Was Teddy Roosevelt the First Green President?

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Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor, Katie Lambert.

Katie Lambert: Hello, Candace.

Candace Keener: Hey there, Katie. I have to tell all of you, Katie is so nice and tanned from a weekend in Dustin. And I was just remarking that I could also use a vacation. And in the summertime I love going to Washington DC. I don't think there's anything more fun than being in that part of the country, especially around the Fourth of July. And the last time I was in DC, I visited a site that I hadn't before. And I wouldn't exactly call it off the beaten path, because it's not. It's off the George Washington Memorial Parkway. But if you've never been to Teddy Roosevelt Island, you've got to go. It's this wonderful monument to his conservationist ideals. And there's a swamp and a forest and a boardwalk. And best of all, I can take Jupiter because pets are allowed. And what more could a girl as for?

Katie Lambert: Not a whole lot.

Candace Keener: And the greatest thing about Teddy Roosevelt, I think, is that he was so forward thinking, and in a time when industry was king, and loggers, and miners, and many other industry men abounded, he had the foresight to plan for our country's natural resources to be protected and saved. And that brings me to the question, was Teddy Roosevelt our first real green president?

Katie Lambert: I've heard of some other candidates, actually, for green presidents. I was talking to our green editor, Sara Dowdy, before this podcast. And she was saying that Nixon was actually responsible for the environmental protection agency and the clean air act. But we don't think of someone like Richard Nixon as being particularly green.

Candace Keener: Well, I think the word green has such a modern and contemporary resonance. How long ago did we really start throwing the word around?

Katie Lambert: Exactly. And I think the meaning of being green has changed throughout the decades. Like now, you're thinking global warming.

Candace Keener: Right. Precisely! And I think when you hear the word green you also think of a touchy feely person - someone who's in touch with the people. Someone who's really making an effort to care about the earth and present a good image of stewardship to the people! And maybe that's why Nixon comes as such a surprise, because that's not exactly the legacy that he left behind. But a few other candidates whose names have come up are people like Jimmy Carter, who helped found the Department of Energy back in 1977; Thomas Jefferson, who had ideas of an agrarian paradise taking hold in the United States with everyone farming and doing their part to help cultivate the land. And of course, not to mention that Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase to add that much more land to the United States.

Katie Lambert: No more gushing.

Candace Keener: I'll stop now - get off my Jefferson soapbox. FDR, who set up the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was a major contributor to helping bolster awareness of different treks of wilderness, and also to cultivate the land, too. And even Lincoln, who created the United States Department of Agriculture. And I have to give credit to these rankings and to these accomplishments to The Daily Green and Treehugger as well as MSN, who developed lists of the greenest presidents. And on The Daily Green, Teddy Roosevelt ranked number one. And on the MSN list, he was number five. But if you're going to quantify someone's greenness, you have to look at his accomplishments as a President. And Teddy Roosevelt has a whole list of things that he accomplished.

Katie Lambert: Starting with 150 national forests, 51 bird reservations, four national game preserves, five national parks, 18 national monuments - the list just goes on and on.

Candace Keener: And according to the Teddy Roosevelt Association, he expanded forest reserves by 400 percent.

Katie Lambert: If it weren't for Teddy Roosevelt, we would not have the Grand Canyon as it is, would we not?

Candace Keener: Truly, we really wouldn't. And that's another facet to his ideals of conservationism, the idea that the United States being a new country doesn't hav e that rich cultural heritage and types of monuments that places like Europe do. What we have to offer to show ourselves to the world are these beautiful tracks of wilderness and interesting and unique formations in the earth itself. And we need to be proud of that, and that's why we need to preserve landmarks like the Grand Canyon.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. We don't have the coliseum, but we do have Yosemite, so beat that.

Candace Keener: Exactly. So we've listed a bunch of his accomplishments, but I think that to really prove how green he is, since that onus is on us since we posited that he's the greenest guy around, or at least the first green president - we should delve into his history and his career. He came into the White House back in 1901 and he was there until 1909. And he was only 43 years old when he assumed the Presidency of the United States. And he leveraged the Antiquities Act of 1906 in order to protect different sites around the country as well as give future presidents the license to declare different areas that could be considered of scientific or historic interest as national monuments. And one example of how he exercise the Antiquities Act was when he declared the Petrified Forest in Arizona a National Monument.

Katie Lambert: He was pretty captivated with Arizona in general, I think.

Candace Keener: Well, he was fascinated by the west. And an important thing to note is that, while he was born to a wealthy family on the east coast, there were a couple of events that happened in his life that inspired him to go west. Back in the 1880s, actually, was when he headed out there. And this was around the time that his mother and his first wife had died. Tragedy really struck him on a personal note. He'd been reading a New York magazine about Howard Eaton's Custer Trail Ranch in the Dakota Badlands, and he was fascinated by the idea of getting in touch with his masculine side - which is something we'll bring up again later - and hunting and fishing and riding horses. So he went out west and actually took down an outlaw while he was out there, in addition to the hunting and fishing aspect of being in the Wild West. And he became the owner of the Maltese Cross Ranch. And he wrote home and encouraged his fellow easterners to come out west and see what it had to offer. And dude ranches became popular by virtue of Teddy Roosevelt and his inspiration actions in drawing people out to this type of lifestyle. And if you're wondering about the word dude, it's sort of a funny term. In New York, it was used to reference a city slicker, someone who was well groomed and put together, roughing it in the conditions of the west.

Katie Lambert: Was he actually a good rancher?

Candace Keener: I don't know if he was a good rancher. Maybe one of our listeners can weight in via email or on the blog. But something he was very good at was establishing reverence toward nature. And he did some contradictory things to the idea of being a good steward of nature, which you were asking me about earlier. And it really put me in a tough spot to answer.

Katie Lambert: He was big into hunting, wasn't he? And when you think of someone being green, you normally think a little touchy feely. You don't picture them going out and shooting grizzly bears.

Candace Keener: Especially since he lived his life by the understanding that stuff runs out, to put it crudely. He was very much into conservationism, and he knew that stuff ran out. So why would he go and hunt big game with such wild abandon?

Katie Lambert: And I think part of it, he actually went to go hunt bison and there were no bison to hunt because that particular stock of animal had in fact been exhausted in that part of the country.

Candace Keener: And this is a topic on which he clashed with one of his most influential sources as you were mentioning.

Katie Lambert: Oh, John Moore, yes.

Candace Keener: Who was one of the cofounders of the Sierra Club?

Katie Lambert: And he took a life-changing trip to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon in the west with John Moore. And I think they bickered quite a bit about that, because Teddy was concerned with thinks like sustainable forestry, whereas John Moore was saying, "No. We shouldn't be cutting down the trees, period. We should be preserving what we have."

Candace Keener: And Teddy would've butted heads on that point and would've defined sustainable forestry by explaining that you can use the land in a democratic way, or you can use it in a very privatized way. And he foresaw using the land for all strata of society. And until then, many people conceived of the wealthy classes being able to use the land as freely as they wa nted for recreation and for hunting. And he wanted to make it available for everyone. And in reference to his hunting with wild abandon, I wanted to refer to Daniel Filler, who wrote an essay called Theodore Roosevelt: Conservation is the Guardian of Democracy. And he explains that Roosevelt equated land and natural resources with economic and political success. And again, we'll broach the idea of conservationism is the key to the country's future in a just a minute. But something that Filler posed that was so interesting to me is the idea of hunting as a way to create a code of ethics toward nature. And Roosevelt based this idea on the type of aristocratic hunting traditions that were very much alive in Europe. They established a type of manliness. They made a man very viral and hearty and full of life - the fact that he could go out there and hunt, with abandon, yes. But also with restraint! You hunt for the joy and satisfaction of taking down an animal, you assert your manliness on the land. And he saw in the United States that, as urbanization was growing, America was becoming very emasculated in a sense. He was very worried that men would lose the ideals on which the country was founded. And saw this emasculation of man as the death of democracy.

Katie Lambert: And being a roughrider cowboy type of guy, I don't think he was very fond of that particular deterioration.

Candace Keener: Exactly. That's an excellent point, drawing another aspect of his career there. He was very much ahead of his time with some of the ideas that he advocated. In 1908, he said, "Our position in the world has been attained by the extent and thoroughness of the control we have achieved over nature. But we are more and not less dependent upon what she (America) furnishes than at any previous time of history."

Katie Lambert: And what do you think that means.

Candace Keener: Well, like I was explaining earlier, equating land and natural resources with economic and political success, Roosevelt saw the abundance of America - the timber and the mines and dare I say the clean air and the abundance of birds of wildlife - as America's key to success on the global stage. We have an abundance and that's what would guarantee our success among other countries with other resources at their disposal. But perhaps too many Americans at this time were using them carelessly and he wanted to preserve them for future generations. And he even said, 1907, in his seventh annual message to Congress that there's no such thing as an inexhaustible resource. And I quote Teddy, "Optimism is a good characteristic. But if carried to an excess it becomes foolishness. We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible. This is not so."

Katie Lambert: He has some great quotes on conservation. I was reading another one where he goes specifically through everything and what will happen when we run out of the forests, when the coal's gone, the iron's gone, the oil's gone, the gas is gone. And that it's time to start thinking about these things!

Candace Keener: And the fact that he was posing these ideas at a time when it was incredibly unpopular to talk about tapering off one's use of the land, I think is what really asserts his place as the nation's first, and if not greenest, president.

Katie Lambert: And very much a progressive along with the other ideals of his party.

Candace Keener: Definitely. And of course we remain to see what our current President and future presidents here on out do to exemplify greenness in the White House. And we are positive that many of you are itching with things to say about Teddy Roosevelt and other presidents who you might think are even greener. So we invite you to email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com, and to comment on our blog. And we very much look forward to having a good green debate with you. And for more on Teddy Roosevelt and other green ideas and conservationist principles, be sure to visit the website at howstuffworks.com.

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