The Conservationist
T. Roosevelt/Pataki article

By David P. Brown

As the turn of the century drew closer, the New York governor, committed to conserving the state’s natural resources, was eager to find a way to insure an adequate water supply for New York City without detracting from the Upstate area in which the valuable reservoirs were located.

A progressive Republican, he had a reputation for being a defender of the but the governor was never able to complete new agenda for New York. After a single two-year term, he responded to the call of the nation to become vice president and less than two years later, president of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, New York’s native son who was elected governor in 1898, continued to have a significant impact on the state’s environment from his "bully pulpit" in Washington.

From his Adirondack adventures as a youth to his learning he was to become President of the United States while on a High Peaks hiking vacation, Teddy Roosevelt’s association with New York state has been emblematic of his lifelong pursuit of preservation, progressivism and promotion of sound environmental practices.

The New York experience was crucial to shaping Roosevelt’s future accomplishments in conservation and environmental protection. He wrote in his autobiography: "All that I strove to obtain for in the nation in connection with conservation was foreshadowed by what I strove to obtain for New York State when I was governor."

An avid outdoorsman and New York state assemblyman before becoming governor, Roosevelt had considerable influence on attitudes towards conservation and stewardship of the state’s natural resources. In fact, Roosevelt’s influence continues today. As New York approaches the 100th anniversary of his election as Governor, the state has another chief executive who embodies the progressive Republicanism of "TR," who finds inspiration in his words and deeds (as well as in the photo of Roosevelt on his office wall), and who, like Roosevelt, is guiding New York into a new century amid some major environmental initiatives.


Both Roosevelt and Pataki developed a love of, and respect for, New York’s natural resources as young men growing up in New York -- Roosevelt on Long Island and Pataki in the Mid Hudson Valley. As Governors of New York, both worked to enhance the environment and preserve those resources; both addressed the need for a solution to the New York City water problem; and both found enjoyment and relaxation in the Adirondacks.

Indeed, the Adirondack Mountains of New York state were a major influence on Theodore Roosevelt’s personal and professional life. As a sickly, young teenager, "Teddie" (as the family called him) was allowed to go on a camping trip to the Adirondacks where he slept on the ground, hiked, canoed through the rapids and gathered specimens for his "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History." He labeled these with their proper scientific names. In his diary he recorded, "We wandered about and I picked up a salamander (Diemictylus irridescens). I saw a mouse which from its looks I should judge to be a hamster (Hesperomys myoides). We saw a bald-headed eagle (Halietus leucocephalus) sailing over the lake."

Later, TR’s first publishing endeavor came as the result of another expedition to the Adirondacks’ Lake St. Regis area . The result was The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in Franklin County, a four-page pamphlet which listed more than 90 species of birds. The following year he published Some Notes on the Birds of Oyster Bay, Long Island. The Adirondack work of the 18-year-old Roosevelt, which received a favorable notice in an ornithological journal, demonstrated his talent for writing.

For example, TR’s journal sensually describes the sounds of the wilderness birds in this passage, referred to as "Keatsian" by biographers:

"Perhaps the sweetest bird music I have ever listened to was uttered by a hermit thrush....We had been out for two or three hours but had seen nothing; once we heard a tree fall with a dull, heavy crash; and two or three times the harsh hooting of an owl had been answered by the unholy laughter of a loon from the bosom of the lake, but otherwise nothing had occurred to break the death-like stillness of the night....Suddenly the quiet was broken by the song of a hermit thrush; louder and clearer it sang from the depths of the grim and rugged woods, until the sweet, sad music seemed to fill the very air and to conquer for the moment the gloom of the night. I shall never forget it.".


Later in life, the Adirondacks were the setting for a major milestone in the career of Teddy Roosevelt -- his ascendancy to the presidency of the United States.

As the nation’s vice president, Roosevelt and his family were visiting Camp Tawahus. TR was hiking with friends on Mount Marcy when word reached him of President McKinley’s deteriorating condition as the result of an assassin’s bullet. The hiking party, on the way down from the summit of the Adirondacks’ highest peak, stopped to eat near Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the source of the Hudson River.

Biographer Nathan Miller writes that Roosevelt "was just about to bite into a sandwich when he looked up and saw a guide on the trail from below. ‘I had had a bully tramp and was looking forward to dinner with the interest only an appetite worked up in the woods gives you,’ Roosevelt recalled. ‘When I saw the runner I instinctively knew he had bad news.’"

After a harrowing ride across Adirondack back roads, he arrived at the North Creek railroad station at dawn. He was handed a telegram, which he read by flickering light of a kerosene lamp, informing him that McKinley had died and he was president of the United States.

In between these Adirondack experiences, Roosevelt, who was only 42 when he became president, had a distinguished career in public service including three terms as a Republican assemblyman in New York and one term as governor of the Empire State.

Two years out of Harvard, he was elected to the state Legislature from the 21st district of New York City. As a brash, unconventionally attired newcomer to Albany, dubbed "Oscar Wilde" and "the Cyclone Assemblyman" by observers, his energetic efforts were directed toward issues of perceived corruption and those related to his position as chair of the Committee on Cities.

Unlike George Pataki, whose Assembly career included work on a number of environmental issues and recognition by environmental groups as one of the Legislature’s leaders in this field, Roosevelt did not have an impact on conservation or related issues in the state until he became governor.

Roosevelt rode into the Executive Mansion in 1898 on his reputation as leader of the "Rough Riders" in the Spanish American War. At the outset, he turned to experts outside of government to help shape policies. Among these was Gifford Pinchot, who, for years, had been TR’s source for ecological information. and a strong proponent of "controlled, conservative lumbering." Pinchot’s impact was evident in TR’s second Annual Message with a revolutionary call for "a system of forestry gradually developed and conducted along scientific principles." He also stressed the need for more qualified game wardens and enforcement of game laws, the importance of controlling forest fires, and, true to his ornithological interests, protection of song birds in the state.

Pinchot, who enjoyed Roosevelt and visited him in Albany, recalls once finding the Executive Mansion "under ferocious attack from a band of invisible Indians and the Governor of the Empire State was helping a house full of children to escape by lowering them out if the second story window on a rope."

Both Governor Roosevelt and Governor Pataki placed environmental issues in the forefront of their administrations.

In the 1890s, public confidence in the state’s forest commission and its attitude toward conservation was particularly low. Laws were circumvented and land set aside in the Catskills and Adirondacks as forest preserve was being sold to private developers. In 1894, the Legislature enacted the "forever wild" clause in the state constitution and the efforts of Governor Roosevelt, including his reform of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission, began meaningful change.

In addition to strengthening the forest commission, Governor Roosevelt won approval of environmental reforms including preserving the Palisades against development, preventing the dumping of sawmill waste into streams of the Adirondacks and Catskills. He was vehement about concerns for pollution of the state’s waterways, many of which had become, in his words, "little more than open sewers." In this regard, he issued an order prohibiting the discharge of untreated sewage, domestic waste or manufacturing refuse into Saratoga Lake or its tributaries which flowed into the Hudson River because of potential affect on drinking water. He also ordered the Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa to install sewage treatment facilities and forced tanneries and pulp mills in the area to treat their waste before discharging them into the waters.

Almost 100 years after Governor Roosevelt proclaimed, "we should build a water system that shall once and for all meet the needs of the future city and be capable of almost automatic expansion as these needs increase," Governor Pataki brought about the historic New York City watershed agreement, an equitable solution that satisfied both New York City and the Upstate towns of the city’s watershed region. The agreement, announced jointly in January 1997 by Governor Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Robert Kennedy Jr. (representing environmental organizations) and local officials from 32 towns in the watershed region, was hailed as a major accomplishment by all parties involved.

And, on the cusp of a new century, Governor Pataki is initiating enviromental programs in the spirit of his hero. Governor Partaki chose to announce the Clean Air/Clean Water Bond Act at the Roosevelt family home at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Suffolk County. Roosevelt would have appreciated the emphasis on clean waters and open space conservation that are among the cornerstones of the Bond Act. Both Governor Roosevelt and Governor Pataki place environmental issues in the forefront of their administrations.

(David P. Brown, a former newspaper editor, is a freelance writer who has written extensively on Theodore Roosevelt and historical topics related to Albany and the state capital).

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