Theodore Roosevelt and the Cowboy Conservationist

Photo: Wikipedia

By Ty Loft

It’s hard to imagine Theodore Roosevelt sipping kombucha. The beloved former President spurned his New York urbane upbringing, pausing his career at 25 to find adventure in the Wild West by ranching cattle and hunting bison in North Dakota. By 40, he returned to the East to become Governor of New York. By age 42, he ran the country. His Western experiences had a clear impact – Roosevelt’s National Conservation Policy was his proudest achievement. He established five national parks, thirteen national forests, eighteen national monuments, and fifty-one bird sanctuaries, protecting over one million acres of land.

Republicans these days seem unlikely to welcome a rancher turned conservationist as President. Conservatives, especially from the Mountain West, largely oppose federal public lands – unless they are for drilling, mining or grazing. The Trump Administration, for example, has shrunk Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments by 85% and 47%. And they have expanded mining and drilling on federal lands extensively.

But I believe that conservative hostility to conservation does not stem from fundamental opposition to public lands, but from a rejection of liberal conservation aesthetics. And a new approach to conservation messaging – rooted in Roosevelt’s life – could help to bring conservatives back into the conservation movement. But we will need to embrace some of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Western” ideals: athleticism, self-reliance, independence, and combativeness, expressed not through a desire for violence but through an eagerness to contend with nature. They make sense in a culture that evolved battling grizzlies, blizzards, and (justifiably) hostile Native Americans.

These ideals hang together in a sort of “cowboy” virtue and this aesthetic is not contrary to the notion of public ownership of land. For example, hunting—an outlet for combativeness and self-reliance—has always been permitted in Grand Staircase and Bears Ears. Cattle Grazing is too. In fact, many national monuments, forests and parks provide a rare “protected” space to live out the “cowboy” virtues, in a society ever more urbanized, interdependent, and automated, with ever fewer opportunities to cultivate self-reliance. In cities, movement is constrained by stop signs and crosswalks; on public lands, by the athleticism and tenacity to ford a river or summit a peak.

Today, much of the news and even policy is driven by images as much as words. We rarely make decisions (about public lands or anything else) by reasoning through policy pros and cons. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, suggests we base our decisions and even opinions on split-second responses to the way things look, in other words, on aesthetics. By comparing the “cowboy” aesthetic to the “green” aesthetic of the environmental movement, we can see why a “cowboy” conservative might reject today’s more pacifist, the anti-extraction vision of protecting nature.

The first “environmentalist” image on Google displays arms hugging a tree, fingers forming a heart — not exactly the cowboy aesthetic. The environmentalism-pacifism link becomes explicit in the name of Greenpeace, perhaps the most visible environmentalist NGO. That pacifism is a stereotype, of course – environmentalists are incredibly varied. And so are cowboy conservatives. So perhaps if the conservation movement can vary its imagery to include cowboy values alongside pacifist values we can expand the tent. The risk, if we don’t, is that we will continue to alienate conservatives who might otherwise support conservation simply because of how we represent conservation rather than how it actually is.

Pacifist conservation images, especially in their implicit condemnation of hunting, are in direct conflict with self-reliance, combativeness, and independence. Conservationists trying to win over Western Conservatives, then, should frame their positions within the cowboy aesthetic. They can draw on images of Roosevelt’s life to do so. As the creator of the modern park system, Roosevelt stands among history’s exceptional conservationists. Every man who appreciates the majesty and beauty of the wilderness and of wild life,” he proclaimed, “should strike hands with the far-sighted men who wish to preserve our material resources… from wanton destruction.

His idealization of self-reliance, combativeness, self-determination, and athleticism is evident in his description, according to Edmund Morris in the seminal biography of Roosevelt Theodore Rex,  of his ranch days:

“In that land, we lived a free and hardy life, with horse and with rifle… we knew the toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and cattle, or fought in evil feuds with one another; but we felt the beat of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living.”

If conservationists can tie those images and the values they represent to protecting and conserving public lands from development — if they can present monuments as spaces to live “a free and hardy life, with horse and with rifle” — they stand a chance of winning Western conservatives back.

Some groups are already doing it. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, for example, draws on Roosevelt’s imagery and values to bring sportsmen – fishers and hunters – into the conservation movement. Their work can be just a start. Park officials could incorporate Roosevelt’s legacy more prominently into protected areas, highlighting in protected areas his conservation philosophy and places he visited. A quote by Roosevelt on park entrance signs or his iconic glasses-and-hat incorporated into the national park seal would remind conservatives that U.S parks are as much the product of a cowboy conservationist as of “green” conservationists.

If we can put Theodore Roosevelt and HIS cowboy values back into the picture of the conservation movement, we can expand it. Because while it’s hard to imagine Theodore Roosevelt sitting peacefully, sipping kombucha, you should not have to come from a city with kombucha on tap to support public lands.

Ty Loft works on ocean security and conservation at a think tank in Washington, D.C. He studied post-conflict national parks as a Lisa J. Raines Fellow at Georgetown University, from which he graduated in 2018.  


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