How Theodore Roosevelt Saved the Grand Canyon

Theodore Roosevelt’s bold Grand Canyon move

Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt

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What makes the United States special? Not everyone agrees. A growing number of people think that it is not special at all. But in at least one respect, they are dead wrong: America is home to unique land formations of unparalleled beauty. These sacred spaces used to embody the essence of what it means to be an American—and in the eyes of many, still do.

Most of the annual visitors to the Grand Canyon probably count themselves among this number. It is difficult to gaze into the seemingly limitless, mile-deep ravine and not feel a sense of awe mixed with pride. But were it not for Theodore Roosevelt, it is unlikely that millions of people would be able to have this experience.

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The Beginnings of Conservation

While the Grand Canyon has a long geological history, the political side of its story begins in 1872. In that year, two things happened: President Grant inaugurated Yellowstone as the first national park and he signed the General Mining Act declaring all mineral deposits on federal public land to be “free and open for exploration and purchase.” These two pieces of legislation set in play contradictory aims of conservation and economic extraction that, to this day, remain unresolved.

The Grand Canyon was one place where these competing ambitions clashed. Some gazers beholding its breathtaking rock strata reflected dollar signs in their eyes. In the 1880s, Senator Benjamin Harrison tried three separate times to introduce legislation naming the Grand Canyon a national park. On each occasion his bills were defeated by private interest groups. After becoming president, Harrison was able to name the site a forest reserve in 1893.

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Establishing this was problematic, though, since the Canyon’s only forests were located on its rim. Furthermore, having Forest Reserve status did not offer sufficient protection against mining claims or even loggers or ranchers, all of whom simply ignored the new law.

Arizona politicians and businessmen had a vested interest in both extracting natural resources and developing the area around the canyon for tourism. Ironically, it was the encroachment of the railroad that aided the goal of furthering the site’s protection.

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A New Champion

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt took a cross-country trip by train. One of his stops was the Grand Canyon. Peering over the edge of its rim, he fell silent with awe. Then in a speech, he delivered before a large crowd, he stated, “I shall not attempt to describe it, because I cannot.”

He admonished his audience to “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt’s words carried weight. He had a reputation for being a great outdoorsman. Though asthmatic and frail as a child, Roosevelt cultivated athletic prowess and later explored the Dakota Badlands. He witnessed firsthand the closing of the frontier, the exploitation of the West for economic gain, and the disappearance of species (admittedly contributing to this latter effect through his own big game hunting).

In his chosen career as a politician and statesman, he developed a vision of promoting the public good over personal profit. While Harrison was president, Roosevelt played his part by founding a club dedicated to championing laws protecting America’s beautiful spaces. He even helped get the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 passed.

When Roosevelt accidentally became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Big Business had a new enemy in the White House. Although Roosevelt was a part of the emerging progressive movement, this term had a somewhat different meaning than it does today.

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Like the present-day conservative movement, the progressives saw the political philosopher Edmund Burke as their great precursor. Roosevelt went so far as to quote Burke in his Fifth Annual Message to Congress in 1905, to the effect that “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”

Roosevelt had a hard time reining in corporate appetites, though, despite his forceful personality. He created five new national parks but like Harrison failed to add the Grand Canyon to that number when he encountered the same entrenched opposition. Something more would be needed to safeguard it.

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The Antiquities Act

Conservation laws took a giant leap forward in 1906 when Roosevelt signed into law “An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities.” It classified a new type of public land, the national monument. This classification was made necessary not only due to industrial exploitation but also because thieves were plundering ancient archeological sites in search of valuable relics. Local and state organizations were ineffective in their efforts to stop them.

The meat of the Antiquities Act is the clause opening Section 2 where it states that the president is authorized “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments…the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

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The Antiquities Act gave the president unprecedented domestic powers in a way that no other law has before or since. While he could designate national monuments without resort to Congress, it took an act of Congress to abolish the proclamation. He named Devil’s Tower the first such monument in September of that year. It did not extend far beyond the rock formation itself and clearly corresponded to the Act’s scope of keeping a designated space “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management.”

Within the first six months of signing the act, Roosevelt designated four other monuments. Archaeological sites like the Gila Cliff Dwellings of New Mexico were unambiguous antiquities that could easily be classed as “objects of historic or scientific interest.”

The Grand Canyon was a different case entirely. Fortunately, it contained prehistoric ruins that were of historic interest. But the canyon itself, though, lent scientific interest by virtue of its unique geology and was much more than a mere archaeological site. The landscape was larger than the state of Rhode Island extending for nearly 2,000 square miles. How could such a vast area be managed?

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Under Roosevelt’s tenure, the Forest Service had been created in 1905 as a way of managing the 150 national forests he established. Another agency would be needed to manage national parks and monuments. For the time being, this function would be carried out by the Department of the Interior. But neither Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, nor any administrators of the Interior Department, had any clear idea of how to appropriately deal with these landmarks.

Roosevelt was not one to allow legal terms or procedures to get in the way of realizing his vision of America. Specific methods could be worked out later. He interpreted the vague scope of the clause in a loose manner when, on January 11, 1908, he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument.

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Consequences and Influence

Despite the far-reaching powers the Antiquities Act gave Roosevelt, his decision met with predictable opposition from the usual suspects. The most vehement enemy of Grand Canyon National Monument was Ralph Henry Cameron, a party boss and mining investor who became an Arizona Senator. Well into the 1920s, he filed lawsuits against the U.S. government to assert his supposed property rights. It was a blatant use of public office for private gain and fortunately, he was not successful.

Roosevelt’s expansive interpretation of the Antiquities Act was adopted by later presidents. They have used it almost a hundred times. Critics have pointed out that the Act concentrates power in the executive branch to a degree unintended by Congress, even claiming that it grants the president a level of authority approaching European monarchs. But though one may question some of the later selections for monumenthood, the early ones that Roosevelt established are uncontroversial public treasures. His use of the law as a tool of preservation has made it one of the most influential pieces of legislation in American history.

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After Roosevelt left office, the National Park Service was created in 1916 to provide competent management of America’s new landmarks. Then, only a month after Roosevelt’s own death in early 1919, Grand Canyon National Park became a reality. Although he did not live to see it receive full protection, his vigorous and shrewd actions made it possible.

In 1932, Herbert Hoover proclaimed a second Grand Canyon National Monument adjacent to the park. Following that, Lyndon Johnson established Marble Canyon National Monument in 1969. Both of these sites have since been merged into the current national park. Finally in 1979, the Grand Canyon was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As one of America’s foremost cultural icons, the Grand Canyon is a self-evident source of wonder and majesty. Less obvious but more profound was Roosevelt’s belief that this beauty was also a source of virtue—that beholding splendor could inspire one towards noble action. This is what he meant when he said, “keep it for your children.” A hundred years after his death, Americans have admirably upheld this aspect of Roosevelt’s vision.

Worth Pondering…

In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

—Theodore Roosevelt