Theodore Roosevelt's Legacy

Badlands National Park with sunlight on the hills

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”  -- President Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most powerful voices in the history of American conservation. Enthralled by nature from a young age, Roosevelt cherished and promoted our nation’s landscapes and wildlife. After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments on over 230 million acres of public land.


Despite being the first president born in New York City, Theodore Roosevelt’s interest in nature and the outdoors began at an early age. Roosevelt was bookish and sickly as a child, but he quickly developed his passions. His favorite activities included hiking, rowing, swimming, riding, bird-watching, hunting, and taxidermy. Creating a vast collection of specimens, he filled his boyhood home and estate in adulthood with insect collections and mounted animals. Some are on display today at the Smithsonian

After attending university, Roosevelt found himself heading west into the Dakota territories, including what later became Badlands National Park. He spent his nights under the stars, and his days accompanying cattlemen on roundups. He returned to New York in 1886 and in a few years became the president of the board of the New York City Police Commissioners. 

Following the birth of his daughter and the ensuing simultaneous deaths of his (first) wife and mother, Theodore Roosevelt, stepped away from politics and went back to the Dakotas. Learning to rope, ride, and survive in the wilderness revitalized Roosevelt. He viewed America’s wilderness as integral to the fundamental beliefs of individualism, liberty, and independence that had shaped the nation.

In 1901, only six short months after his inauguration as vice-president, then-president McKinley was assassinated.  Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest president of the United States at the age of 42. 

Early Stewardship

As president, Roosevelt traveled the country. From 1901 to 1909, he signed legislation establishing five new national parks: Crater Lake, Oregon; Wind Cave, South Dakota; Sully's Hill, North Dakota (later re-designated a game preserve); Mesa Verde, Colorado; and Platt, Oklahoma (now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area). Roosevelt also appointed as the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service the visionary Gifford Pinchot, who shared his philosophy of natural resource conservation through sustainable use. 

In the late 1800s, the whims of fashion dictated that women’s hats be decorated by bird feathers. To meet this need, poachers hunted many species of exotic birds to the brink of extinction. To address this crisis, President Roosevelt set aside Pelican Island in Florida as a federal bird reservation in 1903. More protected areas followed and the National Wildlife Refuge System was born. 

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir stand on a large rock at altitude
TR & John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite.

That same year, one of the most celebrated camping trips in American history occurred when President     Roosevelt spent several days exploring Yosemite with renown naturalist John Muir. Finding common ground on  their passion for nature, the two men discussed the importance of preserving unique landscapes and wildlife.  Energized by the experience, Roosevelt worked to make Muir’s vision of Yosemite into a reality by adding  Yosemite valley and the Mariposa Grove to Yosemite National Park

Additionally, the 26th president signed the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. The Antiquities Act enabled President  Roosevelt and subsequent presidents to proclaim historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and other  objects of historic or scientific interest in federal ownership as national monuments.

Fun Fact

The Teddy Bear was invented in honor of President Roosevelt. On a bear hunting trip in Mississippi,  Roosevelt's hunting party cornered a Louisiana black bear, then tied the bear to a willow tree and suggested that the  President shoot it. Viewing this as extremely unsportsmanlike, Roosevelt refused to kill the bear. Political  cartoonist Clifford Berryman heard the story and drew a cartoon celebrating the President’s decision. A Brooklyn  candy shop owner by the name of Morris Michtom saw the cartoon and decided to create a stuffed toy bear and dedicate it to the president who refused to shoot a bear. He called it Teddy's Bear and children have been enjoying them ever since.


Today, the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt can be seen across the United States. There are six national park sites dedicated, in part or whole, to our conservationist president. Like John Muir, Roosevelt’s words and actions continue to affect how the Department of Interior approaches and appreciates America’s natural treasures and resources.