Recently, I read Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, which focuses exclusively on T.R.’s conservation work, particularly related to Colorado land, throughout his life and presidency. The book is fascinating because it not only chronicles all of the national parks, forests, and monuments that T.R. created during his presidency, but it gives the reader a deep understanding of exactly why T.R. had such a love for America’s wild places.
Over 817 pages, Brinkley describes a young Theodore collecting birds around his family’s property, learning taxidermy, and creating a small museum to house all of his specimens. We learn about his adventures as a teenager in the wilderness of Maine, hunting, trapping, and snowshoeing around the wilderness for weeks at a time. As a young man he ventured out west to the Dakota territories to hunt, eventually become a full time rancher.
The reader also discovers that the wilderness, particularly the western landscapes, were not only a place of adventure and recreation for T.R., but a place of healing. After his mother and wife died on the same day in 1884, T.R., completely overwhelmed with grief, retreated to the west to reevaluate his career and his life. After several years exploring, hunting down fugitives, and cattle ranching, he returned east with a new focus and energy for public service.
We learn of the deep (and sometimes contentious) friendships that T.R. shared with many of the world’s leading conservationists including John Muir, John Burroughs, and George Bird Grinnell. We gain insight into T.R.’s influences (Audubon and Darwin), as well as the people who he influenced (Gifford Pinchot).
Known as the “Naturalist President,” T.R. spent a great deal of time and resources to conserve the land and resources that make America so special. He believed that America’s wild landscapes such as the Grand Canyon and the Redwood Forests were superior to and more impressive than any of Europe’s ancient architecture or artwork. “A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedral.”
During his presidency (1901-1909), T.R. conserved about 230 million acres of land. He created or expanded 150 National Forests, 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 6 National Parks, and 18 National Monuments. Keep in mind, he did all of this conservation work while simultaneously building the Panama Canal, busting trusts, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, ending labor riots, and, as mentioned above, taking a bullet in the chest.