How Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 trip to California gave birth to modern conservation

National Park Service

Theodore Roosevelt is our hero. 

The 26th President of the United States was a soldier, a historian, an amateur scientist, a best-selling writer, an avid outdoorsman and much much more. He has been called the “father of conservation,” because, as president, he authorized the creation of 150 national forests, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 4 national game preserves, and 51 federal bird reservations. We think he deserves the moniker. 

But many people may be unaware that TR has a very important California connection. 116 years ago, in 1903, just two years after becoming our nation’s youngest president at the age of forty-two, following the assassination of President William McKinley, Roosevelt embarked on one of the most important Presidential trips in the history of America. 

The trip, taken by railroad, took Roosevelt across the American continent. The 14,000-mile journey began in April, took TR through twenty-five states, and lasted nine weeks. He traveled through the American West, stopped at Yellowstone National Park for a hiking and camping trip with naturalist and essayist John Burroughs. He continued on and ended touring a large swath of the state of California, including Yosemite, which had been declared a national park in 1890. 

It was a tenuous time for the American environment. Millions of buffalo had been slaughtered across the plains, often for sport, their carcasses left to rot in the sun. The passenger pigeon, a bird that once filled the skies by the billions, had been exterminated. But America was also in the midst of a nature renaissance, and Roosevelt one of its pivotal figures. The impact of his trip to California is still being felt today. 

Perhaps the most important moment of the journey was his meeting with John Muir on May 15th, 1903. The meeting took place on a train in the dusty town of Raymond, California, the closest station to Yosemite.  From there, the men traveled 40 miles (about 8 hours) by stagecoach, which gave them the opportunity to get acquainted.  They stopped in Mariposa Grove, where TR saw his first sequoia and had his picture taken driving through the “Tunnel Tree,” which no longer stands.  

That first night, President Roosevelt dismissed his aides and the press, which was unusual for him because he was a publicity hound. In the wilds of Yosemite, he and Muir spent three days “roughing it,” camping beneath the stars and enjoying conversation around a campfire. It was during those conversations that Muir made the case for the preservation of forests and other natural resources. Likely, these talks created the impetus for Roosevelt’s support for the 1906 Antiquities Act, arguably one of the most important pieces of conservation law in the United States.  With the power to proclaim lands as monuments in the public interest, Roosevelt in 1908 set aside some 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument. Congress later gave it a national park status.

Arguably, no other President has had such a singular impact on protecting American lands, and it’s fair to say, we think, that his visit to California had a lot to do with it. 

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