Theodore Roosevelt was America’s first green president, and an updated, newly reopened exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York features an array of historical artifacts that show off his conservationist bent: a portion of a tree from a petrified forest, a souvenir from his Rough Rider days in Arizona, a letter he wrote in 1903 to fellow naturalist John Muir, and his buckskin fringe jacket, which looks surprisingly like the one singer David Crosby wore at Woodstock. Four restored dioramas drive it home, including one of the Adirondack Mountains, where he would summer as a boy, his cattle ranch in the Badlands of North Dakota, and a bird sanctuary founded by his cousin in Oyster Bay, New York.
“No president before or since has made conservation his priority,” says historian Douglas Brinkley, author of ‘The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.’ “He was a naturalist his whole life. We could have lost a lot of precious landscapes, especially in the West, if it weren’t for him.” Roosevelt established 150 national forests, four game preserves, and 51 bird reservations, and he conceived of or expanded five national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Oregon’s Crater Lake.
A tenacious leader – he not only survived an assassin’s bullet but also gave a speech in Milwaukee that same day – Roosevelt carried out many of his conservation objectives against the popular tide. Among the simple but revelatory items on display is a letter that declared Florida’s Pelican Island a federal preserve. “Executive powers allowed him to secure places without Congress, and he did that,” says museum provost Michael Novacek. “He said, ‘I’m president and I’m going to secure these.'” The exhibit will run at the museum for the foreseeable future. [Suggested donation, $20; amnh.org]