Where’s Teddy when you need him?

  • "There is a very cunning little dog named Skip ... who has completely adopted me," wrote President Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to his children. Roosevelt and Skip are shown here in a Silt, Colorado, cabin


What do Westerners keep in their bedrooms? My wife and I have the assorted bric-a-brac of family photos, a Navajo rug, a miniature Apache burden basket, and far too many books. We have a few plants, early drawings by our two boys, and a vintage log cabin syrup can, because we’ll never be able to afford a real log cabin in the woods. We also have two photos of strangers in our bedroom, because both men are my heroes.

In one image, Western explorer John Wesley Powell points off into the distance while a Ute Indian friend looks on. In the second photo, Teddy Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, sits in the morning sun in the doorway of a cabin south of Silt, Colo. He has a flea-bitten puppy in his lap. The light glints off his spectacles. He wears dusty lace-up boots and an old hunting jacket. The cuffs on his pants are frayed and he is totally absorbed in reading a book.

The photo always draws my attention. Here was an Easterner from Manhattan and Oyster Bay, a Harvard graduate, a New York legislator and governor, who would go on to know the West unlike any previous American president. Teddy hunted and fished across the United States, and he set aside more public land as national forests, national monuments and wildlife refuges than any Republican president before or since.

As president, Theodore Roosevelt sent the U.S. Navy, “the Great White Fleet,” around the world, and he was the first president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But if he had foreign relations expertise, he also knew the dry and dusty West. A devoted naturalist, Roosevelt could identify dozens of species of birds. He was a world-renowned authority on large mammals, and an ardent taxidermist. He knew the canyon country as well as the mountains and he believed in wilderness preservation.

Teddy wrote, “The man should have youth and strength who seeks adventure in the wide, waste spaces of the earth. ... He must long greatly for the lonely winds that blow across the wilderness, and for sunrise and sunset over the rim of the empty world.”

Clearly a romantic, Roosevelt was also a pragmatist: “Every man who appreciates the majesty and beauty of the wilderness and of wild life, should strike hands with the far-sighted men who wish to preserve our material resources, in the effort to keep our forests and our game beasts, game-birds, and game-fish — indeed, all the living creatures of prairie and woodland and seashore — from wanton destruction.” Then he added, “Above all, we should realize the effort toward this end is essentially a democratic process.”

I’d wager Roosevelt would be flabbergasted by the Interior Department’s recent decision to jettison years of study on wilderness areas and to ignore the thousands of volunteer hours that went into identifying and classifying those lands (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit).

Teddy was a strong Republican president who epitomized the landmark era of the progressive conservation movement. Yes, Teddy made mistakes. He allowed the damming of the Hetch Hetchy River in Yosemite National Park and he sacrificed the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. But this old Rough Rider and Grand Canyon lion hunter would be appalled by many of today’s Republicans who don’t have the environmental sense God gave a goose.

Teddy wouldn’t permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge any more than he’d allow Enron executives to pay an itty-bitty fine and be out on bail. He believed in corporate responsibility and in the proper administration of the public domain. Teddy demanded that Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, institute grazing fees on public lands. When Pinchot came to Glenwood Springs, Colo., to explain the fee system to ranchers, they were so angry that he never dared step off the back of the train.

At the first (and last) national conservation conference held at the White House, Roosevelt explained to the nation’s governors, “It is safe to say that the prosperity of our people depends on the energy and intelligence with which our natural resources are used.” He added, “It is ominously evident that those resources are in the course of rapid exhaustion.”

That was in 1909. What would Teddy think today?

Other presidents have libraries and museums, but Teddy Roosevelt has none. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City honors him in its resplendent rotunda, where I first came upon the photo that now hangs in our bedroom. And his ranch at Medora, N.D., is preserved. But Roosevelt’s real legacy is the millions of acres of Western lands he saved from overzealous timber barons and cattle ranchers.

I wish more presidents hunted deer and elk, read books in log cabins, and had frayed pant cuffs and dusty boots. Somehow the Republican party has lost touch with the great purposes and traditions that it embodied at the beginning of the 20th century, when it stood up to corporate interests and made decisions not for the short term, but for the long-term good of the American landscape.

It has been a century since the photo of Teddy that hangs on my bedroom wall was taken, on a hunting and fishing trip in the White River National Forest. I look at that photo often. I wish he would come back and give his political party members a good talking-to. They need — we all need — his wisdom.

The author is director of the Center of Southwest Studies and a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

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