“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country – to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.
“I was delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe railroad people in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the canyon. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon.
“Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.
“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.”
– President Theodore Roosevelt, May 6, 1903
These words of TR encapsulate as well as anything his feelings on the grandeur and majesty of nature to be found in America’s vast wilderness areas, and it was why, on today’s date, January 11 in 1908 that he declared the Grand Canyon in Arizona to be a National Monument, thus making it off limits to development for all time.
Theodore Roosevelt – Conservationist
By the end of the 19th century, the Grand Canyon was drawing many thousands of tourists every year. One of those visitors was President Theodore Roosevelt, a New Yorker who had a very special affection for the American West. After becoming president in 1901 after the assassination of President William McKinley, Roosevelt made environmental conservation a centerpiece of his policy. Reform, particularly progressive reform of the way the nation did it’s business was the order of the day in TR’s administration. But in one area only did TR get out in front of even the reformers and really take the lead. And this was in the area of conservation.
“I so declare it!!”
After establishing the National Wildlife Refuge to protect the country’s animals, fish and birds, Roosevelt turned his vision to federal regulation of public lands. A region could be given the status of a national park –which meant that all private development on such land was illegal–only by an act of Congress, Roosevelt cut out the red tape by startng a new presidential practice of granting a similar “national monument” designation to some of the West’s greatest treasures. When asking if there was anything illegal about declaring an area to be a national monument or forest and being told “no”, then he simply said “I so declare it!”
TR Puts the Grand Canyon out of the Developers Reach.
In the words of his great grandson Tweed Roosevelt, : “Congress was refusing to make the grand Canyon into a national park, and the reason was the developers were coming along and they were going to improve it. What TR did is he realized that he had the power to make national monuments, and the power to make game reserves, and so he declared the sides of the Grand Canyon a national monument, and the base of it a game reserve, and said that ‘Congress will come to it’s senses eventually.’”
In 1907 his enemies in Congress moved to block any further moves that would close off their access to great areas ripe for mining and logging. In a deliberate and very pointed swipe at Roosevelt’s authority, Congress passed a bill stripping him of the power to designate national forests, opening up millions of acres of timber to loggers and developers. But Roosevelt was too quick for them. Just days before the bill became law, he responded by creating 16 million MORE acres of national forests. TR said “When others dithered, and prevented action I TOOK IT!! Our opponents” turned handsprings in their wrath, and dire were their threats against the executive. But the threats were really only a tribute to the efficiency of our action.”
TR and Nature – A Very Personal Bond
Theodore Roosevelt had a bond with nature which was intensely personal. He had been a naturalist all of his life, starting with his bug and insect collection as a boy. He was a nationally recognized authority on various species of wildlife. Indeed it was into the wilds of nature that the young Roosevelt would retreat in 1884 after his wife and his mother died suddenly and unexpectedly on Valentines Day of that year. He went to the Badlands of North Dakota to grieve and begin rebuilding his shattered life and his broken heart. It was very much a part of TR’s personal credo that only by facing trials and difficulties, be they personal or physical, only in this way could a man live the strenuous life from which he could make something of himself.
In the estimation of historian John Milton Cooper, TR’s fight to preserve the wilderness areas of America, and to protect them from development or despoiling was very much a moral matter:
“For him it really was a moral issue. We needed to preserve the wilderness. He believed that when life begun to get too easy, and that when the elements of risk and of danger and hardship were removed, we had to expose ourselves to those again, and we needed to preserve the places where we could do that. We NEEDED the challenge. And he was deeply worried that in a sense we wouldn’t be good soldiers – that men especially wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop the physical and the moral qualities that will make them soldiers and citizens… and to do the things that in other words would make them be like him.”
“Teddy Was Green!!”
By the time he was through, Roosevelt had created five new national parks, eighteen national monuments, 150 national forests, in all placing over 230 million acres of United States land under public protection. These would be Theodore Roosevelt’s most enduring legacy. In the words of Bill O’Reilly:
“Teddy was green, setting aside millions of acres of land for public use. His environmental policies, particularly in the west are still benefiting the nation today. Ironically, TR was an avid game hunter. Perhaps he protected nature to benefit himself. But he did protect the land and loved nature in its pristine state.”
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“American Experience: TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt” Written by David Grubin & Geoffrey C. Ward, PBS, 1996
“Pinheads and Patriots” by Bill O’Reilly, Harper & Collins, New York, 2010.