Conservation: Our Responsibility

Theodore Roosevelt popularized the idea that conservation was the nation’s responsibility.

Theodore Roosevelt argued that the welfare of future generations—at home and around the globe—depended on the proper development, use, and protection of natural resources. For Roosevelt, conservation included both scientific observations and the joy of the hunt. A recognized naturalist and avid hunter, our 26th president embodied an American dilemma: How can we use nature and preserve it at the same time? 

“[W]ild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people alive to-day, but the property of the unborn generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander . . .”
—Theodore Roosevelt, 1915

Jawbone from an elephant Theodore Roosevelt shot in Kenya, 1909 

Three weeks after leaving the White House, Roosevelt led a scientific expedition to Africa to collect birds and mammals for the Smithsonian. “Nothing will be shot unless for food, or for preservation as a specimen,” he wrote. “There will be no wanton destruction whatever.”

Loan from National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Rifle presented to Theodore Roosevelt, 1909

In recognition of his conservation work, a group of British zoologists and sportsmen gave Theodore Roosevelt this rifle for his African expedition with a note praising “his services on behalf of the preservation of species by means of national parks and forest reserves, and by other means.” Roosevelt remarked on the gun's beauty and called it “the best weapon for heavy game.”

Loan from Frazier Kentucky History Museum 

Theodore Roosevelt with dead elephant, 1909

Theodore Roosevelt posed with his gun for a photograph with an elephant he shot in Kenya.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Theodore Roosevelt speaking at Yellowstone National Park, 1903

At a dedication ceremony, Theodore Roosevelt proudly declared that “the wild creatures of the park are scrupulously preserved” at Yellowstone.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Building on a century of work by others, the “conservation president” set aside 230 million acres for protection creating:

  • 4 national game preserves,
  • 5 national parks,
  • 18 national monuments,
  • 24 reclamation projects,
  • 51 federal bird reservations,
  • and 150 national forests.

Roosevelt also called six domestic conservation conferences and hosted the first international conference on conservation policy. 

Theodore Roosevelt at Breton National Wildlife Refuge, 1915 

Theodore Roosevelt at Breton National Wildlife Refuge, 1915 

Theodore Roosevelt established Breton in 1904, the second in the refuge system. It is the only wildlife refuge he ever visited. 

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service