Theodore Roosevelt is known as the ‘Conservation President’ for his tireless efforts at the dawn of the 20and century, to protect wildlife and public lands from development. His efforts helped establish the US National Park and Forest Service, bringing more than 200 million acres of land under public protection. But the transfer of all this territory to government control has come at great cost to the indigenous peoples, who have managed these lands for generations.
A Harvard-educated New Yorker, Roosevelt was deeply inspired by the nature and myth of the western frontier. A lifelong hunter and explorer, he continually ventured into the wilderness to recharge his batteries, from the backwoods of Maine to the Dakota Badlands, an uncharted river in the Brazilian wilderness. In his youth and early adulthood, he often pursued “the arduous life” to help ameliorate physical ailments, build character, and overcome deep personal losses. Later, his relationship with nature took on an almost spiritual dimension.
As president, Roosevelt cultivated friendships with conservationists like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who inspired him to turn his respect for nature into national policy. “The nation is doing well if it treats natural resources as assets to be handed over to the next increased generation,” he said in a speech in Kansas in August 1910..
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Roosevelt revered nature since childhood
Throughout his life, Roosevelt sought knowledge, respite, and adventure in the natural world. Suffering from childhood illnesses, the young “Tedie” was a lover of adventure books who became an avid student of nature. By age 12, he had collected hundreds of bird and animal specimens for his so-called “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”. In his late teens he was an avid lumberjack, hunter, and taxidermist.
Rugged landscapes gave him refuge in times of tragedy. After losing his father, a 19-year-old Roosevelt tested his mettle with an arduous expedition into the remote woods of Maine. In 1884, drained by the tragic death of his young wife and mother on the same day, he fled to what he called the “wild desolation” of the North Dakota Badlands, where he spent several years struggling as cattle breeder.
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Roosevelt’s ambitious conservation program
As President, Roosevelt was guided through Yosemite National Park by naturalist John Muir for three days in 1903. After seeing Mariposa Grove, Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point and other sites, he seemed to have a spiritual epiphany . In his autobiography, he wrote of camping among the redwoods: “The majestic trunks, beautiful in color and symmetry, rose around us like the pillars of a cathedral more powerful than ever conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.
Roosevelt, who had seen firsthand the severe impact of overhunting of bison and overgrazing of frontier ranch land, knew that America’s natural resources were not infinite. As president, he pushed for an ambitious conservation agenda. He set aside 150 national forests, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game reserves and five national parks. In addition to establishing the National Forest Service in 1905, he also created 18 national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, including the Grand Canyon, which later became a national park. In total, Roosevelt was responsible for protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land and for setting up the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, which has been described as “America’s best idea”. .
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Park encroachment on Indigenous lands
Throughout the 19and century, Indigenous peoples were gradually driven from their ancestral lands through treaties and violent eviction tactics. The creation of national parks and forest lands – a process begun decades before Roosevelt’s time but greatly accelerated by his administration – dealt a further blow to the Indigenous peoples who had lived and thrived in these areas for hundreds of years. years, often side by side. The Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico, first set aside by Roosevelt in 1907 by federal executive order, is claimed as significant by 39 federally recognized tribes. They, like dozens of tribes across the country, knew these areas as sacred, beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Roosevelt continued the efforts of his predecessors to remove Native Americans from their ancestral territories. According to environmental historian Theodore Catton, some 86 million acres of tribal lands were transferred to the National Forest System, much of it during Roosevelt’s tenure. America’s 423 national parks, meanwhile, cover about 85 million acres, also once largely the province of indigenous peoples. “The conservation boom has been accompanied by a nationwide fence sale on Indian land holdings,” Catton wrote.
This legacy reflected a fundamental clash of worldviews. “These areas were intimately known to the Indigenous peoples who passed through and used them,” Tabitha Erdey, cultural resources program manager for Nez Perce National Historical Park, told HISTORY.com. In contrast, “Euro-Americans viewed these areas as wilderness, as empty spaces in need of civilization and control.”
Roosevelt’s Indian eviction policies also reflected his own racial biases. In 1886 he declared: “I do not go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian. But I believe that nine out of ten are, and I would not like to question myself too closely on the case of the tenth.
Advisors like Muir had the same disdain. In his 1894 homage to the Sierras, “The Mountains of California”, Muir called the wilderness “a manuscript written by nature’s single hand” – ignoring the fact that the Miwok Indians had long cultivated Yosemite Valley with intentional fires, pruning and maintaining mighty oak trees for acorns. And while Muir’s text detailed the region’s flora and fauna, he made no mention of its native inhabitants except when he encountered a group of Mono Indians on a pass. He described them as “mostly ugly, and some of them quite hideous… Somehow they seemed out of place in the landscape, and I was happy to see it disappear into the collar”.
Native Response to Delete
For Indigenous peoples, who had managed these wilderness areas long before Euro-American immigration, park designations meant further loss of homes, food sources and sacred sites.
Glacier National Park was established on land that was once home to the Blackfoot people, who called this northern part of the Rocky Mountains “the backbone of the world.” As in many national parks, sacred tribal sites quietly dot the landscape. Towards the end of the 19and century, the Blackfoot faced starvation after being confined to a reservation. Desperate and with few options, they sold 800,000 acres of the reservation to the government, with a stipulation that they could hunt there.
Chief White Calf of Blackfeet has denounced the loss of sacred areas, calling it the “last refuge” of his people. Another chief, Little Dog, wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior in 1895, stating that the Blackfoot “did not ask the government to come and buy their land”. The ceded land became a forest reserve in 1897 and became part of Glacier National Park when it was founded in 1910, further limiting traditional Blackfoot use of the area.
The Oglala Sioux spiritual leader Black Elk in 1929 expressed anger at how the Americans had “made little islands for us and other little islands for the fours, and still those islands get smaller”. He spoke out against the displacement of natives from the Badlands National Monument near his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation, as well as from the nearby Black Hills.
Black Elk recalled a time in his youth when animals and human beings “lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us.”