An alternative Founding Father – Theodore Roosevelt and the American Conservation Movement

Theodore Roosevelt was an impressive president for a number of reasons, but in many ways he is still quite hard to pin down. In this article, Wout Vergauwen looks at Roosevelt and his presidency through the prism of his one his more unknown policy areas, that of conservation.


There can nothing in the world be more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.

 – Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth President of the United States


Ever since Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909, politicians, historians and naturalists have debated who the twenty-sixth president really was, and how he should be remembered: as a politician, a cowboy, a soldier, a historian, an author, a conservationist, or a hunter. However, Theodore Roosevelt could not be pigeonholed, and that is why he is now remembered as one of most versatile presidents since Thomas Jefferson. Though many aspects of his multi-faceted presidency have been covered by historians, his conservation efforts remain largely underexplored. 

An alternative Founding Father – Theodore Roosevelt and the American Conservation Movement

Theodore Roosevelt when in the Rough Riders during the 1898 Spanish-American War. From Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Volume II. Published in 1899.

The key is to understanding Roosevelt’s conservation policy is that his efforts were not strictly political, but also personal. From his youth onwards, Roosevelt always felt passionate for the nature in which he found comfort while battling illness.[1] As a result, he entered Harvard on the brink of adulthood “intending to become […] a scientific man of the Audubon, or Wilson, or Baird, or Coues type – a man like Hart Merriam, or Frank Chapman, or Hornaday, to-day.”[2] Disappointed in the way science was practiced at university – through the microscope and in the laboratory with little field work – he decided to pursue his fascination for nature elsewhere. In 1888, he founded the Boone and Crockett Club, a foundation concerned with the preservation of big game species and their habitat that quickly became one of the most effective conservation organizations of its day.[3] Prior to his arrival in the White House, several other efforts followed, but the scale of his efforts drastically enlarged once he succeeded William McKinley as president. In his first annual message to a joint Congress, Roosevelt used McKinley’s assassination as a political opportunity to set the domestic agenda of his administration. He indeed managed to get hold of Congress’ attention and shifted it toward what he thought was important – conservation. After that, it was not long before he created his first – and the country’s sixth – national park: Oregon’s Crater Lake.[4]



Creating a national park, however, was not as simple as one might think, especially since Roosevelt had to create a new mindset. Indeed, Roosevelt did not only need to persuade Congress, but he also needed to invent a whole new policy domain that was understood by the people. Public support was almost nonexistent, or as Roosevelt noted himself in his autobiography: “the relationship between the conservation of natural resources and the ‘national welfare’ had not yet ‘dawned on the public mind’.”[5] The establishment of his conservationist ideals as the hallmark of his presidency was no easy task. Therefore, one should ask how he accomplished what he did and how he profiled himself as the founder of the conservation movement, even though he did not create the first national park, and neither did he establish the National Park Service, Woodrow Wilson’s accomplishment in 1916. Thus, the area that really needs to be addressed first is about the source of his powers, the way he obtained them, and the way he used them. Be sure, these powers were needed. From the beginning onwards, Roosevelt faced fierce opposition, not only from Congress, but also from ranchers, mine operators, loggers, power companies, and the Western states who protested his conservation efforts because they limited the exploitation of natural resources.[6] Even so, within the boundaries of the law, Roosevelt continued to protect the environment and resources for the generations to come, although he dealt rather creatively with Congress and legislation.

A remarkable though interesting way to approach the power issue is through one of the nation’s most popular historical myths: The Frontier Myth. Unlike other rhetorical presidents however, Roosevelt did not just use it, he altered the myth so it could serve his purposes.[7] Being perceived as a frontiersman himself, he used this image to rearticulate the myth and link it to his conservation purposes, thereby promoting his policies. Roosevelt thus needed to persuade his audience and confronted two rhetorical challenges to do so: “First, he had to create a sense of exigency, an urgency to resolve the environmental crisis. Second, he had to formulate a nexus between conservation and values and attitudes that his audience embraced.”[8] In doing so, Roosevelt did not only use the altered Frontiers Myth, but linked his alterations to both the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson. Although, these cannot be seen as “values and attitudes” in a literal way, they serve the purpose perfectly.

The Jefferson link becomes clear when reviewing the first alteration, that of the frontier’s hero. Once perceived as a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, the myth’s hero had evolved toward the Old West cowboy whose brutal character and limitless exploitation of nature had been turned into virtues by the end of the century. Roosevelt linked the then contemporary farmer to his Jeffersonian counterpart, thereby restoring the “American hero that could symbolize the conservation of the nation’s resources”[9] and thus revitalizing the ‘original’ Frontier Myth. A second alteration dealt with the finite character of the Frontier, where Roosevelt played the commercial, rather than the environmental, card: “if you do not want to preserve nature for nature itself, at least support it for commercial interest.”



After signing the Crater Lake Bill, Roosevelt did not take the time to enjoy the creation of his national park, but started looking for another natural gem worth saving.  He found many, and continued his efforts to create national parks in order to protect them against human exploitation and to save them for the children of the future. In his fourth annual message to Congress, he announced the creation of a National Forest Service: “[…] neither can we accept the views of those whose only interest in the forest is temporary; who are anxious to reap what they have not sown and then move away, leaving desolation behind them […] The creation of a forest service in the Department of Agriculture will have […] important results”[10] Two months later, under the governance of Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service was indeed put in place. Soon after its creation, the Forest Service accumulated power, so becoming independent from Congress.[11] Because of this, lawmakers were not very accommodating to the president’s following conservation policies and saw an opportunity to make this clear by delaying Roosevelt’s efforts to gain Federal protection for Wyoming’s Devils Tower – often described as the strangest molten rock configuration in North America – the Grand Canyon, and several other sites. Although Roosevelt tried to push this through, Congress did not approve it and the body adjourned for the summer in June 1906.



Roosevelt, however, held the upper hand and revealed himself as an even stronger defender of nature. During the spring of 1906 he had gathered a team of preservationists to draft a bill declaring: “that the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”[12] The language of the legislation was carefully chosen and sounded inoffensive. Without realizing what they had approved, Senators passed the bill on May 24, 1906, and the House, also not fully understanding the impact of the bill on the floor, followed suit on June 5. Roosevelt signed the bill on June 8, and before apprehending that they were outsmarted by the president, Congressmen went home on June 30 – not to return before the start of their next session on December 3, 1906.  A lot of irony is to be found in this situation since Congress granted, unknowingly, their president the power they tried to hold on to. The newly ‘invented’ National Monuments did not need Congressional approval – as opposed to the National Parks – and gave the president free reign to protect whichever natural site he wanted to, something that he did. Wyoming’s Devils Tower was proclaimed the first national monument on September 24, and before the end of the year three others – El Morro (NM), Montezuma Castle (AZ) and the Petrified Forest (AZ) – would be added to that list. When Roosevelt left office in 1909, fourteen additional national monuments were created; whereas no new national parks were added to the list until Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, added Glacier National Park to the list in 1910.

This circumvention of Congress was only one example of what Theodore Roosevelt tried to accomplish: making the presidency more powerful. He never made an effort to hide his belief that the executive should be the most powerful branch of government and accomplished this in many ways.[13] Accusations that he usurped congressional powers were publicly ridiculed which made Congressmen yearn openly “for the day when [Theodore Roosevelt] would no longer lead – when [Congress] would have again a President in the mold of McKinley.”[14]


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[1] D. Brinkley, The Wilderness warrior. Theodore Roosevelt and the crusade for America, New York (NY), Harper Perennial, 2010, p. 22.

[2] O.H. Orr, Saving American Bird: T. Gilbert Pearson and the Founding of the Audubon Movement, Gainesville (FL), University Press of Florida, 1992, p. 74

[3] S. Marvinney, “Theodore Roosevelt, Conservationist” In: New York State Conservationist, 50 (1996), 6, [retrieved from: on November 23, 2013]

[4] Already existing national parks were: Yellowstone, Sequoia, General Grant, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier.

[5] L.G. Dorsey, “The Frontier Myth in Presidential Rhetoric: Theodore Roosevelt’s Campaign for Conservation” In: Western Journal of Communications, 59 (1995), 1, p. 2.

[6] D.O. Buehler, “Permanence and Change in Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation Jeremiad” In: Western Journal of Communications, 62 (1998), 4, p. 446.

[7] L.G. Dorsey, art. cit., p. 3.

[8] D.O. Buehler, art. cit., p. 441.

[9] L.G. Dorsey, art. cit., p. 8.

[10] T. Roosevelt, Fourth Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904 [retrieved from: on November 29, 2013]

This is part of a larger excerpt: “The forest policy of the government is just now a subject of vivid public interest throughout the West and the people of the United States in general […] The forest reserve policy can be successful only when it has the full support of the people of the West. It can not safely, and should not in any case, be imposed upon them against their will. But neither can we accept the views of those whose only interest in the forest is temporary; who are anxious to reap what they have not sown and then move away, leaving desolation behind them […] The creation of a forest service in the Department of Agriculture will have for its important results: First. A better handling of all forest work […] Second. The reserves themselves […] will be more easily and more widely useful to the people of the West than has been the case hitherto […] Third. Within a comparatively short time the reserves will become self-supporting.

[11] W.H. Harbaugh, op. cit., p. 323.

[12] “An Act For the preservation of American antiquities.” In: US Statutes at Large, Volume 34, Part 1, Chapter 3060, p. 225.

[13] L.G. Dorsey, art. cit., p. 2.

[14] W.H. Harbaugh, op. cit., p. 333.