Is Teddy Roosevelt’s US National Parks Campaign Controversial?

US National Parks are a defining element of the American ethos. But to learn about them, one must also learn about one of their greatest advocates, President Teddy Roosevelt.

Jul 21, 2023By Francisco Perpuli, BA History (in progress)
teddy roosevelt national parks


President Theodore Roosevelt is best known as the trust-busting statesman of the American Progressive era. But beyond his contributions to the reformation of the American political system, Theodore Roosevelt was a dedicated conservationist and naturalist. Roosevelt’s conservation efforts were not limited to his contributions to the US National Parks. Instead, Roosevelt’s efforts extended throughout much of the federal government and most of the country. Today, one major US National Park carries his name, but a series of others owe their existence to him, and the whole system owes much of its seriousness and dedication to him too.


Theodore Roosevelt: The President, Statesman & Soldier

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Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1898, via Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th US President in 1901, after the assassination of then-President William McKinley. Roosevelt’s rise to power was met with surprise and slight worry. His own party feared he might be too progressive, but his sudden ascension from the vice presidency made his leadership inevitable. By the time Roosevelt reached the presidency, he had already become a war hero (from the Spanish-American War) and governor of New York. His brash charisma and undoubted autonomy clashed with the monolithic Republican Party of the time, to which he belonged.


Roosevelt was highly independent and greatly valued efficiency, a quality largely absent in the United States’ political system of the time. Rampant corruption was common in both major US parties, and the Gilded Age had been in full swing only a few years earlier. Roosevelt’s efforts and reforms coincided with the birth of a new era, marked by widespread social activism and changing attitudes towards the US government and the overall American political system. The Progressive Era, as it came to be known, was defined by major changes to America’s social, political, and economic landscapes, all of which were affected in some way or another by Roosevelt’s policies.


The Square Deal, Roosevelt’s overarching program for domestic policies, was defined by three aims: control of corporations, consumer protection, and conservation of natural resources. Roosevelt believed that political reforms to end corruption and protect American consumers were not enough. He argued that the conditions the US found itself in were not sustainable and more had to be done in favor of American resources and nature. Thus, to understand Roosevelt’s administration and the overall Progressive Era, it is also necessary to understand the key attitudes that developed surrounding the environment and natural resources.


Teddy Roosevelt: Conservationist & Naturalist

sargent portrait of roosevelt
Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, 1903, via Encyclopedia Britannica

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Although Theodore Roosevelt may be first remembered for his actions against corruption and corporate greed, his contributions to conservation follow close behind. The founder of the Bull Moose Party had a rich progressive vision for the future of America and the guarantee of its prosperity, one which incorporated the natural wealth of America and the many wonders of its diverse environment into his administration. Conservation and naturalism were popular at the time of Roosevelt’s administration, but no other president acted more on his sincere hopes for protecting the natural heritage.


When visiting Yosemite with naturalist John Muir, Roosevelt reflected on the value and importance of preserving such incredible landscapes. His admiration was similar to the common attitude of the time, which saw great value in the pleasure and enjoyment obtained through nature, a logic that distanced itself from the negative effects of industrialization but that also recognized its positive outcomes. By experiencing nature, one is also subjected to experiencing one’s own human nature. This journey of understanding and exploration can be clearly seen in Roosevelt’s own life as a leader and as a person.


He is known as America’s conservation president, and not for nothing. Throughout his administration, Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for the creation of five National Parks, the establishment of over 150 national forests, the US Forest Service, four national game reserves, 51 federal bird reserves, and a total of over 230 million acres of public land dedicated in some way to natural conservation.


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To the Woods!, by Clifford Kennedy Berryman, 1906, via Library of Congress


Even the cute Teddy Bear owes its name to Roosevelt. After an incident where Roosevelt decided to spare a bear’s life, a local cartoonist illustrated the event with a stuffed bear in honor of the one saved by the American president. He named it Teddy’s Bear, and the rest is history.


America’s Greatest Idea: The Origin & Evolution of US National Parks

yellowstone national park poster
Yellowstone National Park poster by Chester D. Powell, ca. 1938, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The National Park Service, in charge of managing and protecting US National Parks, was established in 1916, 44 years after the first National Park, Yellowstone, was created. Back then, a climate of awareness for nature preservation was spreading across America. The effects of industrialization and urbanization drove the American population towards an appreciation of their natural surroundings and a desire to preserve such spaces for their own and future enjoyment. For decades, efforts for federal environmental conservation were highly decentralized and inefficient. Support for such actions was broad, but the details of how to do it were debated among politicians and intellectuals.


Nevertheless, by the middle of the 20th century, more than half of US National Parks had been created. Among them were some of the most emblematic, including Yosemite, Hawaii’s Volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Grand Teton, to name a few. The new federal service resulted in better management and resource allocation, allowing the system to expand. Many of the National Parks had barely ever been fully explored, a fact reflected in their mapping, which continually evolved through the years. Many of the parks came from public property, others were taken into the public domain for protection, and others were bought from or donated by private individuals.


Ulysses S. Grant was America’s first president to establish a formal National Park with Yellowstone, but natural parks had been created before. In 1864, under the approval of President Lincoln, Yosemite State Park was established in California. The decades following President Grant’s initiative saw the creation of more National Parks, including the return of Yosemite to federal hands, now as a federally-owned natural reserve.


The Complicated Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt & Conservation

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Six Native American Leaders by Edward S. Curtis, 1905, via True West Magazine


Although Theodore Roosevelt continues to be remembered as one of the most consequential US Presidents both for his broad range of political reforms and his more specific efforts in conservation, many of his accomplishments are surrounded by a dark and largely forgotten history. Illustrated by the recent controversy in which Theodore Roosevelt’s Equestrian Statue at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History was removed after the museum responded to demands calling it racist, Roosevelt’s legacy is largely seen as both progressive and deeply problematic.


Roosevelt viewed many peoples outside America as inferior, but some major social groups within the country were also inferior in his eyes. Native Americans, for example, were seen by Roosevelt as “reckless, revengeful,” and “fiendishly cruel.” His attitude toward them can even be described as genocidal. He spoke of the Sand Creek Massacre as “righteous” and “beneficial.” He called a “war with savages” as “the most ultimately righteous,” listing Native Americans, Tartars, Zulus, and Maoris as those deserving of such “deeds” committed by colonizers (taken from Roosevelt’s book The Winning of the West). He also considered African Americans “altogether inferior to the whites.”


His views on race ultimately shaped his policies. Though he might have made some advances in policies favoring the aforementioned minorities, he also cared little for them compared to his attitude toward the conception of whiteness. Native Americans, for example, were often displaced from their lands not just for white settlements but also for establishing parks, forests, and reserves. Some 86 million acres of tribal lands were transferred to the national forest system. The conservation of the American environment was, sadly, largely at the expense of Native American lands and heritage.


Beyond the Parks: Roosevelt’s Vision for Wilderness & Wildlife Protection 

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Grand Canyon National Park poster by Chester D. Powell, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Much of Theodore Roosevelt’s attitude toward nature was based on his love for the American wildlife. He was a lifelong sportsman-hunter who enjoyed the thrill of such activity but also saw the humbling features of nature’s wonders. He valued nature in a nuanced yet definite way, and he understood the importance of balancing between the exploitation and conservation of natural resources, a quality that had been largely absent in the preceding decades of major industrialization and corporate expansion.


Theodore Roosevelt urged that the National Parks created before and during his administration be kept as they were, meaning that little to no human interference would be the safest pathway toward their conservation. He also recognized the needs of his time, such as the women’s fashion tendency to wear bird feathers on their elaborate hats, which drove many species towards overhunting, leading Roosevelt to act in favor of their preservation.


theodore roosevelt yosemite
US President Theodore Roosevelt by Underwood & Underwood, 1903, via CBS


The American conception of National Parks and natural conservation evolved with time, seeing them not only as a matter of pleasure and enjoyment but also as a way of keeping the wealth of natural resources in the hands of Americans and not just in the hands of businessmen and corporations seeking economic benefit. Roosevelt’s own vision reflected such attitudes, believing that conservation of the environment was a profoundly American sentiment and the right thing to do according to the ideals of the American way of life. The conservation of the American wilderness and wildlife meant that it was up to the American people, through its government, to ensure a sustainable achievement of progress and not leave the fate of nature strictly in the interests of economic benefit.

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By Francisco PerpuliBA History (in progress)Francisco is completing a History degree at the University of Guadalajara. He has a keen interest in the study of culture and the arts. In his spare time, he tries to explore and develop other interests while saving up to travel the world.