There’s Still Plenty Of Wilderness In The Lower 48: Just Use Your Imagination.

Badlands from the Elkhorn (sm)

Elkhorn Ranch courtesy Sean Palfrey

In 1883, then 25-year old Theodore Roosevelt went out to the western edge of North Dakota to fulfill his dream of shooting a trophy buffalo and bringing the mounted head back to his home in New York.  Roosevelt had been interested in nature and natural environments since he was a little boy and his affinity for the outdoors was eagerly encouraged by his father, Theodore Sr., who was one of the founders of the New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1869. By the time he was a teenager, Roosevelt had trecked through much of the Adirondacks and journeyed through Europe and Egypt collecting specimens of all kinds, but the trip to the West in 1883 marked the first time that Roosevelt actually immersed himself in what was still wilderness lands.

Actually, the wilderness that Roosevelt hunted through in 1883 was, in reality, almost gone.  The transcontinental railroad linked both coasts since 1869, the Plains Indians were more or less pacified by 1877 (and slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890), and the U.S. Census announced that there were between 6 and 20 people living on every square mile of land in at least half the land mass of the lower 48.  Which meant that the wilderness, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, was gone.

TR was keenly aware of these changes, partly because he knew that it wouldn’t be much longer until animals like the American bison would be gone for evermore; but he was also a man of his times who believed that the frontier represented a remarkable resource for nation-building, both in economic and cultural terms.  In many respects, his comments sprinkled through his writings about the virtues of living on the frontier, presaged the single, most important essay ever written about the development of America, namely, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis,” published in 1894.  In this essay, the author described America as being uniquely different from Europe insofar as the social, economic and legal institutions brought over from the Old World were not the same institutions that were developing as the country moved West.  In this latter space, basically the land between the Missouri River and the western coast, America was developing a new brand of institutions, a new culture, a new organizational ethos that reflected the egalitarianism and independence of the frontier.

Not only did Turner and Roosevelt know each other’s works, but Roosevelt used Turner’s ideas to sell his notions about conservation and nature to skeptical politicians whose support he needed to promote and develop what later became our present-day system of natural monuments, including national historic sites, national preserves and reservations and, the greatest treasure of all, the national parks. The law that TR signed in 1906 gave the President the right to designate “historical landmarks, historic preservation structures and other objects of scientific interest,” which today represents 12% of the protected landscape in the entire world.  That’s not bad considering that the U.S. occupies 6% of the globe’s land mass.

The reason I find TR so fascinating is that all of this interest and concern about preserving nature grew out of his desire to go into natural places in order to hunt big game.  Which is something which a visitor can still feel by visiting what remains of TR’s Elkhorn ranch.  The property lies midway between the two branches of the national park named after our 26th President, and while the ranch house itself has not been preserved, you can stand where TR stood in front of the house and look over the Badlands the same way that Sean Palfrey looked over the Badlands when he took the photo which adorns this page. And then bed down for the evening, watch the stars come out, and wait for the first slivers of daylight to brighten the sky behind the buttes overlooking the ranch.  And maybe if you are quiet enough, a few of the bison who once again claim this area as their home will amble by.  It may not be wilderness in the technical sense, but it’s as good as you’ll ever get.



Maybe We Need To Understand Gun Ownership From A Scientific Point Of View.

Why do Americans own 300 million guns?  Building a civilian arsenal of that size really is an extraordinary achievement, particularly when you consider that the U.S. counts for roughly 5% of the world’s population but together we own maybe one-third of all civilian small arms in the world, maybe almost half the number of handguns and long guns that exist on the entire planet.

Now if you go to the so-called experts on gun ownership, the NRA and the other gun-marketing organizations, they’ll tell you that guns have ‘always’ been part of American history and that God plus the Founding Fathers gave us the uncontested ‘right’ to protect ourselves with guns.

lunde          Actually, like all good marketing slogans, this one has a bit of truth to it but it’s mostly hyperbole.  In fact, early colonial governments enacted gun-control laws to make sure that the guns which the colonists needed for hunting didn’t wind up in the ‘wrong hands,’ i.e., the Injuns.  And later on, when Roy Rogers and Gene Autry opened up the West, most frontier towns also enacted strong gun-control laws to keep things under control.

But until 1890, when the government announced that the ‘frontier’ was dead and gone, it was presumed that if you lived outside of a city, you needed a gun in order to secure necessary food for the table.  But the problem was that hunters had been so adept at bagging game that many of the animals whose meat had filled American stomachs were no longer to be found.  The white-tail deer were disappearing throughout the East, the bison was just about extinct, the huge flocks of carrier pigeons that had darkened the skies had disappeared, altogether the balance between Man and Beast was definitely tilting towards Man.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt who, by the age of eight and living in a Manhattan townhouse, was already captivated by the idea of studying every animal specie that he could find, and the way you studied an animal was to kill it, then stuff it and preserve it, then put it on view for others to do the same.  This is the opening theme of an important new book by  Darrin Lunde, who happens to be the manager of the Smithsonian’s Division of Mammals, which happens to be one of the largest collections of animal species, a collection that was started largely through the efforts of TR.

Roosevelt happened to grow up at a time when Americans became interested in natural history, largely because the Industrial Revolution was quickly transforming much of the natural landscape along with threatening the animals, fish and plants which comprised the natural environment.  His father, Theodore Sr., founded the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Roosevelt himself became a close friend of America’s first naturalist, John Bird Grinnell; going out into the wild and hunting game in order to learn more about wild animals remained TR’s passion for his entire life.

The attempt to use the hunting experience to understand nature came to full flower for TR between 1883 and 1887 when he lived and hunted extensively on his cattle ranch, the Elkhorn, located in the North Dakota Badlands, now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Lunde chronicles the growing awareness on the part of Roosevelt that many of the big game animals he hunted were quickly disappearing; this awareness led to the founding of Boone & Crockett, the push for hunting regulations and the development of our national parks.

Roosevelt’s passions were hunting and guns.  But behind these two passions, and this is where Lunde’s book really stands out, was an awareness on the part of our 26th President that hunting needed to serve the interests of science, that guns were a means to advance our knowledge and appreciation of natural things.

The GVP community is uncomfortable with the notion of guns as self-defense ‘tools’ and rightly so.  But maybe a more balanced message about gun ownership could be developed by reminding Gun Nation why Teddy Roosevelt loved his guns.