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No, Theodore Roosevelt Was Not The Greatest Conservationist President. It Was Jimmy Carter.

If you go by the numbers and the long term impacts, Teddy comes in second to this unsung environmental and conservation giant.

“Future generations of conservation leaders must remember that we are stewards of a precious gift, which is not an unpleasant duty, but rather an exciting challenge. We must safeguard our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy freshwater, clean air, scenic mountains and coasts, fertile agricultural lands, and healthy, safe places to live and thrive.”

Those words were not spoken by Theodore Roosevelt. Rather, they were spoken by the man whom I consider to have been the greatest conservation president of all time – Jimmy Carter. Now, before you Roosevelt enthusiasts hang me by the nearest lamp post, hear me out. I will make my case. All I ask of you is that you reserve judgement until I have put all of the facts in front of you.

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
Photos Courtesy Of CARTERLAND, A New Jimmy Carter Documentary Documentary Premiering In 2021 | Greatest Conservationist President

To make the case for Jimmy Carter as our nation’s “Greatest Conservation President,” there are three criteria which I will outline and provide supporting evidence for each of these criteria.

Determining the Greatest Conservationist President

The first criteria is quantitative. During Carter’s presidency, America’s most trusted newsman was legendary CBS News Anchor, Walter Cronkite. After the historic passage of one of Carter’s most important environmental actions, called the Alaska Lands National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Cronkite put it this way –

“President Carter today more than doubled the size of the National Park System by invoking his executive authority to protect 56 millions acres of Alaskan Wilderness. Environmental groups said Carter has now replaced Teddy Roosevelt as the greatest conservation president of all time.” That’s quite a claim, but I hope to make a believer out of you before I’m done.

Let me begin by asking the question: Just how much land does that represent? We are setting aside for conservation an area of land larger than the state of California,” Carter proclaimed.

carterland research team environmental presidents
The CARTERLAND Research Team from left to right – Tony Pattiz (me), Will Pattiz, Jill Pattiz, & Jim Pattiz | Greatest Conservationist President

The Research Team

As part of the research for this article, I included the words of knowledgeable Americans who were interviewed as part of an exciting new documentary, CARTERLAND, which will be released later this year. For reference, I worked as the chief researcher on the film.

One of these experts is Will Shafroth. Shafroth, who is President of the National Park Foundation, concludes, “President Carter will go down in history as one of the most effective and greatest champions of national parks of any U.S. President. He created thirty-nine national park units. These are places as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the Martin Luther King National Historic Park in Atlanta, Denali National Park, in a series of National Park units in Alaska.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Shafroth said “one of the most effective and greatest champions.” He didn’t say the greatest. Patience please. We’re not done yet.

jimmy carter, greatest conservationist president
Jimmy Carter & Sam Candler On The Chattahoochee River | Greatest Conservationist President

What About Teddy?

Jonathan Jarvis, who served as the 18th Director of the National Park System under President Obama and also appeared in CARTERLAND, called the Alaska Lands Act, “The most significant thing that he [Carter] did and, frankly, that almost any U.S. President did at any time.” Jarvis described Carter’s conservation leadership as “unsurpassed in the history of conservation.” As Jarvis notes, Carter protected over 157 million acres which constituted the single largest protection of public lands in history.

What about Teddy? The 26th President set aside over 230 million acres of land for conservation. More National Park Service Units are dedicated to him than any other individual. So, if numbers and numbers alone are the yardstick that we measure “conservation greatness” by then perhaps Carter falls a little short of the mark.

But, is that the entire story? I would argue that it’s not.

“Future generations of conservation leaders must remember that we are stewards of a precious gift, which is not an unpleasant duty, but rather an exciting challenge. We must safeguard our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy freshwater, clean air, scenic mountains and coasts, fertile agricultural lands, and healthy, safe places to live and thrive.”

-President Jimmy Carter

A Life Dedicated To Conservation

Best selling author and historian Douglas Brinkley, who has authored books examining both Theodore & Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in the field of conservation and is prominently featured in the documentary, CARTERLAND, makes the case that Carter’s own legacy is a work in progress which will continue to grow over time. “We still haven’t caught  up with how large Carter’s environmental legacy is, but in the 21st century or the 22nd century, it’s going to be a much larger achievement because we would not have been able to save Alaska wilderness if it wasn’t for Jimmy Carter,” notes Brinkley.

Brinkley’s assessment leads us to our second criteria. It’s qualitative. It involves whether conservation is part of a political leader’s core beliefs or simply an issue to be championed when it’s politically advantageous to do so. In this regard, Brinkley argues that we have not had a true conservation president since Jimmy Carter.

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
Young Jimmy Carter | Greatest Conservationist President

He poses essential questions for all of us to consider: “How many charlatans are in politics?  How many people that are dodging taxes?  That are looking at the country for their own personal benefit?” That eliminates quite a few political leaders.

Long before he pursued a career in politics, Jimmy Carter had a love of the outdoors and understood the need to protect our nation’s public lands. This became an integral part of who he was and how he would govern. Best selling author and journalist Jonathan Alter, who also appears in the documentary CARTERLAND, recently published a biography of Jimmy Carter.

Alter concludes that “Carter’s faith, his belief in human rights, and his environmentalism all contain a moral imperative.  They all are connected to a deep sense of morality that suffuses his attitude toward life.”

One can long for the days of a Jimmy Carter. A selfless public servant who told people the truth and had a vision about America the Beautiful. One where we protected our waterways and our  woodlands and our wetlands and swamps and coastal areas.  We have not had a president since Carter that prioritized conservation. That made it one of their number one things.”

–Douglas Brinkley

A Lifelong Reverence For The Natural Environment

Phil Wise grew up as a neighbor, friend, and he went on to work for Jimmy Carter in Georgia and in Washington D.C. He understood how Carter’s upbringing shaped his reverence for nature. “Jimmy Carter grew up on a farm in rural South Georgia,” Wise notes, “and he grew up hunting and fishing and understanding the resonance of the seasons and the importance of conservation and he carried that with him the rest of his life and it’s part of his love of nature.”

Before reaching the Oval Office and establishing himself as one of the United States’ most conservation-minded Presidents, Jimmy Carter had proven himself to Georgians to be a strong champion of his own state’s natural resources. In 1967, alongside leaders in business, government, and academia, Carter, who had served in the Georgia State Senate, lent his support to the creation of the Georgia Conservancy.

“I honestly believe that our greatest potential force for meeting challenges to our environment is in the several thousand highly-motivated and well-educated Georgians who are members of the Georgia Conservancy,” said Carter in his remarks at the 1968 Georgia Conservancy Conference.

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
Jimmy Carter At Cumberland Island | Greatest Conservationist President

The Conservationist Governor

After he became governor of Georgia, as Alter notes, Carter cancelled the Sprewell Bluffs Dam Project on his 50th birthday. He was the first and only governor to cancel a major dam project. The proposed dam at Sprewell Bluff would have flooded one of the most scenic river valleys in the state.

Carter knew those waters well. He had spent time canoeing and kayaking the Chattahoochee River. He understood its importance as only a true naturalist could. Wise states, “He saw himself as a protector of the environment in Georgia and, after he became president, for the whole country.”

Carter validated Wise’s assessment when he signed into law the Endangered American Wilderness Act. At the time it represented the largest single addition to our National Wilderness Preservation System since 1964.

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
Former President Jimmy Carter | Greatest Conservationist President

A Greater Understanding Of Our Public Lands

Rose Marcario, a former CEO of Patagonia who was interviewed for CARTERLAND, agrees with Wise and Alter that Carter’s conservationist ethic was an integral part of who he was and how he governed. She concludes, “He was really ahead of his time in blocking these dam projects. As a conservationist, as somebody who cared about going out into wilderness, I think he intuitively understood that this was not going to be a good thing for American rivers and he was ahead of his time in that way.”

Carter did his best to kill some environmentally harmful, pork-barrel water projects despite the political cost to himself. In this regard, he stands alone. No other president, before or since, was willing to challenge the pork barrel politics behind building public damns across America.

Jimmy Carter vs Theodore Roosevelt | Conservation Presidents

Now one can argue that Theodore Roosevelt also led a life devoted to a love of the wilderness and a desire to protect it at all costs. One can also argue that Roosevelt was just as willing to challenge the special interests of his time.

Roosevelt understood the importance of our national parks as very special places. Carter, however, had a more expansive understanding of America’s public lands, which including the waterways which represented their lifeblood.

Lynn Scarlett, vice president of the Nature Conservancy and another CARTERLAND participant, spoke about this larger understanding. She says, “People didn’t think as much about water and rivers. So Carter stepped up and said we need Wild and Scenic Rivers. Let’s not think of conservation as about lands. Let’s think about it as referring to waters too. He did help establish a lot of Wild and Scenic Rivers and that legacy continues.” In this regard, he took up the challenge of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring by envisioning the work of conservation as encompassing efforts to protect against any and all threats to our planet and its ecosystems.

Winning The Future For All Of Humankind | Greatest Conservationist President

Climate change is the greatest threat the national parks have ever faced. Nearly everything we know and love about the parks — their plants and animals, rivers and lakes, glaciers, beaches, historic structures, and more — is already under stress from these changes, which together amount to a state of crisis for our public lands.

–National Parks Conservation Association

Gus Speth, who was the co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also served as Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality Chairman. Speth, who appears in CARTERLAND, notes that “Carter was really the first one to acknowledge the seriousness of the climate threat at the presidential level.” Speth goes on to state that President Carter was the first leader to tackle this important issue by providing a comprehensive assessment of the challenges confronting humankind.

“We asked the President to do a big report on what the country might look like in the year 2000, twenty years down the road, if we didn’t respond to global scale challenges in environment and resources and population. So it took us much of the administration to do it, but we finally produced what became known as the Global 2000 Report. In 1980, we released the Global 2000 Report and it was a an eyeopener and it really gave birth to this international environmental agenda.”

Imagine A World Without Carter’s Leadership

Carter picked up the torch of the environmental movement, but lost reelection in 1980. What this meant for successive generations is that climate change would be ignored, both by Democratic and Republican administrations, until the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.

As Speth notes, “a climate issue demands a rather strong government action. We see that now very plainly, but I think the people who wanted a tiny government and no regulation and freedom to do any darn thing they wanted to do as big corporations and make as much money as they could saw this coming and started this campaign of disinformation about it which has really had a unbelievable effect on the country.”

Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association and another CARTERLAND participant, had this to say about the difference which President Carter’s leadership made. “He was willing to take on industry that even today very few are willing to and when you look at choices of extraction versus preservation, he always  supported preservation and I think he just he understood that his role in protecting these incredible treasures and these resources was so important and that that was really going to require somebody to be willing to be that fearless outspoken individual that he is and was and continues to be.”

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
Carter On Cumberland Island | Greatest Conservationist President

The Difference Jimmy Carter Could Have Made Is The Difference

Given Carter’s visionary leadership in the area of climate change, Rose Marcario contends that, “If we had kept innovating we would have solved the crime climate crisis already.  We would have solved the crisis already if we’d continued along the path that President Carter had.  I don’t think you could say that about any other president.”

Jonathan Jarvis concurs adding, “You know if Carter’s policies had been adhered to since [1980] then we wouldn’t be having a climate crisis right now.  We would be already have converted substantially to renewables and kept a lot of the stuff in the ground and that message is as relevant today, maybe even more relevant today than it was then.”

“He saw the future and he anticipated some of those looming scarcities and recognized we need to think about energy efficiency now, not tomorrow, we need to think about river protection now, not tomorrow, we need to start thinking about these resources in a really future oriented way.”

–Lynn Scarlett

Conclusion | The Greatest Conservationist President

The difference Carter could have made as we find ourselves grappling with the adverse effects of climate change over forty years later is the reason why he stands above all of the rest–including Theodore Roosevelt. He demonstrated, throughout his entire life, a tireless commitment to preserving and protecting our natural environment.

It was of the greatest importance to him because he understood that it is of the greatest importance to generations yet unborn. Carter was more interested in the next generation than the next election. He was the first leader to tackle what has emerged as the most serious challenge to America’s public lands in the twenty-first century.

When you add this to his other achievements in conservation and the environment then what you have is the Greatest Conservation President in our nation’s history. Sorry Teddy.

carterland movie jimmy carter greatest conservationist
CARTERLAND Jimmy Carter Documentary | Greatest Conservationist President

A Legacy Of Conservation & Environmental Achievement

To recap, during Jimmy Carter’s years in public service as a State Senator, Governor of Georgia, and President of the United States, he worked to strengthen environmental laws and often took politically risky positions on issues affecting the environment because he believed it was the right thing to do. His achievements in these areas include the following:

Jimmy Carter Conservation Achievements as Governor

  • Establishment of the Georgia Heritage Land Trust to purchase and preserve unique lands.
  • Creation of wildlife enhancement programs such as the reintroduction of wild turkeys.
  • Suspension of the construction of a large dam on the Flint River south of Atlanta.
  • Founding the Georgia Conservancy to promote environmental awareness among the public and industry.

Jimmy Carter Conservation Achievements as President

  • Passage of the Endangered Wilderness Act.
  • The Passage of the Alaskan Lands Bill which protected more than 150 million acres of wild lands and scenic rivers.
  • Passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.
  • “Super Fund” legislation that provided monies and direction to clean up toxic waste dumps.
  • Establishment of a national energy policy.
  • Legislation to strictly control strip mining.
  • Commissioned the Global 2000 Report which was the first effort to examine and address the threats posed by a changing climate.

To Learn More About Jimmy Carter’s Extraordinary Presidency, look for the upcoming documentary CARTERLAND.

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Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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