Without Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, many of America’s natural treasures would have ceased to exist. A generation apart, the two men were moved by the dire state of their nation’s wilderness areas to make monumental changes in how the country preserved its outdoor wonders.
For Theodore, the impetus was the disappearance of the bison and rampant misuse of the land in the western United States. For Franklin, it was the needs of an unemployed population—and the need to save the country’s ravaged forestland. Both men, through sheer force of will, drove their ideals into law.
Theodore, who believed America had an almost divine responsibility for proper stewardship of its ample resources, brought his conservationist leanings to the presidency in 1901. As part of his revolutionary administration, he established the U.S. Forest Service, along with 150 national forests, the first national wildlife refuge, 51 bird preserves, four game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments, including four that became national parks—Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Lassen Peak, and Mount Olympus (now Olympic). His efforts accounted for more than half the lands that would be managed by the National Park Service when it was created in 1916—seven years after his presidency ended.
Franklin, who believed the president was called to lead with character and morality (and to rescue the country from the throes of the Great Depression), created millions of jobs on public works projects—including many in the national parks. Almost immediately after his inauguration in 1933, he developed the Civilian Conservation Corps. Over nine years, it employed 5% of American males and planted about 3 billion trees. The corps was instrumental in suppressing forest fires, clearing campgrounds, constructing roads and trails, controlling floods and soil erosion, and eradicating undesirable plants. The CCC also enabled the NPS to improve existing public lands, establish new national parks, and guide the development of a system of state parks. Seven states gained their first state parks through the CCC’s efforts, and at the project’s end in 1942, a total of 711 state parks had been established. Additionally, Franklin’s Hyde Park, New York, home was added to the NPS holdings as a National Historic Site in 1946.
Though the inspiration for each differed, their contributions were similar, as are their legacies. They stand as giants among American presidents and as standard-bearers for government-aided conservation.