Viewing Theodore Roosevelt as Our ‘Green’ Mentor

John Ostenburg

By John A. Ostenburg
The Outpost Observer

President Theodore Roosevelt probably did more to create a culture of ecology in the United States than any other of our presidents. Yet, if he were alive today and undertaking some of his favorite pastimes, he’d be thought of as an environmental charlatan.

As Douglas Brinkley records in his wonderful biography, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, TR — incidentally, he hated being called "Teddy" — is the reason why America today is blessed with so many wonderful national parks and forests.

Mr. Roosevelt was aggressive in working through the administrations of Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and especially his own, to set aside large segments of the American landscape so citizens of future generations might enjoy a little of that magnificent natural state that once was the American territory. Because of him, far fewer species of North American birds and animals have become extinct than otherwise would be the case. 

However, to the revisionist ecologist, TR must be viewed as little short of a great despoiler of wildlife. He was an ardent hunter and in his early days was fond of serving as his own taxidermist in preparing for exhibit birds and small animals that he killed. He hunted bison and bears and other animals that today are endangered; and he shot many exotic specimen of fowl that rarely are seen today.

Simultaneous with those actions, though, TR was highly critical of buffalo-hunters who slaughtered bison in order only to help the westward advancement of the railroad, leaving thousands of their bodies to rot on the prairie landscape; in fact, he wanted them imprisoned. Likewise, among his greatest enemies were the killers of beautiful birds whose feathers then would be used by milliners to create the latest salable fashion-ware.

So, was Theodore Roosevelt a great conservationist or not? Indeed, he was. Yet, he also was a man of his times, albeit a little ahead of most others when it came to elements of natural history. He hunted because that was what the men of his era did; yet he abhored what he viewed as the wasteful slaughter of animals. As much as for any other reason, he wanted to preserve some of America’s wildlife so future hunters also could enjoy the thrill of tracking bison for the kill and the danger of pursuing both cougar and bear, but their meat would be used as food. Likewise, he wanted to provide carcasses of exotic birds and animals for naturalists to study and classify. But, in accomplishing all of that, he just happened to create a national system of reserves that has protected various forms of wildlife against arbitrary slaughter to this day.

It’s not that Mr. Roosevelt was a contradiction. Rather, it’s that man’s view of things has evolved since his day and as such we see as evil now many things that were simply commonplace in times gone by. 

I use Theodore Roosevelt as an example because I think too many contemporary environmentalists are myopic in their criticism of citizens of the past for their failure to protect our environment from the damage that it has suffered over the last few hundred years. Truth is, the vast majority of our predecessors simply didn’t recognize the danger incumbent with so many of their actions.

I was astonished, for example, when I recently read a passage from Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, in which he stated "Even at the threshold of this new era, it has become evident to all that the resources of this planet are inexhaustible," adding that "I refer to physical resources." Now, I recognize that Mr. Miller was a master of satire and often spoke tongue-in-cheek, but this observation is one that is far from inaccurate as regards the attitudes even of many learned folks as recently as the late 1950s.

The lesson for us today, I believe, is to recognize that some of the attitudes about sustainability that we adhere to strenuously may be things that tomorrow’s generations will see as misguided. But that’s no reason why we shouldn’t be trying to make things better nonetheless. We cannot abandon our commitment to improvement of our air, water, and good earth just because we might be traveling down paths that wiser persons of the future will recognize as too circuitous if not actually heading in the wrong direction. We must be TR-like in our determination to do all that solid scientific evidence and our good judgment may dictate to make our planet a better place on which to live.

One of the greatest annoyances for me personally is to hear someone say, "If it’s not broken, don’t fix it." It’s been a too common position among many who oppose governmental action to preserve our natural resources. To me, such an attitude suggests that nothing ever is in need of fine-tuning and that corrective actions should be taken only after ruin has occurred.

When it comes to matters of ecology, we cannot wait until things are broken before we begin the fix. Should we wait until the streams are devoid of fish before cleaning them up? Should be wait until everyone must wear a gas-mask for a stroll outside before we clean up the air we breathe? Should we wait until our soil is so saturated with pesticides and other chemicals as to be incapable of producing food before we put in place laws to ban the use of such items?

So, just as did Theodore Roosevelt, we may in good conscience be doing some things today that will have to be altered or put to a halt in the future. However, if also like TR, we’re on a course that takes at least two steps forward for every one we take back, I think future generations will be kinder to us than they would be otherwise.

After all, unless we make some efforts today for our planet’s sustainability, there may not be future generations to pass judgment on us anyway.

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He recently retired as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected].