After William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became our 25th President. Americas natural resources were threatened. Species like the bison and beaver were endangered; others were extinct. Soil fertility was low and about four-fifths of prime forests had been cut down. Roosevelt expressed concern: … the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been… washed into the streams, polluting our rivers.
Roosevelts leadership changed public perception that Americas natural resources were inexhaustible. Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, in New York City. Roosevelt grew up with the challenges of asthma and poor eyesight, but did not let them keep him from his passions. Summers in Roosevelts childhood were spent in the country. He enjoyed collecting live animals and hunting specimens to study. At age eight, after obtaining a seals skull, Roosevelt and two of his cousins started the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.
The skull stayed on a bookshelf in the Roosevelt household throughout the remainder of his childhood, and items such as bird nests, insects, minerals, and shells were added to the Museums collection. At age thirteen Roosevelt took lessons in taxidermy and started a book-study on mammals and birds. In Roosevelts freshman year of college at Harvard, he intended to become an outdoor naturalist. Discouragement in the naturalist field instead led him to politics, where his interests could translate into more visible activism.
In 1881, Roosevelt was elected to the New York State Assembly, and in December of 1887 he hosted a dinner for ten of his sportsmen friends. The group recognized that the extinction of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon could easily happen to any other species. A decision to control market hunting and provide wildlife the ability to coexist with man was made with the development of the Boone and Crockett Club. Founded that night by Roosevelt, the club still exists today with the mission to promote two goals: The conservation of critical wildlife habitat and the principle of hunting in fair chase.
In the 1890s, while governor of New York, Roosevelt helped ignite an interest in monitoring sewage treatment and discharge from tanneries and pulp mills. During his term as Governor, Roosevelt was in consultation with Gifford Pinchot and F. H. Newell, both of whom helped to shape Roosevelts recommendations about forestry. Roosevelt grew more and more concerned over the destruction of the forests. After the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt took office. The first work he started as President was the work of reclamation.
Before Roosevelt even had the chance to move into his new home at the White House, his old friends, Pinchot and Newell, called upon him at his sisters house. There Pinchot and Newell laid before him their plans for National Irrigation of the Wests arid lands, and for the consolidation of the forest work in the Bureau of Forestry, which Pinchot was presently head of. At that time, the United States government had a narrowly legalistic point of view toward natural resources.
Through the General Land Office and other government bureaus, the public resources were being handled and disposed of with petty legal formalities and in favor of private interests against the publics welfare, instead of for constructive development. It was the general public opinion that our natural resources were inexhaustible, and not even the government had real knowledge of our natural resources extent and condition. The American people had no idea there was a relation of the conservation of natural resources to the problems of national welfare and national efficiency.
The reclamation of the arid lands in the West was still a matter for private enterprise alone. In the government, forests and foresters had nothing to do with each other. All the forests owned by the United States were held and administered in one Department, while all the government employed foresters were held in another. In the East forest protection had yet to enter anyones mind, while the West had little forest protection, then called forest reserves, which didnt even meet the purposes for which they were created.
After absorbing all these truths from his friends, Pinchot and Newell, Roosevelt discussed the matters at his first message to Congress on December 3, 1901. At one point in his speech Roosevelt stated The forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal problems of the United States. With that Roosevelt became the first president in American history to set forth a new attitude of importance toward conserving Americas natural resources. Soon Roosevelts interests in our natural resources were adopted by other key leaders in the government.
The day that Roosevelt read his first message to Congress, a committee of Western Senators and Congressmen organized to invent a Reclamation Bill. Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada took an interest in the reclamations and took it upon himself to draft and push the bill through Congress. Finally, after several conferences and revisions, the Reclamation Act was passed on June 17, 1902. The Act set aside the proceeds of the disposal of public lands for the purpose of reclaiming the waste areas of the arid West. By irrigating these otherwise worthless lands, new homes were created.
The settlers of the new land would then repay the government, and that money would again be put through the same cycle. The Reclamation project was undertaken between 1902 and 1906, and by the spring of 1909 the government had become fully committed to its continuance. Until 1908, the work of Reclamation was controlled by the United States Geological Survey. In spring of 1908 the United States Reclamation Service was established to carry on with the Act. The Reclamation Service irrigated more than three million acres and provided water for more than thirty thousand farms.
The dams built were the largest in the world. The Act helped prove to the American nation that it could handle its own resources. The Bureau of Forestry, changed to the United States Forest Service in 1905, was to provide more monumentous changes for Americas natural resources during Roosevelts presidency. Headed by Pinchot, the US Forest Service was a small department that conducted scientific studies of forests on private lands. Though the US Forest Service contained all trained foresters, they had no control over public forests.
Roosevelt expressed concern on this issue in his first message to Congress, but it took Congress three years to act upon it. The Act of February 1, 1905 transferred the National Forests from the care of the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, and resulted in the present day United States Forest Service. With control of this new land, the first goal of the trained foresters was to open all the resources of the National Forests to regulated use. Another priority was to put every part of the land to use, to best serve the public.
To obtain this particular goal, the Act of June 11, 1906 was written, and secured from Congress. This Act allows the settlement of all land in the National Forests to be used for agriculture. By March 4, 1909, nearly half a million acres of agricultural land in the National Forests had been opened to settlement due to this Act. Also upon the transfer of National Forests to the US Forest Service, the Service immediately began to fight for the handling of the power resources of the National Forests. On May 1, 1906, an Act was passed granting the use of certain power sites in Southern California to the Edison Electric Power Company.
This Act prevented speculation and monopoly and yielded a fair return to the government. In 1907, the area of the National Forests was increased more than forty-three million acres, by Presidential proclamation. The US Forest Service grew even stronger, and obtained the full use of roads, trails, and telephone lines. Also in 1907, sixty-one publications on various phases of forestry, with a total of more than a million copies, were issued on the progress of technical forestry and popular education of forestry.
This compares to the three publications and a total of eighty-two thousand copies that were printed in 1901. In 1908, the fire prevention work of the Forest Service had become so successful that eighty-six percent of the fires that occurred were contained in an area of five acres or less. Also in 1908, the responsibility for the handling of American Indian timberlands was given to the Forest Service. This responsibility of the US Forest Service, though, was withdrawn from the Conservation policy after Roosevelt left office.
The investigation of land titles in the National Forests by the Forest Service and the study of the public lands led to the appointment of the Public Lands Commission (October 22, 1903). It was clear to everyone that there was a need of law reform, and the Commission was charged with examining and reporting on the condition, disposal, and settlement of the public lands. The Public Lands Commission helped to control the exploitation of the remaining resources in the public domain. As a result of the outgrowth of the forest movement, the Conservation movement was born.
The first step of the Conservation movement was the creation of the Inland Waterways Commission, appointed on March 14, 1907. Roosevelt called attention to the value of our streams as great natural resources, and to the need for a progressive plan for their development and control. A further step taken by Roosevelt was the appointment of the National Conservation Commission on June 8, 1908. The Commission was responsible for preparing an inventory of all the natural resources in the nation, the first inventory of this kind ever made in American history.
Under Pinchot, who was made chairman, the Commission was created in six months, and made available to the American people the essential facts regarding our natural resources. These facts were extremely useful in aiding the constructive action which was going on at this time. Roosevelt felt that the Conservation movement shouldnt be limited to the United States. In response to his theory, the Joint Conservation Conference of December, 1908, suggested to Roosevelt the idea of holding a North American Conservation Conference.
The conference was held on February 18, 1909, and lasted five days. With the help of Pinchot, Roosevelt attempted to hold a larger conference with forty-five other nations to discuss a general plan for an inventory of the natural resources of the world… to the end that there may be a general understanding and appreciation of the worlds supply of the material elements which underlie the development of civilization and the welfare of the peoples of the earth.
Much to Roosevelts distress, the plan lapsed after he left the presidency. By the end of Roosevelts presidency in 1909, his achievements in the conservation of our natural resources were spectacular. Due to his efforts, five national parks and 18 national monuments were established. He created the United States National Forest Service, which protected over one-hundred and fifty million acres of national forests. His legacy is one that lives on, to the benefit of all of us and the natural places we cherish.