From Roosevelt to Moses, New York state parks turns 100
This year marks 100 years since the creation of one of the largest state park systems in the country. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the groundwork for the beautiful scenery and vast exploration sites New York is known for today.
“New York is known as an outdoor recreation playground,” said Will Coté, senior director of public lands at Park and Trails of New York, a statewide advocacy group. “We have it all in New York state.”
The conservation movement
The story of American conservation begins between 1850–1920, in part with a young Roosevelt who was eager for a good adventure in the late 19th century on the outskirts of New York. Traveling with his family to the Adirondack Mountains, he grew an admiration for the environment that surrounded him. At the age of 12, he had a collection of hundreds of birds and animal specimens. By the time he became a teenager, he was considered to be a great woodsman and taxidermist.
As an adult, after the death of his wife and mother on Valentine’s Day in 1884, he chose to travel to the North Dakota Badlands where he could take the time to mourn and reflect, and eventually became a rancher. Known to be an exceptional hunter, Roosevelt took the opportunity to hunt species before they ultimately disappeared. While he did enjoy his explorations and successful kills, his writing shared something else — deep regret.
The loss of such wildlife due to overhunting, like the American bison, made him ponder how much society has failed to protect every one of the exotic species that roam freely in the wild. Along with this, he saw the impacts of overgrazing, which had greatly affected his ranches. With this, he realized how vital it was to preserve natural resources as they were not limitless saying:
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”Theodore Roosevelt
As a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, his academic achievements would pave the way for his career in politics. In 1901, he became president of the United States, marking a turning point for protecting public lands and wildlife. During his presidency, Roosevelt used his authority to secure 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, five national parks and four national game reserves.
In 1905, he established the U.S. States Forest Service with the mission to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forest and grasslands. In the summer of the following year, he established 18 national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was the first U.S law to provide general legal protection of cultural and natural resources of historic or scientific interest on federal lands. In total, he was able to protect 230 million acres of public land.
“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”Theodore Roosevelt, 1913
A New York State of Mind
Historians and environmentalists recollecting his preservation efforts during his term say Roosevelt was a beacon of hope for keeping the environment alive and thriving. To this day, he is being honored at six units of the National Park System: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City and Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, which is just 30 minutes away from another local gem: Niagara Falls State Park.
Niagara was New York’s first state-owned park, established in 1885 — ahead of the park service.
“At the 100-year mark, it's a great reflection point to say ‘here’s everything we have accomplished’ and also to really think about what we want the next 100 years to look like,” Coté said. “Particularly for ensuring that everyone feels welcome to come and that our public land is accessible for all New Yorkers and visitors alike.”
Roosevelt died in 1919. But he is recognized for his endeavors at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, just a road down from his longtime home, Sagamore Hill located in Long Island’s Oyster Bay.
Flash forward to 1924, the New York State Council of Parks was created to forge the state park system that New Yorkers know and love today. Under urban planner Robert Moses, the council was made to plan development and set standard policies for New York state-owned parks, reservations and historic sites. This fledgling system has benefited from better organization and the authority to manage and control what is happening within state parks.
“There’s a lot of restriction on what the law enables a park land to be used for,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “In order for you to use park lands that’s not a park purpose, you have to get the legislator to pass a law to allow that.”
In its first year, the state established the Long Island State Park Commission headed by Moses. The commission oversaw several state parks including Belmont Lake, Bethpage, Fire Island, Jones Beach, Sunken Meadow, Montauk Point, and Valley Stream.
In 1964, Fire Island, considered to be one of the oldest parks on Long Island, was renamed Robert Moses State Park after the 20th-century urban planner finished his tenure a decade earlier. Since 2019, a bill in New York has sought to remove his name in light of Robert Moses’ legacy of gentrification and exclusionary zoning practices in communities of color.
Moses, Roosevelt and his cousin President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired generations of conservationists — including the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal work relief program that employed young men during the Great Depression to steward and shape state parks across the U.S. That spirit exists in local leaders today.
“The profession of operating and supporting parks is a real synergy of all of my passions,” said Kara Hahn, the Long Island deputy regional director for New York State Office of Park, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “When you think about the impact of people’s lives that parks can have, it touches on all of those elements.”
Hahn served as Suffolk County Legislator for 12 years before ultimately stepping down from the position due to term limits. During her time, one of her core focuses was the environment and making sure that local communities across Long Island are preserving and enhancing natural treasures for the future. Additionally, she introduced legislation that increased penalties and fines for illegal dumping and required the county to test groundwater.
“Part of the portfolio of things that I work on now is environmental stewardship and environmental education,” Hahn said. “The parks department is committed to working to restore native habitats, improve our park facilities in ways that make them more resilient and we can have for future generations to enjoy the way we have.”
For the younger generation, it is especially important that they get heavily involved with the environment, Hahn said. Across the parks on Long Island, there are a number of opportunities for children to get a better understanding of what it means to protect their home. For example, Tiny Tots is a program that teaches children ages 3–5 about the protection of wildlife and the different aspects of the environment.
New York state parks have remained a safe haven for many nature lovers. For Hahn, she sees these educational programs as a building block and can help with the next generation of environmental stewards.