Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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At some point in the Dakotas we picked up the former foreman of his ranch, and another cowboy friend of the old days, and they rode with the President in his private car for several hours. He was as happy with them as a schoolboy ever was in meeting old chums. He beamed with delight all over. The life which those men represented, and of which he had himself once formed a part, meant so much to him; it had entered into the very marrow of his being, and I could see the joy of it all shining in his face as he sat and lived parts of it over and over again with those men that day. He bubbled with laughter continually. The men, I thought, seemed a little embarrassed by his open-handed cordiality and good-fellowship. He himself evidently wanted to forget the present, and to live only in the memory of those wonderful ranch days,—that free, hardy, adventurous life upon the plains. It all came back to him with a rush when he found himself alone with these heroes of the rope and stirrup. How much more keen his appreciation was, and how much quicker his memory, than theirs! He was constantly recalling to their minds incidents which they had forgotten, and the names of horses and dogs which had escaped them. His subsequent life, instead of making dim the memory of his ranch days, seemed to have made it more vivid by contrast.

When they had gone, I said to him, "I think your affection for those men very beautiful."

"How could I help it?" he said.

— John Burroughs, traveling by train with Roosevelt to Yellowstone, 1903


This history began with a reference to the "national park idea" without explaining exactly what the idea was, or is today. Many perceptive writers have addressed the meaning of the national parks: John Muir, Frederick Law Olmsted, Robert Underwood Johnson, and John C. Merriam from long ago; Freeman Tilden, Bernard DeVoto, Joseph L. Sax, and Alfred Runte more recently. They are but a short list. One person cannot presume to sum up what they have to say about the national parks in a few words. It is enough to note that each detected the existence of a meaning, an underlying philosophy, a way of looking at the world, that is associated with the national parks. Their writings try to evoke various aspects of the national park idea, the idea that certain places have an intrinsic worth and should perforce be managed with vision and stewardship.

As we have seen, the national park idea can be easily misinterpreted. People bring diverse perspectives to the parks. Some support them as money-makers for tourism or as an acceptable way to use lands with no other obvious economic value. Some see them as playgrounds on a grand scale. And some see them as dead weight to be carried by society.

Whether such people are in the majority or the minority is of little importance. What is important is how well the amorphous, undisciplined national park idea will hold its own over the next quarter-century a time of critical decisions concerning land-use values, depletion of resources, and, ultimately, this country's standard of living.

The experience of Theodore Roosevelt National Park over its first thirty-five years, and particularly over its last ten, is in many ways merely a harbinger of this upcoming critical period. The park is on the cutting edge of problems the entire System will have to face. If the national park idea is not to be subsumed by "progress" as we have traditionally defined it, clear thinking and resourceful, even courageous, leadership will be required of the Park Service in the years to come.

As for Theodore Roosevelt itself, the park can be instructed by the example of the man. Roosevelt's greatest characteristic was his ability to cut through to the heart of the matter and take decisive action once he got there. It is to be hoped that the park's staff will be able to do the same when they are confronted by those who present the national park idea and economic development as mutually exclusive choices. They need not be.

So, in a sense, the powerful presence of Roosevelt's personal example—what might be called his "extended incumbency"—is the ally of the park's staff today. Yet his conservation record, perhaps still the most admirable of any president, also sets a level of expectation for the park's management, even if only unconsciously. Theodore Roosevelt is the only national park that has to live up to its name. The challenge, of course, is to do it.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004