The battle over public lands is reaching a fever pitch, and sportsmen and conservationists of all stripes are banding together to express solidarity for our country’s vast natural resources. It is a complicated, nuanced issue, no doubt. To truly understand today’s public lands debate, you need to go all the way back to the late 19th century, the very beginning of the conservation movement. You need to study the personalities and motivations of the specific individuals who made decisions that laid the foundation for today’s conservation policies and theories, which have shaped both sides of the contentious matter.
There is only one person whose manic pace of life allowed him to collaborate or clash with almost every major historical player connected to the conservation movement-- from cattle barons to conservationists, politicians to academics, titans of industry to struggling homesteaders. This man directly and indirectly shaped the future of the United States through brute force of will and a bold personality. The man’s name? Yep, you guessed it: Theodore Roosevelt.
In this day and age, when so many political and commercial causes are attempting to attach themselves to the 26th president, it may seem cliche to write another article about TR. But there is no getting around it-- TR was the single most influential individual involved in shaping our nation’s public lands and conservation policies. Pick a buzz word being thrown around in today’s frantic news cycle-- Lacey Act, Antiquities Act, National Monuments-- and TR most likely had a hand either in creating it, or at least influencing its creation.
So where to start? How do you begin to gain the most basic understanding of a man who crammed at least ten full-time careers into one 60-year lifetime? What do you read to get a feel for TR’s complex personality, one that spanned the full spectrum of aggressive jingoist to diplomatic peacemaker, egotistical blowhard to tender family man, New York blueblood to dirt-under-the-fingernails cowboy? No single book does his life justice, so at a minimum, you need to read at least three: Edmund Morris’s renowned Theodore Roosevelt trilogy.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the first, and in my opinion, the best, of the three volumes. This Pulitzer Prize-winning tome tells the story of TR’s life from birth until just before assuming the presidency, a time period in which he amassed a dizzying number of accomplishments in public service, science, writing, ranching, and war. Among other things, TR’s love for the outdoors and the West was born and nurtured during this time period, a passion that would eventually translate into sweeping legislation and executive orders that stand to this day. Without his wilderness hunting trips and open-range cattle drives, he would likely have never become president, much less had such a lasting impact on the preservation of our public lands.
TR translates his love for the outdoors into action and meaningful, enduring change in Theodore Rex, the second volume that covers his presidency. During these seven and a half years, TR asserts (some would say over-asserts) his executive power to place roughly 230 million acres of land under public protection-- National Parks, Monuments, Preserves, Reserves, and Forests. Keep in mind, his now-lauded conservation moves were not universally popular in his time. Just like today, there were political and economic interests battling for control of the country’s vast resources, but TR’s decades of studying these landscapes, as well as the wildlife and people who inhabited them, gave him an appreciation of their importance that no DC bureaucrat could ever fully understand. In one epic blitz, TR went rogue and set aside 150 million acres of land, just hours before Congress put an end to what some considered his executive overreach.
With his most significant conservation work behind him, TR caps off his frenetic life with a frenzy of hunting, politics, exploration, and writing. The third volume, Colonel Roosevelt, tells the story of his final years, in which TR cements his legacy as a true devotee of the strenuous life. Highlights include: a year-long hunting and scientific trip to Africa, being shot in the chest and proceeding to give a 90-minute speech in a blood-soaked shirt, and charting a then-unknown tributary of Brazil’s River of Doubt. For anyone who questions TR’s authenticity as a hardman adventurer, this final phase of his life puts that fallacy to rest.
From a broader conservation-centric perspective, this trilogy will introduce you to almost every individual who had a hand in setting our country’s conservation policy for the next century. Interested in John Muir? TR spent days tramping around Yosemite with him in 1903. How about saving the bison from extinction? TR and George Bird Grinnell worked hand in hand to bring the species back from the brink. The formation of the US Forest Service? TR and his occasional wrestling opponent Gifford Pinchot founded it and shaped wildfire management policy that persists to this day. Modern hunting ethics? TR and 22 of his buddies founded the Boone & Crockett Club.
While reading the full trilogy is an accomplishment on its own, it is really just a starting point for a deep understanding of TR, public lands, conservation, and the time period. Curious readers will find dozens of people, places, and concepts that warrant further study, and their reading list will expand wildly with each completed chapter. If the trilogy is the trunk of a great oak tree, there are countless fascinating branches to explore further.
All told, the trilogy amounts to 2,400+ pages, but the reality is that you will still only be scratching the surface. You will want to go much deeper, and I encourage you to do so. To be an effective force in the battle for our public lands, you need to be armed with the unique perspective that only TR’s life and times can provide.
For further reading on the many facets of TR’s life, I recommend:
- Conservationist - The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley
- Cattleman - Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. DiSilvestro
- Naturalist - The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History by Darrin Lunde
- Hunter - Hunting Trips of a Ranchman & The Wilderness Hunter by Theodore Roosevelt
- Crime Fighter - Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks
- Soldier - The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire by Evan Thomas
- Explorer - The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
- Child - Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough
- Father - Theodore Roosevelt: Letters to His Children by Theodore Roosevelt
Ed Roberson is a Colorado-based ranch broker, conservationist, and outdoorsman, as well as the host of the Mountain & Prairie Podcast-- long-form interviews with innovators of the American West. Visit his blog to subscribe to his bimonthly book recommendations.