Rounding the corner of the massive Department of Agriculture building at the corner of 14th and Independence one day, I spotted a sign for the Forest Service museum. I’d never realized that the Forest Service was part of the Department of Agriculture and had assumed that it was part of the Department of the Interior like the Park Service. However, as is often the case around Washington, this arrangement is a legacy from the days of Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt set up the Forest Service in 1905, at a critical point in conservation history. He opposed the unrestricted exploitation of the forest reserves that the "land grabbers," as he called them, sought. Accordingly, he planned to set aside National Forests as part of a broader Agricultural Bill. However, the timber industry pressured Congress into attaching a rider limiting the president’s ability to set forest lands aside. Roosevelt outwitted the timbermen in a classic end-run maneuver by signing an additional 16 million acres of forest over to federal protection before approving the bill. Before anyone realized it, Roosevelt had succeeded in setting aside an area of forest roughly the size of France, Belgium, and The Netherlands combined.
Of course, the folks at the Forest Service museum have a lot to say about T.R., and they were more than happy to talk to me about him on the day I visited. The three women at the front desk were extremely welcoming, and they showered me with Forest Service publications before I left. The museum is geared primarily toward schoolchildren but is a place adults can enjoy as well. The central display area is imaginatively set up like a rustic cabin, with snowshoes, skis, canoe paddles and other appurtenances of outdoor life set here and there. Five brief videos telling the Forest Service story are shown in rotation on screens set into the walls. Of course there are sections on T.R.’s part in establishing the Forest Service, but even more on the man he selected to head the newly-created department, his close friend and fellow ardent conservationist, Gilford Pinchot.
Roosevelt, Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and others associated with the early days of the Forest Service were true visionaries, and the museum pays modest but moving homage to them. "There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of giant sequoias and redwoods," wrote T.R. "Our people should see to it that they are preserved for the children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred."
Despite all odds, this vision has endured. The legacy we enjoy today arose from T.R.’s peculiar blend of concern for the common man, his love of the wilderness, and his headstrong willingness to seize the bull by the horns and make it so. "Is there any law that prevents me declaring Pelican Island a National Bird Sanctuary?" T.R. once asked, scarcely waiting for an answer. "Very well, then," he said as he reached for his pen, "I do declare it."