By David Link
As a writer and outdoorsman, there are a few historical figures that I take particular interest in because of their impact on the outdoors and the outdoor lifestyle that many of us Americans cherish today. As today is Presidents Day, it’s a perfect time to celebrate the accomplishments if Theodore Roosevelt in preserving many wild places for the enjoyment of generation after generation. Although Presidents Day actually falls on George Washington’s birthday, it has come to be a holiday to honor all the Presidents. And so let’s explore Theodore Roosevelt legacy as an outdoorsman for those who aren’t familiar with his views and commitment to the wild places of America.
Early Life And The Boone And Crockett Club
As a boy, Roosevelt didn’t seem to display the constitution of an outdoorsman, and the asthma he experienced took quite a toll on his childhood activities. Nevertheless, he was a boy that could draw from a well of seemingly endless determination, and this attitude would no doubt take him far in life both as the President and a lover of the outdoors. It is said that Roosevelt’s interest in animals and nature began early in his life while he was growing up in New York. One day he managed to talk a market into giving him a seal’s head for study, which he became his first specimen for study and the first trial of taxidermy for the young boy. Roosevelt’s father also encouraged a sense of adventure in his son. They toured Europe and Egypt when he was still a boy, and Roosevelt’s imagination was captivated by these places. It was during one trip in Europe that Roosevelt also found the key to tackling his nagging asthma. He was hiking in the Alps with his family and displayed the ability to keep pace with his father during a strenuous hike. It turned out that his asthma was kept at bay by exercise (not always the case with a condition like asthma) and he began to seek exercise and activity in many forms as he continued to grow.
After finishing school, Roosevelt married his first wife Alice Lee. Their life together was not to last and Alice died soon after giving birth to Teddy’s first son. This sent Roosevelt into a bout of depression where he focused on his first political activities. He proved to be a powerful supporter in New York politics, but the draw of the West also called to him, and after the 1884 election, he moved to North Dakota and built his own ranch called Elkhorn. There Teddy’s sense of adventure and “manly” nature grew as he learned to rope and ride, and hunt many of the big game animals still plentiful in the West. He also began to express his love and interest in the lifestyle, and he wrote three books and many magazine articles about western life .over the next ten years before his presidency. Almost larger than life, it was during this time that Roosevelt became a deputy sheriff in the region. He famously captured three outlaws who had stolen his riverboat and escorted them back for trial instead of resorting to vigilante justice. It was during this time that Roosevelt teamed up with famous Deadwood sheriff Seth Bullock to track some horse thieves as well.
Roosevelt the ND rancher.
Roosevelt began to develop a sense of responsibility for the West during these years, and he campaigned with other ranchers to protect against overgrazing and needless damage to the rancher’s way of life. He formed the Little Missouri Stockman’s Association to help these ranchers, and he also turned his attention to the dwindling herds of big game animals and formed the Boone And Crockett Club in response. The famous explorers Boone and Crockett were among the first to realize that over-harvesting of game animals could have a adverse effect on the American habitats, and Roosevelt named the club in their honor. Many hunters may not know that the Boone And Crockett club was the first to outline the practice of fair chase of game, a principle which is still highly honored in modern hunting. The organization also campaigned for expansions of Yellowstone National Park, and many of its members would be key in the future creation of the National Park and National Forest system along with the National Wildlife Refuges. The Boone And Crockett Club was key in eliminating the practice of commercial market hunting that especially impacted big game in the West, and they consistently contributed funds to key conservation efforts. Today the club still exists, and they are responsible for outlining the big game scoring system that hunters utilize to measure their trophies against others.
National Parks, Forests, And Refuges
There was a devastating winter in the Dakotas between 1886 and 1887, and this event was to further shape the course of Roosevelt’s life. He lost nearly 60% of his cattle herd to the harsh winter, and his investment in the Elkhorn Ranch became largely a failure because of it. This caused Roosevelt to turn his attention back to Washington, and he was soon appointed in a number of positions that improved his standing in national politics including the US Civil Service Commission and the New York City Police Commissioner. He still visited North Dakota regularly and continued to publish works based upon the history and activities of western culture, but his duties continually distracted him from the ranching profession, and he eventually sold Elkhorn around the same time he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He soon resigned from the position to become part of the US Calvary “Rough Riders” division, and he earned fame by leading a seemingly impossible charge over open ground in the Spanish-American War. His fame was solidified in the Battle of Cuba, and he began a fast track to the White House that included a term as Governor of New York and then 6 months as Vice President. When President McKinley was shot, Roosevelt assumed the Presidency and brought with him the strong sense of conservation that would positively change the American wilderness forever.
Crater Lake a few years after its establishment as a National Park.
Roughly a year into his first term as President, Roosevelt established the first National Park under his watch, Crater Lake, but it’s important to note that this was not the first National Park established. Yellowstone holds that honor and was established in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant. Yet Roosevelt drastically stepped up the conservation efforts of the US government over his time as President, and he made the biggest impact in conservation efforts both past and present. His achievements include the establishment of the US Forest Service that consolidated earlier efforts at establishing National Forests, and encouraged new types of landowners attune to the conservation of forest reserves with the Forest Homestead Act. He also preserved a wealth of National Monuments with the Antiquities Act. Some of these National Monuments include Devil’s Tower and The Grand Canyon. Roosevelt also established several other National Parks during his presidency including Wind Cave, Mesa Verde, Sully’s Hill, and Platte National Parks. During this time, Roosevelt also became friends with the famous naturalist John Muir, and together they helped preserve key areas of the Yosemite Valley.
Roosevelt with naturalist John Muir in Yosemite.
All told, Roosevelt protected over 230,000,000 acres of land for conservation during his terms, and this included 150 national forests, 51 federal bird refuges, 18 National Monuments, and 5 National Parks. This is a gift to American that cannot be overshadowed, and it is one that we all still enjoy today. After his Presidency, Roosevelt engaged in a comprehensive safari in East and Central Africa for the Smithsonian Institute in which he helped catalog and send back 11,400 animals which were later displayed in museums across America. Even in his later years, the fascination for animals and science had not changed from that time when he first preserved a seal’s head as a child.
What Roosevelt’s Conservation Efforts Mean To You
I feel a particular affinity for Roosevelt’s conservation efforts when I camp or hunt in the National Forests that are abundant in my chosen state of Colorado. These are beautiful lands that should be available to all, and although I respect the right of those to own private property in places like the Rockies, I also think it would be a tragic consequence if all these lands were divided up and fenced off. I certainly don’t have the capital to own a ranch or slice of land in the mountains (yet, hopefully), but until I can make that dream a reality, there are always the National Forests and Parks. These places are a refuge for every outdoorsman, and while some places forbid hunting, don’t forget that others provide ample opportunity for people to hunt even though they own no land. That is another right that Roosevelt believed in, and so this President’s Day let us celebrate the efforts of our Conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt.
A later expedition the Roosevelt and his son Kermit undertook to map a river in the Amazon later named the Roosevelt River.