Theodore Roosevelt’s Gift to Idahoans

By Ron Watters
For The Journal

Few people realize that if it wasn’t for Theodore Roosevelt, much of Idaho’s great outdoor heritage would be in private hands.  In particular, I’m talking about our National Forest lands which cover the state from north to south, and are so important to Idahoans for outdoor recreation—and our well being and sanity, I might add.

Idaho could have been a completely different place had not been for Roosevelt’s foresight.  Instead of wide open public lands for fishing, hunting, hiking, and other activities, we would find fences, gates, and no trespassing signs.

Impossible, you say?  Just spend a little time out East.  Try driving down a forest road, and find a spot, any spot on public land, where you throw out your sleeping bag and spend the night.  That’s easily (and legally) done on nearly any forest land in Idaho.  But in the east?  Let me tell you.  I’ve tried it.  It ain’t easy.

We have it good here in Idaho.  Thanks to Teddy.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  How did this all come about:  our great Idaho outdoor heritage, our national forests, and how is Roosevelt involved?

* * *

My interest in the subject was piqued recently by a newly published book, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.  The 940 page book was authored by historian Douglas Brinkley.  Brinkley has written 17 books on American history.

He’s not too shabby when it comes to writing about history.  Six of Brinkley’s books have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year.  Wilderness Warrior, itself, recently won the 2009 National Outdoor Book Award for history/biography.  (See side bar on the NOBA program.)  In Wilderness Warrior, Brinkley concentrates on Roosevelt’s outdoor and conservation work and what a story he tells.

As you probably remember from high school history classes, Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly child, suffering from asthma and a variety of ailments.  But, as he grew older, he was determined to win over debilitating illness and embraced a strenuous and active life, literally willing himself to health.

First, it was boxing in college, and then it was the pursuit of vigorous outdoor activities: hiking, climbing and especially hunting.

Hunting was a passion that he pursued his whole life, even while president.  He never felt better than when he was out in wild country, stalking bear, elk or deer.

In 1881, running as a Republican, he was elected to the New York legislature.  It quickly became apparent to Roosevelt’s fellow legislators that he had an amazing capacity for work.  It wasn’t just legislation that he worked at.  Throughout his political career, he would labor away on writing projects.  A year after his election, he published his first book The Naval War of 1812.  More would follow.

His public career became national in scope in 1888 when Roosevelt was appointed to the Civil Service Commission.  Then in 1897, of because his interest and knowledge of naval history, Roosevelt assumed the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

The job was short lived.  When the Spanish-American war broke out in 1898, Roosevelt immediately resigned his post to join the fight.

With his strong and magnetic personality, he assembled a diverse group of volunteers consisting of outdoorsy men from western states and gung ho Ivy League friends.  The volunteer cavalry regiment was dubbed the “Rough Riders” by the press.  Fighting the Spanish in Cuba, the Rough Riders became forever seared into the American consciousness by a brave charge up San Juan Hill which was led by Theodore Roosevelt.

Returning from Cuba, Roosevelt ran for and was elected Governor of New York.  His star continued to rise.  In 1901 he became Vice President of the United States when William McKinley was elected in a landslide.  Then six months later, Roosevelt’s life changed even more dramatically.

In early September of 1901, President McKinley was shot while in Buffalo, New York.  At first, McKinley appeared to be recovering, and Roosevelt slipped off for a mountain climbing excursion on Mt Marcy in upstate New York.  But McKinley deteriorated quickly, and Roosevelt was needed in Buffalo.

“The problem was,” wrote Brinkley in Wilderness Warrior, “that nobody knew how to find Roosevelt.  The press reported the vice president was lost in nature.”

Roosevelt was not lost in nature long.  He was found and given the news.  He sped off to Buffalo.  Shortly after Roosevelt arrived, McKinley died, and Roosevelt was sworn in as the twenty-sixth president.

At 42 years of age, Roosevelt became the youngest US president ever.

* * *

Ever since boyhood, Roosevelt had an abiding interest in the natural world.  He was a naturalist and a scientist, a firm believer in Darwin’s evolutionary theories.  He was an expert bird watcher, and while president he provided ornithological friends with lists of birds he had identified on the White House lawn.  He wrote frequently about wildlife, and was active in the Audubon society and most particularly the Boone and Crockett Club.

With this background, he knew the importance and necessity of habitat for wildlife, and that knowledge combined with his own outdoor experiences motivated him to work toward the preservation of wild lands.

In fact, during his term as president, he preserved more public lands, including national forests, wildlife refuges, and national monuments than any other president.  Between 1901 and 1909, he set aside a remarkable 230 million acres of wild America—including a bundle of national forests in Idaho.

Idaho. It was a special place to Roosevelt.  His interest in the state came about from a hunting trip that he took in 1888, thirteen years before he became president.

He traveled to north Idaho on the Northern Pacific line, getting off at the Idaho town of Kootenai.  He and two guides then rode, hiked and paddled boats deep into the untracked Selkirk mountain wilderness.

Roosevelt was awed.  He had hunted in other locations in the west, but the Selkirks were different, and he found himself immersed in a place that was a feast for his eyes:  “Immense mountain masses stretched away from our vision,” he wrote in Wilderness Hunting, “range upon range, until they turned to a glittering throng of ice-peaks and snow-fields.”.

As he and his guides scouted for caribou, he was continually awed by the stunning beauty of northern Idaho and British Columbia.  He made notes on plant and bird life.  He was particularly enamored with the water ouzel.

“This strange, pretty water thrush is to me one of the most attractive and interesting birds to be found in the gorges of the Rocky Mountains,” he wrote,  “It’s haunts are romantically beautiful for it always dwells beside and in the swift-flowing mountain brooks; it has a singularly sweet song… [and] spends half its time under the water, walking along the bottom, swimming and diving, and flitting through as well as over the cataracts.”

Roosevelt did eventually shoot a caribou, achieving one of his hunting goals, but Idaho left a strong impression on him.  He would remember Idaho during his presidency.

* * *

In 1897, the Forest Reserve Act was passed by Congress.  Roosevelt wasn’t president yet, but he had worked behind the scenes for its passage.  Along with influential members of the Boone and Crockett Club, he arranged an important meeting with the Secretary of Interior.  That led to the Harrison administration’s support of the bill and eventual congressional passage.

The act gave the president the right to convert public land into what were called Forest Preserves.  Later they would be called National Forests.

Before this act, federal land was practically being given away to private enterprise.  For example, nearly a quarter of the Montana territory had been deeded or sold to the railroads.

The same was certainly in store for Idaho.  Most Idaho politicians at that time would have thought nothing of selling or giving public lands away to private enterprise for the purpose of development.

With the Forest Reserve Act, Roosevelt had a valuable tool, and he would use it.

“When Roosevelt became president thirteen years after the caribou hunt,” wrote Brinkley in Wilderness Warrior,  “saving wild Idaho—which had become a state in 1889—ranked high on his agenda.  On January 15, 1907, he created the Caribou National Forest.”

But more was to come.

In 1908, Roosevelt, in the last year of his presidency, pondered an action that would be an historic step, unequalled in the annuls of conservation.

He know what could happen to America if much of its public lands went to the railroads, logging barons and other developers.  As a naturalist, he knew that wildlife and birds need untrammeled land.  But he also understood how important wild lands were to the American character, even to democracy itself.

And so on July 1, 1908, using the powers granted to the president under the Forest Reserve Act, he signed an administrative order creating forest reserves throughout the western states.  It was, according to Brinkley, a “grand expansion of federal forest lands that was stunning in both its scale and breadth of vision.”

A total of 45 new national forests in eleven western states were created by Roosevelt on that day.

But for Idaho, he saved the best.  In the Gem state by the stroke of his pen, he created 17 new national forests including:  Pocatello, Cache, Challis, Salmon, Clearwater, Coeur d’ Alene, Pend Orielle, Kaniksu, Weiser, Nez Perce, Idaho, Payette, Boise, Sawtooth, Lemhi, Targhee, and Bitterroot.

Some of the names of the forests in Idaho have changed since that remarkable day in 1908, and some have been merged into larger forests, but the lands that Roosevelt set aside are still there.  Still providing habitat for wildlife, still providing clean water for our cities and agriculture, and still providing a place for us, for our use and our enjoyment.

Roosevelt’s foresight and vision helped make Idaho the great outdoor state that it is.  For Idaho, he couldn’t have given a better gift.

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