On Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service turns 100 years old. In celebration of such an event (and with help from Fernbank Museum of Natural History,) I interviewed President Theodore Roosevelt, our nation’s 26th president. Teddy Roosevelt is known as America’s conservation president.
Roosevelt created five new national parks and proclaimed 18 new U.S. national monuments. He also established the first 51 bird reserves, four game preserves, and 150 national forests. The area of the U.S. that he placed under public protection totals approximately 230 million acres!
We were eager to speak to the Colonel, as he prefers to be called, about how he has seen the park programs progress, and what advice he would give young people today about continuing his efforts.
We know of your work as a conservationist, as a champion for the National Parks. How do feel that the national and state park programs have progressed since your work in office?
[My National Forester, Gifford Pinchot,] was hosted at the White House in early 1908, at a Governor’s Conference on the conservation of natural resources … Many of the state departments of natural resources from which state parks were derived had their origin when those governors went back to their home states and decided to re-create the conservation effort we were making at the national level. So there’s been great progress, of course, in the century after my presidency. The credit goes to the American people, but the challenges are with us still that we be challenged to leave our natural resources in better condition than we found them.
I know you’ve often said, “Humans have an itch to change things.”
That is right. But not all change is progress. Some change is digression. But we’re going to, I think, meet the challenge, if we can get the generation that’s young outside…Part of what I’m thankful for in this centennial celebration of the National Park Service is that emphasis that Americans should find their park. That meaning, not only your National Park – there are several in Georgia – but also find your state park, find your municipal park, find any open space even in an urban environment like Atlanta. For example, the wonderful forest being rehabilitated by Fernbank Museum. You’ve got to find some outdoor place in this hustle and bustle of the modern world. The tranquility, the thoughtfulness that occurs in nature is so very important to us.
A lot of your work was done in the West. Do you have any favorite parks here in the Southeast?
Being asked your favorite parks is sort of like being asked your favorite children – you’re going to make a mistake by omission. [laughs]
In the Southeast I am rather fond of the Okefenokee… The national parks teach at their historic sites, so I mention the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, the Martin Luther King Historic Site right here in Atlanta. But also Fort Pulaski, getting back down to the Savannah region, where my family has its roots going back to the 18th century with Archibald Bulloch, the revolutionary president and first governor of independent Georgia.
[Author’s note. To learn more about Roosevelt’s family heritage, visit Bulloch Hall in Roswell. It was the home of James Stephens Bulloch and his wife Martha Stewart Elliott Bulloch, President Roosevelt’s grandparents. His mother, Mittie, was raised in the house, as well.]
I know you’ve done some amazing outdoor challenges that many tried and tested athletes might not have even been able to accomplish, all this despite some doctors telling you it wasn’t even possible. I was wondering what you might say to the young people of Georgia about kept you kept going and what helped you achieve those goals?
It was being outdoors with my father! The author David McCullough in his biography of my childhood, relates the story under the title “Mornings on Horseback.” You may know I was a very weak and sickly child. I had asthma, and our treatments for asthma were more archaic than they are today…My father, working with physicians who were quite progressive, decided that the best thing for my asthma was to get me outdoors and to build my body through strenuous exercise, including very often 15-, 20-, 25-mile hikes as a young boy of eight, nine, 10 years old.
Eventually, as a young man, I went out and became a cattle rancher in the Dakota territory, and really hardened my body to the point where I wrote my sister that I was as hard and as brown as a hickory nut. There’s nothing like outdoor living.
Indeed, part of conservation for me, and I think the people of Georgia would appreciate this, is the sort of hunting and fishing. The strenuous life lived in the outdoors where the chase, the pursuit of game to the table, was so very important and helped to build my centers. I think that families should go out on camping and on hunting adventures in the South. I think it’s a wonderful part of the heritage here and part of what gives me great hope for the future, because of course hunting and conservation go hand in hand.
I founded Boone and Crockett, the nation’s first fair hunting and conservation organization, which in part, lobbied the federal congress for regulation of the hunting industry and lobbied for the creation of national parks and game preserves. The fact is that most of our big game has actually been preserved on this continent by the hunters who pay the taxes and fees or licenses that provide funding for the preservation of our game and its habitat.
We are so thankful for the wildlife refuges, the bird sanctuaries and the forest services that you created. I know, personally, my family enjoys them around Georgia today. I was just wondering if you had one final message for our young children about how they could follow in your footsteps taking care of our wildlife and our forests?
Get outdoors. Spend the night camping beneath the stars. Wake in the morning to the smell of wood smoke. Climb trees and climb cliffs. You’ll fall down. You’ll scrape yourself. Get back up again. Rub away the pain and get back into the game of life. There’s no greater place to play a game with your family and friends than in the great outdoors and in the forests and along the streams of this beautiful country, and there’s no more lovely country than the countryside about Georgia. Find your park. Find your national, your state and your local park; and get outside and play in the great outdoors.
It should be noted that we were not hoodwinked during this interview; we know that President Roosevelt has long-since passed. We enjoyed an “in character” interview with Joe Wiegand. Joe’s live performances have been featured at hundreds of historic places, including a performance at the White House for President and Mrs. George W. Bush on Roosevelt’s 150th birthday.
Joe visited Fernbank Museum last weekend to celebrate the premier of National Parks Adventure, now showing at Fernbank’s IMAX through June 16.