Even those of us who can hardly recall a single fact from high school history class (raising my hand) likely remember Theodore Roosevelt's name for a few key reasons. The 26th president of the United States served from 1901 to 1909, and he's the leader responsible for the domestic program known as the Square Deal, which focused on "the three Cs": consumer protection, corporate regulation and conservationism. Roosevelt's legacy continues to live on today in many ways, even though his time in office ended over a century ago. Here are six things we're still thanking Teddy Roosevelt for today:
1. He Established the U.S. Forest Service
Conservation was a major component in Roosevelt's plans to revitalize the country, and after taking office in 1901, he established the United States Forest Service (USFS), which today continues its mission "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations."
There's everything he did personally, as a naturalist and public figure, to promote the protection of nature — but it's what he did as president that matters, Clay Risen, The New York Times deputy op-ed editor and author of "The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century," says via email. "He took what was still a nascent movement and planted it firmly within U.S. government policy. Thanks to him, the idea that the government has a critical role to play in protecting America's natural heritage has never been seriously questioned; in fact, it has become a core part of our collective identity."
2. He Signed Legislation Creating Five National Parks and 150 National Forests
Roosevelt famously protected over 230 million acres (93 million hectares) of land and designated the country's first wildlife refuge (Pelican Island, which we will get to in a moment), presided over the creation of the National Forest Service, and signed the Antiquities Act, which granted presidents the authority to protect natural and cultural landmarks. Calling upon the newly established law, he helped create 18 monuments, established five national parks (Crater Lake, Oregon; Wind Cave, South Dakota; Sullys Hill, North Dakota; Mesa Verde, Colorado; and Platt, Oklahoma), and 150 national forests.
At the laying of the cornerstone for the Gateway to Yellowstone National Park in 1903, Roosevelt said in a speech: "The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world, so far as I know...The scheme of its preservation is noteworthy in its essential democracy.... This Park was created, and is now administered, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.... The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests and the wild creatures."
"It's easy to imagine an alternate universe, where the pressures of the 20th century carved up almost all the available land in the U.S. and conservation became a losing battle between entrenched powers and an underfunded environmental movement," Risen says. "Again, there are so many achievements, but this is one I keep going back to in my mind."
3. He Changed the Role of the American Father
"I know many people, myself included, who are struck by Teddy Roosevelt's commitment to his family," Risen says. "For such a public figure, he was an intensely private person when he wanted to be, and he constructed a large, warm sphere around his domestic life, especially during his second marriage. He doted on his children in a way that belies the stereotype of the late 19th-century Victorian man of means — visitors to his home at Sagamore Hill describe how freely and physically he played with his kids, almost like a child himself. Of course he was still Teddy Roosevelt, and he was still a man of his class and time — his wife did much of the housework, and he spent large amounts of time away from home. Nevertheless, I don't think you can understand Teddy Roosevelt in full until you appreciate the importance of his family to him."
4. He Established the First 51 Bird Reserves
An avid birdwatcher, Roosevelt felt passionately about protecting avian species from poachers. In 1903, he established Pelican Island, Florida, as the first federal bird reservation, and as the first unit in what would eventually be known as the National Wildlife Refuge System. Today, you can find a refuge near you by visiting https://www.fws.gov/refuges/find-a-wildlife-refuge/?method=zipcode and typing in your ZIP code.
5. He Initiated Construction of the Panama Canal
Roosevelt believed it was important for there to be a canal that spanned the Isthmus of Panama in order to support American military and commercial purposes. Colombia refused America's terms for building the canal, so Roosevelt threw his support behind the political class in Panama that sought to form an independent nation. The newly established nation of Panama then sold the canal zone to America for $10 million and an additional annual amount that increased over time. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 and continues to be a major trade conduit today — in 2019, the canal registered a total of 13,785 transits, transporting 252 million tons (228 metric tons) of goods, and generating tolls that totaled $2,592 million.
6. He Helped End the Russo-Japanese War
Roosevelt became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize when he persuaded the parties of the Russo-Japanese War to meet in a peace conference at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Thanks to his mediation efforts, both sides signed the Treaty of Portsmouth on Sept. 5, 1905, which ended the war. The following year, Roosevelt was awarded the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. But according to Risen, this monumental achievement was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Roosevelt's long-lasting legacy.
"Teddy Roosevelt is often caricatured as a man of violence, or at least aggression," Risen says. "And there's something to that, both in his personal life and in his foreign policy views. But he was also more complex than that, especially as President. In his youth and his old age, he at times took a chauvinistic, belligerent view of the world. But in the White House, he made enormous contributions to the mechanisms of dispute resolution and diplomacy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War, but that was only the beginning of his achievements."
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