America's First Conservationist

Teddy Roosevelt
On this July 4, millions of Americans are heading to national parks - many which wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Theodore Roosevelt, who left office 100 years ago. CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor sat down with CBS News historian Doug Brinkley, who has just written a book about the 26th president.

Sagamore Hill, on Long Island in New York was Theodore Roosevelt's retreat from his home in New York City, and later Washington. It's where he forged a love of nature that lasted a lifetime.

"We're walking along water in his backyard that is now national wildlife refuge," Brinkley said.

It is part of what inspired him to make sure that places like this should be around forever, for all to enjoy.

"He believed what made the American unique and special was our wildlife, nature and getaway places," Brinkley said. "He protected 230 million acres … It is a staggering number. It's as much land as from Maine down to Florida he put aside."

It includes big name parks, which are packed this weekend: the Grand Canyon, the Florida Keys, Devil's Tower in Wyoming and Crater Lake in Oregon. Fifty-one bird reserves, 150 national forests. One out of every 10 acres in the country.

"He called them our national heirlooms," Brinkley said. "That the Grand Canyon is our Louvre, that the Redwood Trees are our Westminster Abbey, that the Tetons are our Taj Mahal."

In his new book, Brinkley says this was before conservation was a cause, and when the green revolution was still a century away. He was laughed at when he did this.

"Crazy Teddy, they used to call him," Brinkley said. "People thought that this guy, there was never a tree he didn't like!"

It may seem obvious now, but setting aside the Grand Canyon, was, at the time, hugely controversial. Congress wanted it mined for copper and zinc. When Roosevelt protected Washington State's Mt. Olympus, loggers were outraged - not that he cared.

"Roosevelt went so far as to say the number one issue in America is conservation," Brinkley said. "If we don't save our own landscape, what are we going to have?"

He didn't just save land from big business, he turned it entirely over to animals, creating the Fish and Wildlife Service, and wildlife preserves.

"He took vast millions of acres and said, these belong to birds or these belong to moose," Brinkley said. "The big thing if you had any interest in wildlife was to get an audience with Roosevelt because if you showed him pictures and said this species is in peril, he'd say, Let's save it! Let's declare it!"

Roosevelt may be better known as a Rough Rider and hunter than as an environmental crusader. But Brinkley says those different personas aren't in conflict.

"The thing to keep in mind is that the first conservationists in America were hunters," Brinkley said. "They were actually elite sportsmen and they would have hunting clubs and they wanted reserves."

"What would Roosevelt think of the state of our national parks today?" Glor asked.

"He'd be sadly shaken that we're not prioritizing them enough," Brinkley said.

The government's massive stimulus package includes more than $750 million to spruce up national parks. Nearly $11 million will go to the Grand Cannon, which Roosevelt saved all those years ago.

When politicians these days are doing something with decades ahead in mind, it's considered amazing. Roosevelt, it seems was doing things with millennia in mind.

"And that's his genius," Brinkley said. "He was thinking that far ahead. We now, as we're talking 100 years after he left the White House, we're only now catching up with the green legacy of Theodore Roosevelt."