It is important to acknowledge our namesake’s flaws as well as his accomplishments. At the TRCP, we challenge ourselves to advance Roosevelt’s conservation vision while doing more to ensure that all Americans have access to the outdoors.
For more than a year, the Natural History Museum in New York City has made national headlines for its decision to remove its statue of Theodore Roosevelt, citing the paternalistic and racist image of Roosevelt on horseback with a Black man and Native American on foot on either side of him. According to the New York Times, the museum’s director noted that the decision was based on the statue itself—namely its “hierarchical composition”—and not on Roosevelt, whom the museum continues to honor as “a pioneering conservationist.”
It prompted internal discussions at TRCP, as an organization named after Theodore Roosevelt, about the 26th president’s legacy as it relates to our mission and vision in contemporary times.
There are various academic studies on Roosevelt’s complicated and often contradictory views of race. This includes his embrace of Manifest Destiny, the displacement of Native Americans from the public lands he created, and his support of eugenics theories—but also his appointment of multiple Black people to important positions within his administration, which drew the ire of Southern lawmakers, and public defense of equality in well-documented speeches. In one, he said, “I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope—the door of opportunity—is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color.”
My job is not to moderate such discussions, which are healthy and important as we learn from the past to address today’s challenges. As Roosevelt himself said in a 1907 speech about the pilgrims, “Men must be judged with reference to the age in which they dwell.” And while Roosevelt was clearly wrong on some issues, 1907 was a very different time than 2021.
But to strictly ignore some parts of T.R.’s legacy while celebrating others is also to do a disservice to the organizations and communities of color that are essential to the work of keeping conservation alive.
In this work, Roosevelt’s conservation legacy and vision are still relevant today. During his two terms as president, he ended market hunting and set aside 240 million acres of public land as national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges. His basic philosophy is summarized in this famous quote:
“Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things, sometimes seek to champion them by saying the ‘the game belongs to the people.’ So, it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”
Roosevelt believed that wild lands and wild places should be accessible to all Americans. His vision for these public lands stood in stark contrast to the model in most European countries, where fish and wildlife belonged to the landed gentry or the crown. His views on access to the outdoors were consistent with his populist stances on other matters. Through his “trust busting” and threats to nationalize industry because of low wages and other abuses, he lifted up millions of Americans from all backgrounds, races, religions, and genders.
Today, our challenge is to advance Roosevelt’s conservation vision in the face of unprecedented threats, from development to climate change, while at the same time doing more to ensure that all Americans have access to the outdoors and feel welcome in the hunting and fishing community. This is not only the right thing to do; this is fundamental to the future of the North American Model of Conservation.
Hunting, fishing, and conservation depend on participation and broad acceptance by society. When hunting is 96 percent White, and overwhelmingly male and older, it is not a recipe for long-term viability. When large parts of our urban populations, including communities of color, lack access to public lands and waters, we deprive them of the connection to the outdoors that many of us take for granted, and we lose natural allies in the political battles to conserve open spaces and fish and wildlife. A diverse and well-represented hunting and fishing community, on the other hand, brings Americans together and helps to protect hunting and fishing from external attack.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy has the principle of the “Seventh Generation,” which tells us that decisions made today must be understood in a lens of how they will impact future generations. If we ignore the centuries of wisdom that Native American cultures have about stewardship, we are weaker for it.
TRCP’s mission is to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish. This includes supporting recruitment, retention, and reactivation practices that make hunting and fishing welcoming activities for every person. We commit to working with Black, Indigenous, and Latino organizations and other communities of color, in combination with our longstanding conservation partners, to achieve this goal.
Conservation works best when we all work together and keep looking forward.
Photo courtesy of Harvard College Library.