Roosevelt Set The Table For New York Conservationists
As New York approaches the 100th anniversary of his election as governor, the state has another chief executive, George E. Pataki who embodies the progressive policies of “TR,” who finds inspiration in his words and deeds (as well as in the portrait of Roosevelt on the wall of his Capitol office), and who, like Roosevelt, is guiding New York into a new century amid 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 were a major influence on Theodore Roosevelt’s personal and professional life. As a sickly, young teenager, “Teedie” (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 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 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 Legislature from 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.
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 Tit’s source for ecological information and a strong proponent of “controlled, conservative lumbering.” Pinchot’s impact was evident in Tit’s second Annual Message to the Legislature 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 songbirds in the state.
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, and 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 effect on drinking water. He also ordered 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 helped resolve the issue. The agreement, announced jointly in January 1997 by Governor Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani 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 another century, Governor Pataki has initiated environmental programs in the spirit of his hero. Governor Pataki chose to announce the Clean Water/Clean Air 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 placed environmental issues in the forefront of their administrations.