On one of our most American of holiday’s, Presidents day, we celebrate all of America’s presidents. Many presidents have strong conservation legacies. Only Theodore Roosevelt can truly lay claim to the title “Wilderness Warrior”.
Douglass Brinkley’s uses Wilderness Warrior both to describe TR and for the title of his comprehensive biography of our 26th president. For good reason. Wild landscapes forged Roosevelt’s sense of self. And, in turn, Roosevelt laid the groundwork to save our vanishing wilderness.
Roosevelt’s mother and wife passed away hours apart on Feb 14th, 1884. Devastated, Roosevelt turned to the wild west, to find a way to heal himself. In the badlands of North Dakota he sought answers about the world and his place in it. These western landscapes were (and still are) rugged and remote. His life on a hardscrabble ranch included living very close to the earth. He ran down cattle rustlers. He sought out the disappearing traces of big game. He became concerned about the plight of the bison. He returned east with a certain swagger.
Roosevelt became hardened and calloused by his cowboy days on the western plains. He applied his frontier skills to form the rough riders. His brigade’s bold charge up San Juan hill helped win the Spanish American War. He endured the same hardships as his fellow rough riders. He slept on the ground and ate the same grub as his soldiers. His legend was cemented.
In September 1901, President McKinley was recovering from a gunshot wound. McKinley’s aides thought the nation would be more confident if the Vice President wasn’t hovering around. Roosevelt often sought solace in the Adirondacks, where many peaks were only first climbed and mapped during his lifetime. He climbed Mt Marcy, the highest peak in New York and camped near the summit. He was looking for the resolve to guide the nation, should it come to that.
McKinley’s conditions took a turn for the worse. A messenger was dispatched and found Roosevelt near midnight. A wild journey ensued. Hiking and horseback riding down rough trails in the dark. Followed by a buckboard ride on primitive roads and train to Buffalo. The next morning he was sworn in.
Wilderness formed Roosevelt’s character and forged his very identity. It shaped his approach to politics and people. He sought to preserve wilderness as an important part of our nation’s cultural identity.
Roosevelt’s laid the groundwork for our national forests, our public lands and our wilderness areas. He set aside millions of acres of forest preserves. Made significant additions to our national park system. Established our first national monuments. And created our system of Fish and wildlife preserves.
Roosevelt’s conservation legacy stands out among our presidents. He deserves the title of “Wilderness Warrior”.