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Lifelong Passion for Wilderness Drove Theodore Roosevelt's Conservation Legacy

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Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite

Ever since his childhood, Theodore Roosevelt had a sharp eye for natural history and a love for the outdoors. When he became President in 1901, he was poised to use his lifelong passion for wildlife and wilderness to direct public policy; while in office, he launched programs that would eventually protect 230 million acres of land.

When Roosevelt came to office, it was a peculiar environmental moment: America was in the midst of a nature renaissance. A growing nature study movement, widespread reading of authors such as naturalist John Burroughs, and declining transportation costs—not to mention inventions such as the bicycle and binoculars—each facilitated amateur nature exploration.

On the other hand, industrial America was encroaching on wild landscapes, and species such as Passenger Pigeons were disappearing.

At this juncture, a strong leader to direct the nation’s attitudes toward wildlife was in high demand.

Roosevelt’s contagious love for wildlife and wild places may be his most enduring legacy, living on through policy and legislation. While President, he designated five national parks, including Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, depicted in the marten diorama of the Hall of North American Mammals. And in 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to designate national monuments—sites of scientific or cultural importance on federal lands—without waiting out the long, often contentious congressional process of adding national parks. All told, he launched programs that would protect 230 million acres of land.

Today, scientists from the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation are among those who build on Roosevelt’s work in their study of Palmyra Atoll, part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument established in 2009 under the legislation Roosevelt signed into law.

As scientists plumb the atoll’s relatively untouched coral walls and isles, they’ll research how to save ecosystems that Roosevelt never saw, but whose protection he surely would have championed.

A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine. To join the Museum, click here.

Visit the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which reopens October 27, to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt’s life, his conservation efforts, and his enduring legacy.

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