Will the Real Teddy Roosevelt Please Step Forward?

By Erik Molvar

President Donald Trump has made a point of invoking Theodore Roosevelt, one of our nation’s leading conservation icons, as his guiding light on environmental issues. His Secretary of Interior designee, Ryan Zinke, has done the same. Those are pretty big boasts.

Teddy Roosevelt was president around the turn of 20th Century, an era when bighorn sheep had all but disappeared from our western mountains. Wolves and mountain lions were being slaughtered to extinction by a nascent western livestock industry and its bloodthirsty allies. Elk and bison survived only in remnant populations in Yellowstone, and the pronghorn teetered on the brink of extinction. Sportsmen were only beginning to realize that the severing of wildlife migration routes, the habitat losses caused by the spread of “civilization,” river destruction caused by logging and livestock grazing, and unregulated overhunting was endangering American wildlife. It was the end of the era during which rugged individualism could be tested against the raw power of wilderness.

Teddy Roosevelt recognized this impending doom, and in 1906 he signed the Antiquities Act, granting presidents the authority to designate National Monuments to protect and preserve endangered landscapes. In all, he used the power of the pen to designate eighteen National Monuments, including Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus National Monuments. At the time, these designations were bitterly fought by local business interests who decried the new Monuments as the death knell of local economies. Contrary to those assertions, both of these Monuments went on to become crown jewels of our National Park system – Grand Canyon and Olympic – and engines of tourism economies that have sustained their regions even as extractive industries like logging and mining went bust.

In addition to his far-sighted focus on conservation, Teddy Roosevelt built an economic legacy as a trust-buster, taking on industrial monopolies of his day and fighting to give the average working American a fair shot at success. As timber and railroad barons decimated western forest lands with logging and human-caused fires, local western communities pled for the federal government to stand up to the fat cats and impose common-sense regulations to protect federally owned forests. In response, Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and appointed Gifford Pinchot as its first Chief. New forest regulations set the nation’s legacy of public forests on a long and winding path toward recovery, a goal that the agency is still struggling to achieve today.

Today, Donald J. Trump wants to claim the mantle of Roosevelt. Trump entered the White House as members of his party are working to seize western public lands and sell them off to the highest bidder, and seeking to reverse President Obama’s National Monument designations at Bears Ears and Gold Butte. Zinke opposes the outright sale of public lands, but voted in favor of a bill to turn over management of National Forest lands to local committees, which would undoubtedly be dominated by corporate profiteering, reversing a century of Roosevelt’s National Forest legacy.

Trump’s decisions to approve the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL err on the side of corporate overlords while steamrolling the valid concerns of local communities and everyday Americans. And Trump’s avowed intention to dismantle federal regulations– including those that protect the health of our lands, water, air, and wildlife populations – threaten to reverse over a hundred years of conservation progress and drive wildlife populations to extinction. 

These policies position Trump as the opposite of Roosevelt. If this trend continues, history will judge the Trump administration as the tipping point that reversed Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation achievements, rather than the standard-bearer of Roosevelt’s proud conservation legacy.

Will the real Teddy Roosevelt please step forward? In his actions as president, President Trump can either back up his Roosevelt rhetoric with real and tangible conservation leadership, or prove himself an empty blowhard and a cynical hypocrite. Trump can cultivate the policies of the beloved Roosevelt of teddy bear fame. Or he can follow in the footsteps of William Howard Taft, the fat-cat sycophant to corporate interests who occupied the White House after Roosevelt, reversed many of Roosevelt’s policies, and became a forgotten footnote in American history.

Americans are wide-awake and watching to see how the Trump administration handles our nation’s conservation legacy. History will be his judge.


Erik Molvar is the Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, and has dedicated his life to western conservation issues including preserving wilderness, defending wild forests, fighting the ravages of livestock and fossil fuel development, and restoring healthy wildlife populations. He is the author of 16 books on western public lands.






  1. MTConservationist Avatar

    Nice, and even measured and well-reasoned for WWP. But the Moldy Chum article under this headline was better: http://www.moldychum.com/real-theodore-roosevelt/

  2. Marc Bedner Avatar

    Donald Trump, Jr, notorious for posing with African wildlife he killed, is the Trump who most closely follows Teddy Roosevelt’s example. Don Jr, a lifetime member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, is largely responsible for Zinke’s appointment.

  3. Yvette Avatar

    Erick Molvar, thank you for this one. During the era Teddy Roosevelt forest science and ecological sciences was beginning to see the impact of unfettered commodification on the natural world. These scientists were able to look at the severe erosion on the landscape in the Mediterranean from rapid deforestation. Decision makers in government recognized the impact from rapid cutting and passed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. That probably saved the forests in the western U.S.

    During this same period, as you stated, wildlife was rapidly disappearing. This timeframe aligns with the final days of the Indigenous peoples’ (those tribes west of the Mississippi R. as the Eastern tribes have already been moved out during the Trail of Tears era under Andrew Jackson) fight to save their way of life. The mass slaughter of wild bison was pretty much the final nail in the coffin for those tribes who for centuries depended on bison. Beaver too, had been nearly exterminated, thus causing hydrological problems. Salmon in the Klamath-Trinity Watersheds had been ‘managed’ by the Hupa, Yurok, and Kurok tribes in that region for eons. Their management of the salmon wasn’t called management, but it was ritual and directly linked to their culture and cultural mores. it worked. Both humans and salmon benefitted from their cultural management. It was not until the discovery of gold in 1949 that this watershed became imperiled. It was hammered from the extraction of gold and by commercial fisheries. It was the economic ideology of capitalism without any checks and balances on those rivers that drove the salmon to near extinction within 50 years. Most of our universities teach us the loss of biodiversity is the result of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ rather than unfettered commodification of our natural world.

    This is what I believe many of us fear now under the Trump administration. He can’t destroy it alone but he has plenty of help with the leaders being elected in our perspective states.

    I do not know what it will take for others to understand and take up the cause to protect what wilderness we have left. If we fail to turn this around we lose not only the beauty of wilderness but ecological collapse. The readers on this blog know that. It’s many others that I fear don’t grasp what will be lost for their children and grandchild.

  4. Tracy Avatar

    I watched a documentary while on a trip to London about Mr Roosevelt. I had to turn it off because of his incessant killing spree of African animals on safari. Hypocrite!

  5. Kyle Avatar

    Thanks Erik, Zinke ain’t no Ted Roosevelt – not even close!

    These are pivotal years for the public lands; once they are “disposed” of we’re not likely to see them in the same condition again.

    All the folks behind the latest “sagebrush rebellion” would willingly dig up their grannie’s grave if it would turn a buck.

  6. Connie Reppe Avatar
    Connie Reppe

    THE NEW YORK TIMES ‘Sports Sunday’ SUNDAY, FEBURARY 19, 2017 The Ultimate Hunt: Sheep By John Branch Mr. Molvar, your well written thesis noted; “Elected president can either backup his Roosevelt rhetoric with real and tangible conservation leadership, or prove himself an empty blowhard and a cynical hypocrite or he can follow in the footsteps of W.H. Taft”. Within The Ultimate Hunt: Sheep, of the New York Times editorial there’s a curious son of the elected president in a tuxedo, as a spectator watching the bidding of a wildlife conservation tag, ‘this isn’t old school’ of a yesterday’s bygone era, its moderntimes in relations of conducting business at a price. The story is related to them in fortunes, as the bidding increases in dollar amounts of per $5,000 to a crowd of cheers of “Let’s keep it going!” at $195,000., “Ladies and Gentlemen,” $200,000! That’s show biz. Mean while back in Washington, D.C. the elected president is with the winning bidder’s and high-fived with the elect, who asked if he could come along on the hunt. This elected president has no historical value in which to feature, or portray in acts for a betterment in moderntimes. American history in 1787, began with a small class of “We the People,” that are male, white, and owned property.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      Connie, that looks like an article we should read. I’ll have to wait until tonight but here is the link. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/sports/bighorn-sheep-hunting.html

      Thank you for sharing.


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