I recently finished reading Theodore Roosevelt’s biography, The Wilderness Warrior written by Douglas Brinkley. The book is focused on the conservation crusade that Roosevelt embarked on to save millions of acres throughout the United States from logging, mining and private holdings. I had no idea the scope of the mandates Roosevelt handed down over his two terms. Many of the national forests and parks were set aside with executive orders during Roosevelt’s tenure. He strongly held that a life lived outdoors in the wilderness was the way to happiness. He called it the strenuous life and he was determined to provide places that future generations of Americans could lead lead that life among Nature’s beauty. I was struck throughout the book by TR’s understanding of the natural world.
He was a master orinthologist before he went to college at Harvard, able to recognize hundreds of birds not only by sight but also by the songs and sounds they made. He wrote papers on wolves and elk. Roosevelt essentially was the father of conservation in America from a political standpoint (there were many naturalists at the time like Burroughs or Muir but they were hardly in the position to implement change that TR was). He was also the first President to use the Executive Order as a policy means, implementing hundreds of federal bird reserves, national parks and national monuments without ever having to deal with Congressional approval. The next time you hear some political wag complaining about Obama’s or Bush’s usage of the Executive Order to implement policy, remember that TR used the EO a staggering 1081 times, a full 864 more times than the record at that time, Ulysses Grant (217).
Existing in a time before a 24 hour news cycle, TR was able to implement policy he deemed important and that policy was largely focused on setting aside millions of acres of forest throughout the western states of California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. On one day in 1908 (July 1st), he created 45 national forests just by signing his name with a pen. Of course it was a different time and place but today, even the slightest policy change effected by EO is railed against by the opposing party as if it were a personal attack. In an environment of increasing political divisiveness, I’m surprised Presidents, especially outgoing ones, don’t use the EO more to implement policy.
Roosevelt’s idea of the strenuous life is another idea missing from our world today. So little of what we do could be considered strenuous and this was one of TR’s greatest fears. He saw the increased urbanization of America as a scourge to fight against at all costs. Today in our world of ease and comfort, there is little that is strenuous. Manual labor, even skilled manual labor, is discouraged across all spectrums which Matthew Crawford wrote about in Shop Class as Soulcraft, another book I recently read. We choose leisurely careers, at least from a physical viewpoint, and we spend our leisure time doing mostly leisurely activities (says the guy writing a blog post on a computer). Roosevelt advocated the opposite, leisure time spent in the wilderness hunting, camping, ranching or birding. He regularly went on expeditions through the woods that were difficult. In fact, he seemed to grow happier during times of difficulty like hiking mountains during a snow storm or hunting bears in Louisiana.
The book is long, perhaps too long at 800 odd pages, but it’s eye opening for someone like me who long ago forgot the power of our 26th President. It’s also an excellent reminder of a time when a strong personality in the Presidential office resulted in sweeping changes that affected generations for years. TR’s emphasis on conservation changed both the physical and political landscape of America. As I go through the Texas Master Naturalist program, I see the effects of his policies even today with the focus on conservation of rangelands and prairies in Texas. I hope to continue living a strenuous life in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.