"The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."
President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907
For someone whose facade was carved in stone at Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt's reputation has eroded a bit since his death 85 years ago. Wildly popular in the early 20th century, Roosevelt is now chiefly remembered stereotypically as a big-game-hunting, cowboy-hat-wearing Rough Rider. But our 26th and youngest president (age 42 at inauguration) was much more than the sum of his stereotypes. He was a populist, a nuanced thinker, and an amateur naturalist--all of which were encapsulated in his self-designation as a "conservationist."
Now in the interest of full disclosure I have to admit a personal and professional interest in Teddy. Our new baby's name is Theodore and one always hopes to have good connotations associated with an offspring's name. But beyond this, as a conservation historian I find Roosevelt fascinating because the disparate elements of his life are often pulled apart and treated separately, hence we have good histories of him as hunter, or trust-buster, or Progressive politician. But of course these parts of his life merged frequently and nowhere more so than in his most enduring legacy--the American conservation movement.
Roosevelt the big game hunter is often the most difficult legacy for modern students to reconcile with the conservationist label. However, at the beginning of the conservation movement almost all conservationists were hunters, a historical realty all too often forgotten today. One of the first important periodicals to express the new conservation ideology was the traditional "hook and bullet" publication Forest and Stream--which in the 1880s became one of the most prominent voices for conservation. Its editor, George Bird Grinnell, went on to found the first Audubon Society in 1886. (I have always appreciated the irony that a "Bird" founded the Audubon Society.) A year later Grinnell, with his friend Theodore Roosevelt and other hunters, founded the Boone and Crockett Club. This latter organization began some of the first work to preserve game in this country and lobby for legislation to protect wildlife. It should, in retrospect, not have been surprising that hunters were some of the first conservationists. They were on the front lines during the decimation of wildlife that marked the country from the 1870s through the 1890s. These hunter-conservationists decried so-called "game hogs" and "butchers" who squandered resources and in contrast they developed a code of the sportsman to counter the wasteful use of wildlife. In fact the famous "teddy bear' resulted from the publicity when Roosevelt refused to hunt a small bear trapped in an unsportsmanlike manner. Roosevelt and his hunter-conservationists were very concerned that their vocation, which they considered integral to the American character, was threatened by the wanton slaughter of species.
When he became President in 1901, Roosevelt was able to do far more for the nation's wildlife and those who enjoy it. He created 51 bird reservations and 4 national game preserves the genesis of what grew into the National Wildlife Refuge System an important resource both for game and non-game species. The protection of non-game birds was especially important to Roosevelt. An avid birder, who published pieces on ornithology, Roosevelt traveled often with fellow conservationists John Burroughs and John Muir both of whom complemented him on his knowledge of birdcalls. His mark here lay in the federal bird habitat he carved out for endangered species, perhaps the first such experiment in the world.
But his most lasting legacy was the American conservation movement itself which he helped launch, name, and popularize. Roosevelt's most important adviser on conservation was Gifford Pinchot who took over as Chief of the newly created U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Pinchot helped coin and popularize the new term "conservation" which he defined as "the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time." More succinctly Pinchot called this the "wise use" of the nation's resources. "Wise-use" to Pinchot and Roosevelt was always contrasted with "waste and abuse" of resources--that being the dominant interaction with natural resources up to the Roosevelt presidency.
The expansion of the national forests was Pinchot and Roosevelt's great land based conservation experiment. With the nation's timber supplies being rapidly depleted and with little-to-no reforestation occurring, the newly created U.S. Forest Service created 150 new National Forests increasing the acreage protected from 43 million to 194 million acres. Yet in spite of all the refuges, parks and forests Roosevelt's greatest legacy was the new intellectual landscape he opened up to the American public. Roosevelt helped ensure that the federal government assumed a stewardship role over the nation's resources--a contentious point previously. Most importantly, Roosevelt's anti-monopolistic inclinations informed his outlook on conservation. Roosevelt defined the nation's natural resources as the public's trust not the spoils for the privileged few. Roosevelt's Progressive politics, distrust of monopolies, and expanded vision of the American nation came together most sublimely in his rhetoric in favor of protecting the nation's resources for future generations.
Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.
Last year we started a small event in Shepherdstown the first week in November called the American Conservation Film Festival. While there are half a dozen environmental film festivals, I only know of this one conservation film festival. We are often asked about this antiquated sounding name, either what it means or why the more modern term "environmental" was not chosen? There are several plausible answers. The American conservation movement was a homegrown intellectual movement that has bequeathed to us rich natural and literary treasures. Also conservation sometimes is seen as a more inclusive term for hunters, anglers and others who sometimes have an ambivalent relationship with certain environmental groups. But the best reason to revive the term conservation goes back to its origins with Theodore Roosevelt and his contemporaries. Like the robust President who popularized the term, conservation was equated with action. Conservationists were charged to protect the environment from all who would despoil it. Conservationists understood their work as both a patriotic and scientific duty and they gave no quarter in what they called "the fight for conservation." As a result of their successes our wildlife, forests, and parks are in a much healthier state a century later. These conservation pioneers remind us in the 21st century of the work they accomplished under much more adverse circumstances and charge us through their words to continue the battle. Those of us who enjoy these remaining natural places and creatures are all heirs of Roosevelt. As beneficiaries of this legacy, it serves us well, every century or so, to revisit Roosevelt's words and reinvigorate our own personal commitment to conservation.
Birth of a Notion: The American Conservation Movement - by Mark Madison who is a historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and teaches environmental history at the National Conservation Training Center and Shepherd University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.