and Wildlife Service was sown during this time, as well.

Theodore Roosevelt remained very active in his outdoor pursuits and environmental matters following his presidency, embarking on many trips to faraway places like Africa and the Amazon to hunt, fish, or collect samples of plant and animal life. On one such trip to the Amazon in 1916, Roosevelt contracted a leg infection and fever that stayed with him until he died in 1919. President Roosevelt did much to shape the course of America during his brief life. His foresight helped usher in the Conservation movement, set aside large tracts of land for conservation purposes, created agencies to oversee our natural resources, and helped ensure that all Americans have access to our Federal Forests, Parks, and Wildlife Reserves so that everyone can enjoy the splendors of nature.

Nature note by the Frederick County Forest Conservancy District Board

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