Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt is recognized as the most conservation-oriented U.S. president. This year’s puzzler asked which these was he not?
- a) Driver for establishment of first national park in the world (Yellowstone)
- b) African trophy hunter
- c) Adventure seeker
- d) A Republican
The reason this is a “puzzler” is because the answer may seem enigmatic: often we do not now associate a conservationist with a trophy hunter, an adventure-seeker, or (especially) a Republican (party of Trump). But Roosevelt was all of these. Although he did much for the fledgling U.S. National Park System, and set aside many lands for conservation, he was not (a) a driver for establishing Yellowstone National Park.
a) Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone, the first U.S. national park and the first national park in the world set aside for protecting natural beauty for public viewing, came into being in 1872. Roosevelt was just 13 years old at the time; a former army general named U.S. Seal was president. However, in 1903, while Roosevelt was president, he took a trip and “roughed it” in Yellowstone National Park (photos below), helping to formulate and motivate his conservationist thinking.
b) African trophy hunter
Teddy Roosevelt was an avid hunter. He began hunting as a boy in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. He became proficient at hunting when living alone in the Dakotas, while grieving the death of his wife. Here he shot trophy bison, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears (see the movie clip I sent). Just a year after moving west he published a book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. He described his hunting as a “connection with nature”.
He became a co-founder and first president of the Boone and Crockett Club, which today is often most recognized for keeping statistics on sizes of trophy hunting kills, but was started to help save wildlife. This was a time when overhunting had decimated many species in the US –– observed firsthand by Roosevelt because he was a hunter. Roosevelt believed that hunters should champion wildlife conservation: ironically, whereas hunters directly caused the rapid decline of many species, only hunters witnessed this, or cared (since the non-hunting public was very disengaged from nature).
Roosevelt was a passionate proponent of the Public Trust Doctrine, which is the foundation of what is today called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation –– it establishes that the public owns wildlife, no matter on whose property it resides, but government is responsible for managing it for the public, including owning and managing wildlife habitat. Roosevelt’s greatest contribution to conservation was the saving of wildlife habitat (forests, wildlife refuges, parks, etc.)
In 1909 Roosevelt went on a year-long hunting trip to East Africa, sponsored by the Smithsonian. He and his son shot over 500 specimens, including lions, rhinos, hippos, elephants, many antelopes, monkeys, flamingos, storks, pelicans, ostriches, etc., which were sent back to the Smithsonian. These specimens were taken primarily for science and public display, and not simply as personal “trophies”. But Roosevelt admitted that he savored the thrill, adventure, and skill of hunting, and enjoyed posing with his kills. A result was his book African Game Trails, where he says: “Kermit [his son] and I kept about a dozen trophies for ourselves; otherwise we shot nothing that was not used either as a museum specimen or for meat…the mere size of the bag indicates little as to a man’s prowess as a hunter and almost nothing as to the interest or value of his achievement.” Some of the African big game that he killed adorned his trophy room in New York, alongside his bison and elk. This is open to the public in a newly renovated national historic site.
In 1913, deeply dismayed after losing a bid for a third term at the presidency, Roosevelt embarked on an adventure expedition in South America. (This was much like his reaction to his wife’s death, when he picked up and moved to the western territories of the US to start ranching.) This adventure, to navigate a previously unexplored river, almost killed him (at one point he insisted that the expedition leave him behind to die).
An excellent book about this little-known expedition is Candice Millard’s very well researched “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey”.
In 1902, Roosevelt was leader of the Republican party. Ironically, at the time, that party, thanks to Roosevelt, was much more in-tuned to environmental issues than today (the party of Trump). In a later unsuccessful presidential bid, he was a candidate for the Progressive “Bull Moose Party.”
The “lessons” of the Roosevelt story are that (a) people should be judged within the time frame in which they lived; (b) the “politics” of today are not the politics of yesterday; and (c) whatever you might think of trophy hunting, it is indisputable that, in some cases, it has been a driving force in conservation (read more here). Finally, I think it’s not unusual that a conservationist should also be an adventurer. What conservationists seek to preserve is the brilliance of nature, in all its forms, mysteries, and complexities. TR sought not to conquer nature, but to explore it and become a part of it by living it.