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Roosevelt of the Earth


It’s been 100 years since the first national wildlife refuge was established in North Dakota, which we've been talking about for the last couple days. Today being Earth Day, we have something a little special. Our story comes courtesy of North Dakota native Clay Jenkinson. Jenkinson is probably best known for his work on the radio program, The Jefferson Hour, as well as his expertise on Lewis and Clark. As of late, he’s also turned his eye on Teddy Roosevelt. So, without further ado...

Teddy Roosevelt came west to kill and ranch, but he soon realized that the American people had expressed too much violence towards the fragile landscapes and life forms beyond the hundredth meridian. He killed one of the last of what once had been an American buffalo herd of perhaps as many as 50,000,000 critters; then he realized that the few hundred buffalo that remained needed to be protected or they would go the way of the passenger pigeon.

He invested in two ranches in the Dakota badlands and one in Wyoming, but – even before the disastrous winter of 1886-87 – he realized that the cattlemen, including himself, had overgrazed the plains grasses in search of immediate profits.

Roosevelt came to understand that an unregulated West would soon be denuded of its wild creatures, its great trees, its stupendous grasslands. At the Grand Canyon in Arizona in 1908, President Roosevelt said, “We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery. Whatever it is, handle it so that your children’s children will get the benefit of it.”

Although he never lost his lust for killing quadrupeds, Roosevelt went on to become the greatest conservationist in Presidential history. He doubled the number of National Parks from five to ten (including two in the Dakotas), tripled the size of the National Forest system, created the National Wildlife Refuge system (and designated the first fifty-one sites), created the National Monument system (and designated the first eighteen, beginning with Devils Tower in Wyoming).

He signed the Newlands Reclamation Act (1902), designated the first twenty-four reclamation projects, and convened the first ever White House conference on conservation. He was the co-founder of the Boone and Crockett Club (1887).

He also camped out and corresponded with John Muir and John Burroughs, and helped to save Yellowstone National Park from adverse commercial development. He helped to create the professional civilian National Park Service. No President did more for the environment. One can only imagine what he might have done had he served a third term.

It was life on the ground in the West, not books, that taught Roosevelt that our natural resources have to be managed. He realized that individuals, including even ranchers and landowners, cannot be expected to restrain themselves in the pursuit of pleasure and profit. He came to understand that government needed to manage the national resource base to make it available for future generations, and to set aside portions of the most sublime landscape as permanent sanctuaries for wild things and human pilgrims who love the wild foundation of the American experience.

Theodore Roosevelt learned this lesson in the badlands of Dakota Territory. His importance is not just that he was a famous person who happened to spend a few of his formative years in North Dakota. It is much deeper than that.

(Clay Jenkinson, copyright 2005)