By Roosevelt's election to the presidency in September of 1901, he had already spent significant time in what were then called "untamed" areas, specifically, he lived on a ranch in the Dakota Territory for two years and raised cattle. He had also, by 1901, become an avid hunter, rancher, and naturalist, and, more important, he developed a belief that American civilization, if not kept in check, might overrun what is left of America's open spaces. In his first message to Congress in December, 1901, he said,
There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country. Just as we must conserve our men, women and children, so we must conserve the resources of the land on which they live.
Roosevelt, of course, when he uses the term resources, he is thinking of not just open land for people's enjoyment but also natural resources like coal, gas, timber, and other mineral resources.
We now look upon Roosevelt as the Conservation President, in part because he was instrumental in championing and signing into law several important acts that today form the basis of American conservation policies. For example, in 1903, two years into his first term, Roosevelt helped settle a dispute with Great Britain over the location of a boundary between Canada and Alaska. As part of the settlement, Roosevelt signed into law an act protecting Alaskan lands and its wildlife. That same year, Roosevelt helped create one of the major bird sanctuaries in the U. S., the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge near Sebastian, Florida.
One of Roosevelt's most important conservation achievements resulted from a sightseeing trip he took to the Grand Canyon in 1903, and in 1908, when he created Grand Canyon National Park, he made a statement that has become a symbol of his drive to protect natural America:
Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.
A driving force behind his conservation is this fundamental sense that nature, which cannot defend itself against the depredations of man, must be affirmatively defended by those with the power to do so. When, for example, Roosevelt was on a hunting trip in Mississippi, he was asked if he wanted to shoot a captured bear, Roosevelt refused. This refusal has become iconic: a toy manufacturer then created the stuffed bear, which has since been known as the "Teddy Bear."
Throughout his presidencies (and beyond), Roosevelt continued to preserve open space (enlarging Yosemite National Park); he created the National Park Service in 1905, as well as created or enlarged 150 National Forests; he participated in the rehabilitation of the American Bison by co-founding the American Bison Society in 1905. And in 1908, just two years before the end of his second term, he signed into law the Antiquities Act of 1906, which affords federal protection to archaeological sites all over the U. S, including many Native American sites.
As a child Theodore Roosevelt was sickly and suffered from asthma. On the advice of a doctor, Teddy was sent to the West where he could be in fresh air and obtain exercise. Early in his youth, then, he embraced a strenuous lifestyle and a love of nature. When his first wife died two days after childbirth, Roosevelt abandoned his world of politics and moved to the Dakotas, but when blizzards killed his herds of cattle, he returned to New York City and politics.
Nevertheless, his love for the outdoors remained in his heart; and, in 1883 Roosevelt visited the Badlands in the Dakotas, enticed by the prospect of hunting game. But, he was struck by the horrendous damage done to the buffalo herds that were decimated by the greed of hide hunters and by disease. He also observed further damage to other species and to the grasslands which had been overgrazed, a condition which affected the lives of prairie wildlife such as peasants and other small animals. So disturbed was Roosevelt by this lack of conservationism that in 1901, after becoming President of the U.S., Roosevelt used his authority which enabled him to protect wildlife and public lands in creating the U.S. Forest Service. This new department generated the establishment of
51 Federal Bird Reservations, 4 National Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, 5 National Parks, and enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act which he used to proclaim 18 National Monuments.
These actions by President Roosevelt effected the protection of nearly 230,000,000 acres of public land. Along with the reservation of land for public use, he also initiated the creation of huge irrigation projects. Indeed, much of the pristine beauty that remains in America is due to the protective legislation of President Theodore Roosevelt, who loved not just politics and the governing of the country, but the country itself, its lakes and streams, its giant Redwoods, its forests, its plains, its mountains, its canyons, its wildlife, its skies.