How The Wilderness Was Won


His audacity was what made many of Theodore Roosevelt’s landmark conservation achievements possible. In his second term he rewrote the rulebook on presidential power by placing his signature on sweeping Executive Orders and proclamations, rejecting his timid predecessors’ “narrowly legalistic view” that the President could function only where a statute told him to, and he plumbed the Constitution to find powers for himself. His glory was that he dared to use his pen to change the face of his country’s landscape.

Before he left office, he had replaced a century-old policy of land disposal with a new policy of setting land aside for conservation. As a result of decisions he made, the lands designated as national forests increased from 42 million acres to 148 million, and 138 new forest areas were created in twenty-one Western states. With additional strokes of his pen, he carved out four huge wildlife refuges and set up fifty-one smaller sanctuaries for birds, to protect what he called “the beautiful and wonderful wild creatures whose existence was threatened by greed and wantonness.” With another flourish he established eighteen national monuments, including four—Grand Canyon, Olympic, Lassen Volcanic, and Petrified Forest—so majestic that Congress subsequently converted them into national parks.

Executive action was effective as far as it went, but it was essentially a policy to preserve some of the West’s unsullied lands. If resources damaged during the raider years of the nineteenth century were to be renewed and rehabilitated, there would have to be a truly national approach, with a working partnership between the executive and legislative branches of government. Theodore Roosevelt was a splendid preacher-at-large, but few members of Congress were stirred by his rhetoric. Indeed, in the decade after he left office only two significant conservation statutes were passed: the Weeks Act of 1911, which permitted the purchase of forested lands at the headwaters of navigable streams, to make possible national forests in the East, and the 1916 measure that created the National Park Service.

However, where conservation was concerned, Roosevelt’s influence did not wane after he left Washington; instead it came to a culmination during his third-party Bull Moose presidential campaign in 1912, when he forced his two opponents to compete with him as advocates of reform. Some of the men who were destined to lead the nation in the crisis years of the Great Depression—most notably Harold Ickes, George Norris, Sam Rayburn, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—first lit their political torches at the bonfire he created in the 1912 presidential election.

His words and deeds left a spacious legacy. The conservation creed he espoused altered the outlook and the values of many Americans, encouraging citizens to form grassroots organizations and influence local and regional political decisions. And the ideals he championed not only changed his country’s land-stewardship practices but encouraged other nations to institute comparable programs.

Conservation fell out of favor during World War I and the 1920s. Existing national lands were better managed, but habitat for wildlife continued to shrink, wartime demands for wheat encouraged improvident plowing that would in time transform parts of the Great Plains into dust bowls, and little was done to restore the forestland gutted during the late nineteenth century.

The second wave of the conservation movement was launched when Franklin D. Roosevelt began his New Deal in the demoralizing depths of the Great Depression, when one of every four Americans was unemployed. Roosevelt’s experiences as governor of New York had suggested to him that providing conservation jobs for large numbers of young men would be an effective way to combat unemployment. In his acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he put conservation in the forefront, announcing “a wide plan of converting many millions of acres of marginal and unused land into timberland through reforestation.”

The second wave of the conservation movement began when FDR launched his New Deal in 1933.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), created in the first weeks of his Presidency with nearly unanimous support from Congress, was probably the most effective of all New Deal programs. The jobs it generated provided dollars for destitute families and gave men valuable skills, and the work itself improved the economic outlook in nearby communities. More land-renewal work went on during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term than at any other time in the nation’s history. Corpsmen built small dams, tackled soil erosion problems, planted more than two billion trees, and built everything from washrooms to grand rustic lodges in national parks. To make the program truly national and provide more jobs, the President extended the East’s new system of national forests, allocating more than thirty-seven million dollars (appropriated by Congress for “public works”) to purchase eleven million acres of wounded, cut-over land. Before the war closed the camps, more than two and a half million young men served in the C.C.C.