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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Theodore Roosevelt

President and Pragmatic Conservationist

Michael Turgeon was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

"We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune." -Theodore Roosevelt[1]

Since its inception, the United States of America has had an intimate connection to issues regarding natural resources and how we treat our vast and diverse natural environments. Even all the way back to when our states were British colonies, our wild places played a definitive role in the formation of our culture. Americans were quick to adopt a pioneering spirit, and some of our most famous folk heroes such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone gained their fame from their image as rugged outdoorsmen. The formative years of the United States are fairly unique among modern nations in that our country was always facing a very real, very wild Western frontier, and our politicians and presidents have been addressing it ever since.  

When the United States began to solidify and rapidly expand in the early 19th century, the whole Western half of the continent posed a gargantuan problem for our early leaders. The seemingly endless expanse of wilderness was depopulated because of the tragic downfall of many native civilizations, and there was an unprecedented vacuum that was bound to be filled by one of the Western powers. Through the Louisiana Purchase and the mantra of Manifest Destiny, the United States quickly decided that it would be the power to fill the void. Our country acquired new land faster than it could fill it with people, leaving immense swaths of land under American control but still pristine and undeveloped. But, inevitably, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the country rapidly industrialized, train tracks spanned the prairie, and the Wild West did not seem so wild anymore. America finally had to figure out what to do with its untapped wilderness, and this critical period would decide whether America stands for protecting the environment or sapping it of all its precious natural resources.

Enter our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy came into office in 1901 under tragic circumstances due to the assassination of President McKinley, but he would spend his two terms as one of the most fervent progressives to ever lead our nation.  And, at the heart of his platform was environmentalism and a commitment to the conservation of our beautiful natural places. Under his guidance (and with help from other famous naturalists such as John Muir), Roosevelt showed the country that protecting places such as Yellowstone or the Yosemite Valley were of supreme importance, and the National Parks that he started have been a beacon of environmentalism for the last 100 years. At a time where America was rapidly expanding and Americans naively dismissed the environmental repercussions of their actions, Teddy Roosevelt had the wisdom and foresight to understand that we really want to keep these places as pristine as possible, so that future generations will be able to experience them in the same way.

And in accordance with many other pioneering environmentalists, Roosevelt’s dedication to nature stems from his childhood. Despite his superb intelligence and curiosity, young Teddy grew up a rather sickly child who suffered from acute bouts of asthma. He was weak and very dependent on his family, but as he grew up he learned from his father how to take care of himself and overcome his adverse circumstances, and being in nature played an important role. His family would take trips to the the Alps in Europe where he would fight against his own condition to keep up with his father while hiking[2]. He was also an avid hunter and an amateur taxidermist, and went on to study biology at Harvard. In between stints in the political sphere, Roosevelt also spend time out in the Western frontier as a hunter, cowboy, and deputy sheriff, and started the Boone and Crockett club with the goal of promoting conservation of large game and their grazing habitat[3]. He lived a rugged life out in North Dakota, herding cattle and tracking down outlaws, and once he returned to the public eye (and the urban life of New York), his grit and fortitude would serve him well.

In short, once he became president of the United States, he instilled his ambition, pioneering spirit, and conservationist mindset on the nation as a whole. As president, perhaps his most salient success was the creation of the Forest Service and the foundation of five National Parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite. In 1903, he famously travelled West to California to tour Yosemite with naturalist John Muir, and this meeting would go down in history as a pivotal moment for America’s National Parks and the spirit of conservation in our country[4].

However, even though both Roosevelt and Muir were instrumental in pursuing the conservationist agenda, some unease persisted between them as their underlying motivations were very different. Muir’s brand of environmentalist was steeped in the sanctity and spirituality of nature, and he was hesitant to expose the places he loved to practical human uses, even under the guise of preservation[4]. On the other hand, one of Roosevelt’s first successes as president was the passage of the Newlands Reclamation Act, which oversaw the creation of new dams to irrigate farms[5]. Roosevelt was very passionate about protecting our country’s natural wonders, but he was more concerned about what value these places could play for people (both in terms of natural resources like water, but also for hunting and recreation) than about protecting them because of their inherent value.

The interesting juxtaposition between the views of Muir and Roosevelt further highlights the debate between intrinsic and extrinsic environmentalism. Like Aldo Leopold, John Muir saw the inherent worth in all organisms and advocated for their right to exist independent of human desires. Roosevelt’s conservationism was rooted in practicality as well as a different set of values, but it is not yet clear which of these school’s of thought is superior. Even though Muir’s ideas could be called purer and more moral, the fact still stands that Roosevelt’s practicality worked wonders in America. Without him, many of our treasured National Parks may have not been protected, and the country might have looked a lot different today. No matter the motivation, Roosevelt was a champion for conservation in America, and should be celebrated as such.


[1]. United States. National Park Service. "Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web.

[2]. Brands, H. W. T.R.: The Last Romantic. New York, NY: Basic, 1997. Print.

[3]. Lunde, Darrin P. The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History. New York: Crown, 2016. Print.

[4]. Minteer, Ben A., and Stephen J. Pyne. "Restoring the Narrative of American Environmentalism." Restoration Ecology 21.1 (2012): 6-11. Web.

[5]. "The Arid West - The Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902." Theodore Roosevelt Center. Dickinson State University, n.d. Web.