Lovers of our national parks and monuments may be familiar with President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech at the Grand Canyon in 1903: “Leave it as it is,” he implored the crowd, then went to work on saving 230 million acres for what became known as “America’s best idea.” Now, as these public lands come increasingly under siege by private interests abetted by lobbyists and politicians, essayist, nature writer and environmental activist David Gessner asks what those words meant then and if they matter now. On a quest to understand Teddy Roosevelt and his passions, Leave It as It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness digs deep into a cultural and political history as complex as Roosevelt himself. Insightful, observant and wry, writing with his heart on his well-traveled sleeve and a laser focus on the stunning beauty of the parks, Gessner shares an epic road trip through these storied lands.
With his newly college-graduated nephew riding shotgun, Gessner begins where Roosevelt’s love affair with the West first took hold, in the South Dakota Badlands. Riven with grief after his wife and mother died on the same day late in the 19th century, the future president left behind his young daughter and searched for solace as a rancher amid the wildlife and wilderness. And while these 21st-century campers find that much has changed—Gessner bemoans the “Disneyfication” of such areas—they celebrate the fact that bison surround (and thoroughly blemish) their car as the animals wander by their campsite. It was Roosevelt, after all, who saved this iconic beast from extinction.
Weaving an often candidly critical biography of the 26th president through this account of the parks he created, Gessner eventually arrives at Bears Ears in southeastern Utah. After conferring with the Native American tribes for whom these lands are ancestral and sacred, President Barack Obama proclaimed it a national monument as he left office in 2016. In 2017, President Donald Trump promptly shrank the area by 85%, essentially inviting commercial interests to encroach.
Today, “leave it as it is” may no longer be possible for the parks. Can they still be saved from corrupting human interests? Roosevelt, Gessner insists, would know what to do.