President Theodore Roosevelt: A Conservative for All Seasons

Posted on March 8, 2017 by Irma S. Russell

The debate on whether President Theodore Roosevelt was a conservative or a progressive experienced a recent uptick.  One example of the debate is the reception to Daniel Ruddy's new book, Theodore the Great: Conservative Crusader.  In Theodore the Great, Ruddy documents the Roosevelt presidency’s conservation achievements, including efforts to protect the Grand Canyon and other national wonders from exploitation.  Like most presidents since his time, Theodore Roosevelt had a goal of making America great.  His philosophy centered on increasing the political power of the American people and limiting the build-up of the “invisible government” of party bosses, corporate trusts, and corporate lobbyists.  President Roosevelt championed reforms that limited corporate interests and conserved public lands for future generations.  The book’s website indicates that TR “obfuscated his own legacy with populist speeches” and promises that the book’s focus on Roosevelt’s actions “clears the cobwebs and presents a real and convincing case for remembering Theodore Roosevelt as a great conservative leader.”  I am persuaded of this point without reading the book.

The term “conservative” is capacious and has many dimensions, and the model of Roosevelt as a conservative is thoroughly convincing.  The U.S. National Parks website presents the evidence of President Roosevelt’s legacy.  Among other things, he created 51 federal bird reserves that have now evolved into national wildlife refuges in every state.  But of even greater importance, he established the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and set aside 230 million acres of public lands, with over 150 million acres of that designated as national forests.  The success and public acceptance of the Forest Service was laid out for the ACOEL by Timothy Egan in a presentation to our members about his book, The Big Burn, which chronicled the birth of the agency within the Department of Agriculture and the public’s acceptance of its value after a 1910 fire in Montana and Idaho claimed lives as well as acres of forest. Roosevelt and the USFS insured the future of our forests – both for commercial and for recreational use. As an advocate for the American people, Roosevelt worked to insure the sustainability of those resources. 

Today, conservatives seem to be taking a markedly different approach to conservation and public lands.  Last week Ryan Zinke was confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of the Interior, the principal manager of public lands.  Zinke, the former Montana representative has been compared to President Roosevelt and praised as a Roosevelt conservative.  Last fall, he resigned his position as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in protest to proposals to transfer federal lands to states and private entities. 

More recently, however, Zinke has changed his approach to the preservation of public lands.  Before vacating his seat in the House of Representatives to accept the top position in the DOI, he voted in favor of a bill that facilitates the transfer of large tracts of western state federal public lands to states, local governments and private entities.  Such transfers of federal public lands will enrich the new owners by millions if not billions of dollars in valuable land and the natural resources on the lands. 

Even if the transfers were made for a fair market price and assuming the uses of the land were to remain the same (with the same park rangers and the same memorial markers), there would be adverse consequences.  The legacy, access, and pride in the public treasures would be forever altered.  Disposing of public lands will take these assets from America and Americans to enrich commercial or state interests.  This will impoverish the country both fiscally and by severing the relationship of ordinary Americans with the lands they revere.  Such transfers may also limit public access and will inevitably deprive the country of the value of natural resources on the public lands and reduce the national security – an important rational for the creation of public lands. 

National forests, wildlife refuges and other lands provide a national conservation and recreation system like none other.  Transferring these assets from the public to other interests is a loss to America no matter what form is used for the disposition.  Private interests focused on the corporate bottom line will inevitably exploit such holdings for profit.  As corporate spokesmen often explain, the responsibilities of their corporations are to their shareholders, not the general public.  Ordinary Americans might have the ability to hike, camp, and hunt and fish, but such access is not insured, and the nature of the access would be far different if our citizens become ticket-holders to private attractions. 

The collective holdings of the nation’s public lands protect access for all to the most inspiring areas on earth.  Debating what label best describes President Roosevelt’s brand of conservative principles or conservationist zeal is trivial in comparison to the serious issue of preserving America’s heritage in public’s lands.  Even from a purely economic perspective, selling public lands would be the worst deal in history.