By the time he left the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt had saved an unprecedented 230 million acres of American land.
In a new book, David Gessner follows Roosevelt’s trail through camping in the South Dakota Badlands, Arizona’s Grand Canyon and California’s Yosemite. "Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt's American Wilderness" traces Roosevelt's crusading environmental legacy and deconstructs the positive and negative aspects of his environmental leadership.
When then-President Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in 1903, he said, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it."
Gessner embarked on his journey with his 21-year-old nephew. The duo woke up to see buffalo grazing near their tent on a recent trip out West, where Gessner “heads to the mountains” every summer.
In 2016, former President Obama designated Bears Ears in Utah a national monument, but President Trump reduced it by 85%. Watching Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke undeclare the monument while standing in front of a photo of Roosevelt on the former president’s 159th birthday, Gessner decided to respond to by writing a book about the importance of saving public land — which he calls “the Noah's Ark for our future.”
“What Roosevelt did back then was prescient,” he says. “And we need to have that same kind of vision now.”
But like many presidents, Roosevelt’s legacy is a complicated one. To give Roosevelt credit for being ahead of his time with the environment, Gessner says it’s necessary to call him out for his ideas that were behind the times, such as Manifest Destiny.
“Roosevelt had prejudices of his time, but he didn't have one major prejudice, which is anthropocentrism. He was able to see beyond man,” Gessner says. “He saw the world and the world was worth saving.”
On connecting national parks so animals can migrate
“When Roosevelt started declaring national monuments in 1906, he was doing something big and bold and unheard of. And right now, we have bold ideas going on in the West. You know, we have fires going on in the West, of course, but we also bold ideas … [With] Y2Y, Yellowstone to Yukon, what has happened is we've started to connect parks. So there are pathways with vegetated underpasses and overpasses and that allows for migration to happen. And the big carnivores start to move and migrate like they want to and for evolution to keep evolving. So despite the depressing daily news about the fires, what we have is this idea of bold, big parks that can save us, that can save animals.”
On Roosevelt’s love of birds
“He's got a lot of Trumpian characteristics. His daughter, Alice said of him, ‘My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral. The bride at every wedding. The baby at every christening.’ And, you know, he grew up rich in New York. He actually had two small hands. They always made fun of him for that. But their differences really define them. And one of the big differences was not only did Roosevelt grow to, like, read a book a day, at one point he was so curious and intensely curious, but his dream when he was a teenager, was not to be a soldier, not to be a president. It was to be a working naturalist like his hero, Charles Darwin. And it was through birds and the study of birds that he started to write. And eventually, he wrote 47 books. So this is the contradictory, kind of fascinating, hypocritical, bizarre Roosevelt who I really did come to love.
“And so it's been an interesting summer with his statues going down, you know, with Trump saying, 'Yo-semite' and 'Yo-seminite,' you know, it's been this crazy time. But I think he's really a good case study for canceling, too … I do in the book, I say, look, when it comes to his attitude toward Native Americans, there's no real forgiving him. So I won't try to forgive him.”
On President Trump reducing the Bears Ears National Monument, which former President Obama designated, by 85%
“It's going to depend a little bit about what happens in the first week of November. It also depends on what's happening in the District of Columbia court, where the Antiquities Act is the central question, which is being decided. That question is, can a current president undo something a past president has done? So that's a huge question, because if it is decided that they can, it's almost bigger than any decision the courts will face, then nothing is permanently safe. So the exciting thing about Bears Ears, first of all, in the past, we've often taken Native land away to create public land. Here, Native people were creating land that would be, you know, their land. It was also a much more inclusive and kind of a bigger non-touristy vision of how a park would be used. It would be used for ceremony or gathering of plants. So it really excited me because it seemed a confluence of an old ideal, the Rooseveltian ideal, but here we were making America's best idea better. We were using these new ideas for the Antiquities Act. When we talk about the election, understandably, we focus on a lot of other things. But the land, climate change, these issues are not getting enough of an airing. These are, I would argue, more important than the issues that we focus on day to day.”
Boo Excerpt: 'Leave It As It Is'
By David Gessner
Prelude: Theodore on the Edge
He stands on the edge of the world, the great shimmering orange-red-and-bruise-colored chasm opening below him. Ravens lift off and ride the wind. He is bristling with energy at this moment. Which is to say it is like most of his waking moments.
Curious, always curious, he is a lover equally of the world and books about it. On the ride up here through the small juniper forest, always the show-off, he pointed out and named all the birds he saw to his companions. From his horse he studied the chickadees and towhees and pinyon jays and nuthatches—their calls higher pitched than those back east—and stopped to listen to the sound of a woodpecker cracking open a piñon nut. He knows these birds, knows their names, and he knows this canyon, too, though until today only through the words of others.
The president came to this place with expectations, like almost everyone else. The earliest explorers might not have known what to make of the canyon, and the first white settlers might have been surprised, and even angered, by what they saw as a colossal hole blocking their way west. But for more than a century now almost everyone who arrives here at the South Rim, who ascends out of the desert into the cool pine-scented air, does so knowing that something astounding awaits. Theodore Roosevelt is no different in this regard: even before he encountered the place, he had seen drawings and photos, and read plenty of descriptions. In fact he wrote most of the speech he will deliver an hour from now—when he will talk to the crowd of eight hundred gathering near the canyon’s edge—without having ever laid eyes on the Grand Canyon itself. He did so, as he does many things, in a hurry, writing it this morning in his sleeping car as his train hurtled through New Mexico and into Arizona.
For the last month his life has been a paradox of speed and stillness, as he travels on his private train to some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places in North America, and then, after a few speeches, rushes off to the next place. It is 1903, and he is on a campaign tour for reelection, the first of its kind for a sitting president, during which he will travel more than a hundred miles a day, by train and car, and give close to two hundred speeches. An occasional insomniac and chronic coffee drinker (always with plenty of sugar please), he bristles with plans and schemes, ideas popping into his head at all hours, his famous enthusiasm bordering on, and perhaps sometimes slipping over into, mania. “We humans are an elsewhere,” the poet Reg Saner will one day write.. Teddy is more elsewhere than most.
Except when he isn’t. Because for someone so ambitious, so eager to get on with the next task, he is shockingly good at slowing down time, at what we might call, in a phrase he would no doubt find disagreeable, being in the now. Whether he is staring down a charging grizzly or diving into the bracing winter water of Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park or listening to the music of wind tinkling the cottonwood leaves, he seems to have the gift of becoming absorbed. This comes through most famously in his bouts of roughhousing with his children on the White House lawn. Even while burdened by the presidency, he has an enviable ability to slough off his heavy loads and simply enjoy himself.
Nothing quite takes him out of himself, nothing quiets his restless, fact-filled, febrile mind, like nature. He has already snuck off while camping at Yellowstone, walking eighteen miles alone to study a herd of elk. And in less than two weeks his fourteen-thousand-mile road trip will climax when he leaves his Secret Servicemen behind and embarks on a legendary excursion with the great prophet and protector of the natural world John Muir. That excursion in Yosemite will be long remembered as perhaps the most famous camping trip since Jesus spent his forty days in the desert. Think of it. The president of the United States sleeping outside under the stars with the country’s most famous lover of nature. Details from the night are sparse but we do know that the president was critical of the writer’s bird knowledge and that the prophet questioned the morality of the president’s bloodlust as a hunter. But I wonder what else happened as they stared into the fire and talked? Perhaps a form of osmosis affected Roosevelt. Perhaps the idea that wilderness was vital, not just for any human purpose, but for itself, began to grow.
That the seed of this knowledge, of this love, was already there is obvious. All you have to do is go back and read the man’s sentences. Not the jingoistic, chest-beating, America-first rants or the bloody descriptions of killing things. But the words in between. The clean sentences that describe the stillness on the prairie or a morning full of birdcall, or a simple description of packing it in for the night in the North Dakota Badlands: “At the edge of the dark cedar wood I cleared a spot for my bed, and drew a few dead sticks for the fire. Then I lay down and watched drowsily until the afternoon shadows filled the wild and beautiful gorge in which I was camped. This happened early, for the valley was very narrow and the hills on either hand were steep and high.” This is where the secret, quieter Roosevelt lies.
Theodore Roosevelt got it, something that few people, and no other president, ever understood and felt to the same degree. The raw fact that there are worlds beyond the human world. Muir might have helped him evolve, but Roosevelt already knew. He might have been an imperialist, a bellicose, limited man, anchored down by the prejudices of his times, but in this he was different. To say he was ahead of his time would be wrong, since many thinkers of the past, especially many Native peoples, had had similar insights before. But whatever his flaws, in this way at least he was definitely outside of his time, and his culture. Not in his embrace of hunting or hiking or birding, all of which were fashionable (and becoming more so in part because of him). But in the beginnings of something deeper. The sense that there is a world out there that cares little about the grid man lays over it. The biocentric sense that we are just one animal in a world of many, and the corresponding thrill, and freedom, that humans can feel when they step out of themselves and understand this.
Perhaps this is giving Roosevelt too much credit. After all, he often responded to the beautiful things he saw in nature by killing them. And his fascination with the world was balanced out by his fascination with Theodore Roosevelt. So let me reiterate an earlier, more modest claim. The man had the gift of going outward.
This segment aired on October 22, 2020.