To Dare Mighty Things

Theodore Roosevelt's intense passion for politics and the natural world helped shape America's national parks.

By Seth Shteir

As a rancher in North Dakota in the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt described the song of the meadowlark as “a cadence of wild sadness.” Years later on a Louisiana hunting trip, he marveled at the size and plumage of the nearly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. In 1907, he was the last trained ornithologist to observe passenger pigeons in the wild.

America’s 26th president was a conservation-minded cowboy in spectacles and a three-piece suit, a hunter who championed hunting regulations, an urban politician who found ways to connect to the natural world. He loved birds, open spaces, and back-busting ranch work. And he carved a path for protection of our national parks, establishing himself as one of the most innovative conservationists in history.

In a 1905 speech to a Chicago audience, his relentless drive shines through: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat.”

The image of Roosevelt as a robust political figure and outdoorsman contradicts his sickly childhood, when bronchial asthma left his body frail and sickly. “Teedie,” as he was called by his aristocratic New York family, was the son of a Dutch Yankee and a Southern belle. Despite his urban surroundings, he loved nature and revered animals. In fact, when Roosevelt’s mother sent the seven-year-old boy to buy strawberries at a bustling Broadway market, he came upon a sight that would have appalled or saddened most children—a dead seal. But Roosevelt was fascinated and returned the next day with a pocket ruler to measure the carcass and ask where the animal was killed. He later wrote that the seal filled him with “every possible feeling of romance and adventure.”

Though young Roosevelt wasn’t allowed to buy the seal, he did acquire its skull for his “Theodore Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”—a warehouse of birds’ nests, insects, shells, and minerals. He charged adults one penny for admission, but kids could view his collection for free, provided they helped feed the live animals. Roosevelt’s specimens were well respected, and several eventually wound up in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.

Summers in the Adirondacks, on Long Island, and along the Hudson River fueled Roosevelt’s interest in the natural world. He spent his days devouring books about nature and recording detailed observations on a variety of animals. Under the roof of his parents’ vacation home, young Roosevelt kept a snapping turtle tied to the household laundry tub, fed baby squirrels with an eye dropper, and housed a tree frog in the parlor. But when he stored dead mice in the icebox, his mother felt he had crossed the line and ordered him to throw them out—an act he decried as a “loss to science.”

Roosevelt’s father, Theodore senior, was tickled by his son’s love of the natural world and registered the young boy for taxidermy lessons with John G. bell, John James Audubon’s own taxidermist. Around the same time, Roosevelt also received a 12-gauge shotgun for his 13th birthday. When it seemed that he couldn’t hit anything—or read billboards, for that matter—his father gave him a gift that would ultimately create Roosevelt’s iconic image: a pair of spectacles. They “opened an entirely new world to me,” he said.

In 1876, Roosevelt left for Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, intent on becoming a naturalist. Records show that he did his best work in science, but he later blamed Harvard for its emphasis on laboratory biology and the science department’s failure “to understand the great variety of kinds of work that could be done… by outdoor naturalists.” Some historians, however, think that Roosevelt’s dream of becoming a great naturalist was more a casualty of his changing interests than a failing of Harvard’s curricula.

If Harvard didn’t provide the instruction Roosevelt yearned for, it at least led him to love. It was here that Roosevelt courted and married a stunning young woman named Alice Lee. Soon after, the couple returned to New York, where Roosevelt shifted his focus to politics and was quickly elected to the New York state assembly.

In 1883, the adventure of the West drew Roosevelt to Dakota territory, but when he stepped off the Northern Pacific railroad in the area now known as Medora, the locals were skeptical. He wore a fancy cowboy suit and carried a knife made by the famed jeweler, Tiffany. His tiny, round spectacles and high-pitched voice seemed out of place in a land of rough-and-tumble cowboys—but his determination as a hunter, and later a rancher, eventually won people over. For the next few years, Roosevelt would divide his time between New York and Dakota territory, a landscape that enchanted him. “Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint afterglow of the red sunset filled the West,” he wrote.

Back in Albany, New York, while Roosevelt was working for the state assembly, tragedy struck on Valentine’s Day, 1884. His wife, Alice, died from kidney failure after a difficult childbirth, just as his mother succumbed to typhoid fever. Roosevelt stayed to finish the legislative session but left by summer to find solace in the badlands of North Dakota. His despair is recorded in his journal, where he scratched a lone “X” and scrawled below, “The light has gone out of my life.”

“Roosevelt was on the verge of depression, but the land of North Dakota mended his hurt,” says Bruce Kaye, former chief of interpretation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. He stayed first at the Maltese Cross ranch and later at the Elkhorn ranch, where the little Missouri river snakes its way through arid North Dakota badlands. Roosevelt was no wallflower: He broke horses, roped and branded cattle, and claimed to have spent a glute-busting 50 hours in the saddle once, rounding up the herd.

In his quieter moments, Roosevelt hunted and wrote, and his love for the natural world blossomed. In one passage about the hermit thrush—a small, brown songbird—he describes the “serene, ethereal beauty of the hermit’s song, rising and falling in the still evening.”

Roosevelt’s time on the open range allowed him to witness firsthand the decimation of the great bison herds, eradication of the grizzly bear, and damage to grasslands from overgrazing cattle. He began to understand the importance of environmental regulations and preserving wildlife. “I would not have been president if it hadn’t been for my experience in North Dakota,” he reflected years later.

In December 1886, Roosevelt remarried to a family friend, Edith Carrow, in London; they settled in New York and eventually raised five children. Roosevelt turned his attention back to politics, but this time with a finer focus: conservation. He wrote a book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, which received an unfavorable review by naturalist George Bird Grinnell in Forest and Stream magazine. When Roosevelt contacted Grinnell to ask for an explanation, the two stumbled into a surprising friendship and went on to found the Boone and Crocket Club in 1887, with a mission to preserve vanishing wildlife and promote hunting sportsmanship. The club successfully lobbied Congress to pass the 1894 Lacey Act, which secured protection for Yellowstone National Park, preventing a proposed railroad that would have penetrated its wilderness.

Roosevelt also served as a member of the Civil service Commission, president of the New York Police Commission, and assistant secretary of the Navy. His courageous charge up San Juan Hill during the 1898 Spanish–American War helped earn him the position of New York governor, and ultimately vice president of the United States in 1900. In 1901, when President McKinley was assassinated at a convention in New York, Roosevelt was hiking high in the Adirondacks. “It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency in this way,” he said, “but it would be far worse to be morbid about it. Here is the task, and I have got to do it to the best of my ability.”

Roosevelt was inaugurated at a time when many Americans still considered their nation a land of inexhaustible natural resources. But as president, he championed the conservation cause. His commitment wasn’t based on winning votes but a recognition that our nation was depleting its resources. “Conservation of our resources is the fundamental question before this nation, and...our first and greatest task is to set our house in order and begin to live within our means,” Roosevelt said in his 1909 message to Congress.

During his two terms as president, Roosevelt worked tirelessly to protect the national parks from commercialism, railroad encroachment, and—despite his privileged upbringing—the idea of parks as hunting camps for the rich. His administration helped double the number of national parks from five to ten, protecting the majestic blue waters of Crater Lake National Park, the rich archaeological resources of Mesa Verde, and the caverns of Wind Cave National Park. After an eventful camping trip with the sure-footed John Muir in Yosemite, Roosevelt helped to add the stunning Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to Yosemite National Park. In all, he designated a whopping 230 million acres of land, including 150 national forests, 51 bird sanctuaries, and 18 national monuments.

Roosevelt also signed into law the instrumental 1906 Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, giving the president power to preserve land with unique cultural and scientific attributes as national monuments. It was a brilliant strategic move that allowed Roosevelt to protect land as “probationary” parks and designate as monuments significant lands that Congress was not yet ready to make national parks. The trend took hold. One out of four of America’s current national parks was first protected as a national monument.

One of Roosevelt’s most powerful designations came on January 11, 1908, when he set aside 800,000 acres of land as Grand Canyon National Monument. (It would become a national park about a decade later, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.) Roosevelt first visited the park in 1903 when, awestruck by the landscape, he gave a speech on the canyon’s rim: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.” These words, says Clay Jenkinson, a professor at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, “could equally be regarded as the motto of the National Park System.”

For millions of visitors, a National Park System without the Grand Canyon would be like the Louvre without Mona Lisa. Thankfully, Roosevelt’s passion for the natural world and commitment to democracy played a role not just in his personal life but in his presidential policies as well. And that commitment still guides Congress today, says Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), chairman of the National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands subcommittee.

“Would there be a Grand Canyon National Park without Roosevelt?” Grijalva asks. “Without his actions, many protected areas wouldn’t exist. Americans are a stronger and better people when we have our wild places.”

Seth Shteir, vice president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in California, was inspired to write about Roosevelt after birdwatching with his father in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue.

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April 12, 2013

You may want to check the date you reference in the 3rd paragraph of this article ( I believe Roosevelt gave this famous speech, "The Strenuous Life", at the Hamilton Club in Chicago on April 10, 1899, not in 1905.

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