Preaching conservation: Theodore roosevelt and the rhetoric of civil religion Chapter uri icon


  • "The story is told of a congressman who, when pressed to aid in the conservation of his country's natural resources for posterity's sake, retorted, 'What has posterity ever done for me?'" This anecdote reXects the lack of awareness many Americans had regarding the environment and the need for its conservation at the turn of the twentieth century. For the most part, people believed that environmental resources were inWnite. This attitude made nature fair game for various industries. For example, coal beds, once thought inexhaustible, were in danger of being depleted. The journalist C. H. Forbes-Lindsay reported that by the mid-1880s "four billion tons were mined by methods so wasteful that more than an equal quantity was either destroyed or left in the ground in such state as to be inaccessible for ever." According to the historian Frank Graham, Jr., the last half of the nineteenth century was dubbed the "age of extermination." "The new technology and the relentless westward march of civilization," Graham observed, facilitated the "hit-and-run raids on the continent's natural resources." Such raids took their toll on many animal species. For instance, the American buValo once numbered in the hundred millions. Shot for sport by tourists riding past herds on trains and professionally hunted for their hides, the great beasts were nearly wiped out by the late 1800s.1 The lumber industry's practices with regard to the nation's forests, however, involved perhaps the most far-reaching consequences for the environment. "With the invention of the circular saw and the steam sawmill in the early 1800s," noted the historian Jack Shepherd, "wholesale deforestation began in earnest." Because of public land giveaways and inadequate homestead laws, loggers moved quickly through the Great Lake states, the Rockies, and the PaciWc Northwest "blasting the trees into manageable size with gunpowder, wasting half the timber and burning what was left." Such practices by the timber industry had its costs. Thomas Will, secretary of the American Forestry Association in 1908, warned that unrestrained cutting of forested areas resulted in a host of related problems: by clearing vast areas of trees, trees that acted as natural dams for rainwater, millions of dollars of Xooding damage occurred each year. The resulting Xoods caused billions of tons of soil to be washed into rivers, constituting a loss of fertilizing topsoil estimated at one billion dollars; with the soil clogging the country's waterways, navigation became increasingly diYcult and costlier as well.2 With this assault on the environment in full force at the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House in 1901. His background as a rancher, naturalist, and hunter gave him an appreciation for nature and its maintenance. While many advocates attempted to generate interest in conserving the environment, President Roosevelt was among the most successful. The biographer Paul Cutright observed that it was "only after Roosevelt put the full force of his power as president" behind conservation that "it got oV the ground."3 During his two terms, Roosevelt oversaw an array of conservation initiatives concerning the land, the animals, and the forests. Because of his inXuence the 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act, which authorized the building of dams to facilitate the irrigation of arid lands, moved through a resistant Congress. As a result of this legislation, thousands of acres of once unproductive land were transformed into agriculturally viable areas. To prevent speculators and corporations from acquiring and using land fraudulently, Roosevelt repealed the Forest Lieu Land Act of 1897; this gave actual settlers more access to public land. In 1906 the president withdrew 66 million acres of land from the public domain to safeguard their development as coal deposits. Concerning animals and their habitats, Roosevelt established the Wrst federal wildlife refuge in 1903 on Pelican Island oV the east coast of Florida. This refuge protected birds that were nearing extinction due to plume hunters. Over the next few years he created Wfty more wildlife sanctuaries across the United States and Puerto Rico. Perhaps the most signiWcant measure concerning natural habitats came in 1906 with the passage of the Antiquities Act. This bill gave Roosevelt the discretionary power to establish historic areas as national monuments, eighteen of which he created, including California's Muir Woods and Arizona's Grand Canyon. Regarding the forests, Roosevelt placed the management of the forest reserves under the control of the Forest Service headed by his trusted friend GiVord Pinchot. In addition, the Agriculture Appropriations Act that same year gave the Forest Service the means to create new reserves. Perhaps Roosevelt's most well known act regarding forest conservation involved his "midnight proclamation" of 1907. He signed several proclamations that placed 16 million acres of timberland under federal protection just two days before he signed a bill into law that would have prevented him from taking the former action. By the end of his presidency, 150 million acres of forested areas had been safeguarded.4 In some cases, the president took unilateral, often untouted action. For example, when Roosevelt created the Wrst federal wildlife sanctuary, there was no attending public fanfare. In determining how to protect the birds of Pelican Island, Roosevelt inquired whether there existed a law that would prevent him from turning that island into a federally protected reservation. According to Cutright, "When assured there was none . . . [Roosevelt] replied, 'Very well, then I so declare it.'" The passage of other initiatives, such as the Newlands Reclamation Act, was sometimes the result of private wrangling between the president and members of Congress.5 Stated another way, Roosevelt's public discourse did not have as its subject matter individual legislation. Rather, part of hi

author list (cited authors)

  • Dorsey, L. G.

Book Title

  • Green Talk in The White House: The Rhetorical Presidency Encounters Ecology

publication date

  • December 2004