The Truth about Teddy

Modern politicians invoke Roosevelt's legacy—but do they get it?

Theodore Roosevelt has be­come the symbol of environ­mental preservation for Presi­dent George W. Bush, Governor George E. Pataki and many other GOP politicians who have elevated Teddy’s image to give legitimacy and appeal to their own policies. One of the reasons Bush did trail work in the Adirondacks on Earth Day this year was to draw com­parisons between himself and the rugged former commander in chief: “It was here that he formed a lot of his views. And I can see why,” said Bush in a speech at the base lodge at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center. “[The Adirondack Park] helped shape his view of conservation, which had a significant impact on our park system here in America.”

This is true, but Bush and many oth­ers fail to understand Teddy’s very com­plex conservationism; they have over­looked contradictions in his life and work. One of the lesser-known and rather sub­tle examples of Roosevelt’s conflicting attitudes toward the environment has its roots right here in the Adirondacks, dur­ing the two years he served as governor of New York: his friend, the forester Gifford Pinchot, nearly convinced Teddy to log the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

Teddy’s reputation is full of contrasts: establishing national parks, shooting fif­teen thousand animals in Africa, promot­ing the U.S. Forest Service, fighting big busi­ness. All these attributes plus his wild ride to the presidency and his rotund appearance inspired many political cartoonists, who relished in drawing his walruslike mustache and dis­tinctive pince-nez. Their caricatures depicted him battling the octopus of big business, stir­ring the pots of preservation and saving forests.

Teddy wasn’t always such an activist. Child­hood physical problems made him a health addict; his favorite activities were shooting, boxing and wrestling. Later experiences out West—ranching, exploring and hunting—shaped his thinking. Just prior to his election as governor, he led the Rough Riders in the Spanish-Ameri­can War and served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in Washington. His short term as head of New York government lasted only from 1899 to the end of 1900, when he was elected vice president. There is little question that he brought a love of nature and national per­spective to the office of governor, but not the sense of conservation that he developed in the next few years.

Roosevelt approached his gover­norship with a tremendous zeal for confronting organizational problems and a determination to fight the en­trenched Republican leaders, such as Senator T. C. Platt, who controlled the state government. Teddy’s term is most noted for his efforts to control their hold-over patronage, although he had to work with those leaders to accomplish his reforms. His cre­dentials as a preservationist were strengthened in 1899 when he signed a bill extending the Forest Preserve into the Catskills.

As Roosevelt was establishing his political career, Pinchot, who studied forestry in Europe, became chief of the Forestry Division of the U.S. De­partment of Agriculture in July 1898. He imbued that office with the pas­sion of a convert to scientific wood­land management. In his decade as chief forester, three-quarters of it under T.R., Pinchot made American forestry the leader worldwide.

One of Pinchot’s first acts was to offer private landowners help with forestry plans. The owners of the Tahawus Tract, in Newcomb, were among the first to request this ser­vice. He planned a winter trip in early 1899 to survey the land, climb Mount Marcy and renew his acquain­tance with the recently elected Gov­ernor Roosevelt on the way.

Pinchot wrote in his autobiogra­phy, “I laid before the governor my plan for a single-headed New York Forest Commission instead of the spineless many-headed Commission of those days, and he approved it entirely. Incidentally,” he continued, “T.R. and I did a little wrestling, at which he beat me; and some boxing, during which I had the honor of knocking the future President of the United States off his very solid pins.”

Pinchot questioned the wisdom and legal protection of New York’s Forest Preserve, observing that even in 1898 Governor Frank S. Black called for loosening the ban on for­estry on state land, which was consti­tutionally protected against logging since 1894. T.R.’s annual message in 1900 reflected the same thinking: “We need to have our system of for­estry gradually developed and con­ducted along scientific principles … to allow marketable lumber to be cut everywhere without damage to the forests—indeed with positive advan­tage to them.”

In his report to the legislature in 1900 Teddy called for the reform of the Fisheries, Forest and Game Com­mission, which was under attack for several reasons, principally for the use of patronage to appoint both com­missioners and employees. Local pol­iticians—rather than men who had knowledge of the woods or the areas they were to protect—were given jobs such as game or fire warden.

That cleanup was nearly his last major act as governor. Teddy suc­ceeded in placing his lifelong friend William Austin Wadsworth, a mem­ber of a prominent Geneseo family, at the head of the reformed and re­named Forest, Fish and Game Com­mission. This appointment would al­most accomplish Pinchot’s goals for the Forest Preserve.

T.R. chose Wadsworth to head the commission because he would “em­phasize exactly what my policy is to be” as others would not. But the press uncovered a misdeed by Wadsworth that nearly derailed Teddy’s choice. Wadsworth had been illegally shoot­ing quail in Livingston County, which had a longer closed season than the state. Roosevelt blamed the county for not following the state and ex­cused his friend’s error, but the inci­dent plagued T.R. He wrote, “I wish to Heaven he had done anything else, save committing murder for instance, rather than shooting that quail!”

The lumber, pulp and cold storage industries lobbied against T.R.’s nom­inees and fought to retain the old commission members. When the new commission was appointed, Wadsworth led the fight to fill positions such as foresters and special agents not through competitive examina­tions, but through recommendations by such men as Gifford Pinchot.

In 1900, under Wadsworth, the commission asked Pinchot’s federal Forestry Division to prepare work­ing plans for the state’s Forest Pre­serve. Whether this request had T.R.’s explicit backing is not clear, but he had to have been aware of it. The Legislature appropriated two thousand dollars for the federal study. According to Pinchot, “Back of this request lay the desire of the Com­mission to convince the people that the Constitution would be so modi­fied as to permit the practice of For­estry on the Forest Preserve. A very laudable objective, in which Gover­nor Theodore Roosevelt thoroughly joined. As for me, I have always re­garded the sentimental horror of some good citizens at the idea of uti­lizing the timber of the Forest Preserve under Forestry as unintelligent, misdirected and shortsighted.”

Pinchot and Colonel W. F. Fox, the superintendent of New York’s for­ests, devised a plan to survey Town­ship 40, the land surrounding Raquette Lake and one of four con­tiguous townships with virgin forests. Bruce Hosmer, a young forester, and Eugene Bruce, a seasoned Adiron­dack lumberman, completed the study with the help of nearly thirty woodsmen. It was published by the Bureau of Forestry and in the Eighth and Ninth Reports (the first for the Forest, Fish and Game Commission) for 1902-03. The reports contain an elegant colored map, charts listing the amounts of different species that could be cut and the value of harvesting them, and policies and practices necessary to carry out scien­tific forestry. They concluded that, “Township 40 is a particularly desir­able tract upon which to begin conservative lumbering by the state. Its timber is mature, and under proper restrictions may be removed with entire safety to the forest. . .” If the Townships 6, 5 and 41 were to be lumbered together with Township 40, it would pay to make improvements such as roads. . . .” The commission also called for construction of a sawmill on the shore of Raquette Lake, since it was already served a railroad, and installation of a dam on the outlet.

The commission further recommended a constitutional amendment that would permit scientific forestry on state lands. Did Roosevelt feel the same way? There certainly is a lot of evidence that Teddy listened to Pinchot while he was governor. What more, they remained close friends; throughout his presidency Teddy responded favorably to all of Pinchot’s proposals to grow the U.S. Forest Division and expand federal ownership of forest lands. These later acts were the foundation of T.R.’s reputation as an environmentalist, but this had a very different meaning than it does today.

Big business was born in the years preceding his presidency. It was the era of conglomerates, such as Standard Oil, American Hide and Leather, and huge mining enterpris­es, which came together to take ad­vantage of the growing railroad net­work to take manufacturing across the country. Those same conglomer­ates were limited only by their abili­ty to corner raw materials. Their own­ers schemed to acquire public lands for access to forests, mines and graz­ing fields for livestock.

Teddy responded as a liberal Re­publican to this rapacious attitude. In one address he castigated big lumber companies by saying, “They are to be blamed for thus sacrificing the future of the nation as a whole to their own self-interest.”

Those challenges shaped his ulti­mate view of conservation. Despite the terminology of the time, he did not believe in preserving trees and minerals and grasslands—he was conserving them for the people so they could be used. In 1901, in his first term as president, he said, “The fundamental idea of forestry is per­petuation of forests by use. Forest production is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country, and the industries which depend on them. The preservation of our forests is an imperative business necessity.” This was from a speech that, according to Pinchot, embraced “substantially everything we wrote as we wrote it.” T.R. fostered the growth of feder­al forest holdings promoted by his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, who established thirteen new reserves covering twenty-one million acres. Forest reserves increased under T.R. from some sixty-two million acres to more than 194 million acres. It was saving these lands for the people’s use that formed the basis of his rep­utation as a conservationist.

There is little in Teddy’s words and actions to indicate he would have rejected Pinchot’s entreaties or that he would have yielded to them by working to change the state’s consti­tution. There were many hints that he was listening to this most persua­sive promoter of forestry, who was ever searching for tracts on which to practice it. In this, T.R. was a con­servationist, not a preservationist.

Governor Pataki—having added some fifty-five thousand acres to the Adirondack Forest Preserve—is more realistically challenging Nelson Rockefeller, not T.R., for the mantle of New York’s greenest Republican governor. And Bush’s utilitarian per­spective—his willingness to seek oil in national wildlife refuges and allow logging in remote national forests—may be as close as he gets to Teddy Roosevelt’s desire to make public lands work for the people.


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