President Theodore Roosevelt on the Conservation of Natural Resources Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt, in his seventh annual message to Congress, puts forward a set of proposals designed to protect the nation’s national resources. Americans, he says, take for granted the abundance of natural resources available to them, a perspective he considers foolish. He cites the need for more efficient mining and agricultural practices, updated irrigation projects, and the establishment of protected open spaces. The responsibility for each of these actions, he says, rests with the only entity capable of effectively carrying them out: the federal government.

Summary Overview

President Theodore Roosevelt, in his seventh annual message to Congress, puts forward a set of proposals designed to protect the nation’s national resources. Americans, he says, take for granted the abundance of natural resources available to them, a perspective he considers foolish. He cites the need for more efficient mining and agricultural practices, updated irrigation projects, and the establishment of protected open spaces. The responsibility for each of these actions, he says, rests with the only entity capable of effectively carrying them out: the federal government.

Defining Moment

Perhaps to a degree unequalled by his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt was an ardent wildlife enthusiast. Early in his presidency, he occasionally burst into cabinet meetings unexpectedly in order to tell the group of the birds he had just seen outside. Even before becoming president, Roosevelt once wrote to a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, saying that he would like to see all wildlife given every protection possible. To some, Roosevelt’s love of nature stemmed from his affinity for hunting. To others, his passion for the natural world went far beyond the animals he and his upper-class friends hunted.

Roosevelt’s ascendency to the presidency in 1901 was unexpected: Republican Party officials had thrown him into the vice presidential slot with candidate William McKinley in 1900, but McKinley’s assassination a year later brought Roosevelt and his ideals to the executive office. Although he assumed office without a popular mandate, he quickly established himself as a dynamic and popular leader. Meanwhile, the balance of power in government, which had through the Civil War greatly favored Congress over the president, had been slowly shifting toward the executive, a trend Roosevelt used to his advantage.

In addition to his well-known “big stick” approach to foreign policy, Roosevelt saw a need to expand the reach of the federal government in order to protect the America’s natural resources. Since the Civil War, the United States had been consuming its timber, mineral, and water resources at a nearly breakneck pace. Entire species of animals–such as the bison–were nearly wiped out by rampant and unregulated hunting. Conservationists such as John Muir, the Scottish-born American founder of the Sierra Club, called for more federal oversight of the country’s resources, a push that was well received by the new president. A year after assuming office, Roosevelt introduced plans for more efficient irrigation projects and established federal agencies to gauge and protect the long-term health of the country’s natural resources. Following his successful 1904 election campaign, Roosevelt established five national parks and five national natural monuments (including part of the Grand Canyon in 1906). His efforts to protect the nation’s natural resources were largely successful–forest reserves alone grew from about 43 million acres to about 194 million acres by the end of Roosevelt’s presidency. Meanwhile, the establishment of such nature preserves as the Florida Everglades ensured the protection of a wide range of animal and bird species.

In December 1907, Roosevelt, in one his last addresses to Congress as president, reiterated his belief that the federal government should play a more active role in regulating the country’s growth. Part of his address focused on the need for commercial and business regulation. Later in the address, however, he stresses the need for government to play a similar oversight role in ensuring the long-term stability of the country’s natural resources.

Author Biography

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, in New York City. On February 14, 1884, his first wife and his mother both died; Roosevelt spent about two years thereafter in the Badlands of Dakota Territory, hunting and recovering from his grief. As a lieutenant colonel with the US Army in the Spanish-American War, he famously led a charge up San Juan Hill and earned distinction as a war hero. Shortly thereafter, he was elected governor of New York, and later, at the age of forty-two, became the nation’s youngest president. After endorsing William Howard Taft as his successor in 1908, Roosevelt left office (although he ran for president again unsuccessfully in 1912) and went on a safari. He later returned to his home in Oyster Bay, New York. He died on January 6, 1919.

Document Analysis

Roosevelt’s address touches on a number of topics, but his theme is consistent: the federal government must play a larger role in regulating the systems and resources that enable the nation to continue to enjoy its prosperity. During the latter part of his speech, he stresses the need for government to help conserve the nation’s myriad natural resources.

One of the areas on which this policy would bear was the nation’s waterways. The rivers, lakes, and other waterways throughout the United States could become “national water highways,” he says, transporting freight not just to the major ports of the East and West Coasts, but to the nation’s interior as well. The country’s rail system was heavily congested, he states, an issue that would be alleviated by the development of this “highway.” In order to make this vision possible, Roosevelt proposes a series of government projects designed to widen and deepen rivers and shores in order to accommodate larger boats. He also proposes the construction of dams and levees to facilitate water-based transportation.

As part of the development of the country’s waterways, Roosevelt says, the government should also undertake the development of improved and more efficient irrigation systems. Such projects, coupled with the presence of levees (which would safeguard against the flooding common in the watersheds of the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers as well as the Great Lakes), would aid in the economic development of the Midwest, South, and Northwest by attracting more farmers and commerce.

Additionally, Roosevelt says, it was essential for the government to continue its efforts to reclaim open wetlands in places such as the Gulf states. Roosevelt had already established a special Public Lands Commission designed to analyze existing laws governing the country’s fertile farmlands. Here he references this commission’s findings and recommendations–which he calls sound–and points to the fact that Congress had yet to adopt any of the commission’s proposals.

Furthermore, Roosevelt comments on grazing practices in places such as the as-yet underdeveloped West Coast. In these locations, cattle farmers were fencing off public lands for their own private grazing, leading to overuse and destruction of these pastures through soil erosion and depletion. It was the responsibility of the federal government, Roosevelt says, to expand its oversight to protect and sustain these lands.

It was also incumbent upon the federal government to continue its efforts to protect the nation’s forests, Roosevelt adds. Americans mistakenly believed that their natural resources were limitless, he says–the government needed to play a role in reversing that attitude. He, therefore, proposes continuing his policy of acquiring the forests of the White Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. Such land acquisitions would conserve two vital timber regions as well as the waterways that came from them. The presence of government-sponsored lands in some of the country’s most populated areas would help foster a new appreciation of America’s natural resources, he says.

Essential Themes

The son of a cofounder of the American Museum of Natural History, Theodore Roosevelt was himself an avid outdoors and nature enthusiast. As one of the first presidents of the twentieth century, Roosevelt’s presence in the White House has been considered fortuitous for the nation, therefore, as the country was on the verge of overusing its natural resources. Roosevelt’s seventh annual address to Congress (and indeed the entire nation) provided a reminder of the need for sustainable natural resource use in the modern United States.

Roosevelt, who during his presidency was taking advantage of a trend in which the executive branch was enjoying an increasing amount of political power, had already expanded significantly the federal government’s control over a large portion of open space in the nation. He used his seventh address to call for further federal acquisitions of forest areas in New England and the Mid-Atlantic area as well as swampland in the South. In it, he also makes a point to call for federal projects to improve the nation’s irrigation and maritime systems. Such projects, he argues, would lessen dependence on the rails and bring much-needed economic development in the Midwest, the South, and the Northwest.

Roosevelt’s speech has two main themes to accompany its proposals. The first is that the United States had for too long operated under the mistaken notion that its natural resources were too plentiful to exhaust. Roosevelt argues that it was time for a change in attitude. The country’s timber and mineral resources–and even grazing land–were rapidly depleting and, without intervention, would continue to decrease.

Roosevelt’s second main point is that the federal government had to be the entity to intervene. He says he has created agencies and commissions to increase oversight over the country’s natural resources–these entities had already achieved success in increasing awareness of and protecting natural resources. However, Roosevelt stresses that in order to move into the next steps toward conservation and sustainable development, Congress must recognize and support his agenda.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Benson, W. Todd. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation Legacy. West Conshohocken: Infinity, 2003. Print.
  • Brinkley, Douglas. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.
  • Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random, 2002. Print.
  • Peters, Gerhard. “Seventh Annual Message.” American Presidency Project. U of California Santa Barbara, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
  • Peterson, Tarla Rai. Green Talk in the White House: The Rhetorical Presidency Encounters Ecology. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 2004. Print.
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