Who Were the Most Conservation-Minded US Presidents?

For Presidents’ Day, here’s a roundup of who did the most to protect public lands

By Alison Harford

February 19, 2024

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903. | Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Presidents’ Day pop quiz: Which US president was the greatest champion of environmental protection? 

Answer: Turns out that’s something of a trick question. 

If you were just to measure a president’s eco-achievements by the environmental legislation passed during his administration, it might be a face-off between the legendary conservationist Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, who signed into law bedrock environmental policies such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. But a president can’t necessarily take credit for laws passed by a Congress controlled by the other party, and arguably Nixon only signed those laws because the American people demanded it.

One measuring stick for gauging presidential environmental achievement is to look at how ambitiously a president has protected land. Presidents can do this by employing the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that allows presidents to use executive orders to protect sites of historic or natural importance as national monuments. And until 1976, presidents could unilaterally declare an area a national forest, though that power now rests with Congress. 

So, which presidents have done the most to protect the lands and waters of the United States? Here’s a roundup of those chief executives who are at the top of the class.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1901–1909 

Often called the “Conservation President,” Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was unmatched among US presidents in his passion for preserving wildlands. An avid outdoorsman, hunter, and naturalist, Roosevelt helped to lay the foundation for modern conservation in America. 

Roosevelt created the US Forest Service to stop the wanton logging and mining then occurring on federal lands; during his administration, he created 150 national forests. In an effort to help preserve bird species that were being decimated for fashionable hats, he also created 51 bird preserves, the predecessor of today’s national wildlife refuges.  

Roosevelt helped usher into law the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities (a.k.a. the Antiquities Act), which gave the president the power to protect “historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest in federal ownership” as national monuments. Roosevelt used this new power with relish. He established 18 national monuments in nine states; some of them, like Mount Olympus in Washington State and the Grand Canyon, would eventually become national parks. During a speech at the rim of the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt articulated his view of land conservation in a nutshell: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Roosevelt also established five national parks and added land to Yosemite National Park after taking a camping trip to the Sierra Nevada with Sierra Club president John Muir. 

Altogether, Roosevelt protected some 230 million acres of public land during his administration. It’s fitting that today his words grace the entrance arch to Yellowstone National Park: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” 

Woodrow Wilson, 1913–1921 

It was during Woodrow Wilson’s administration that the National Park Service was established in 1916. At that time, there were 35 national parks and monuments managed by the Department of the Interior; the newly created federal bureau within that department would oversee the parks and all those that came after. (Historical tidbit: The 1916 act called for only five staff members within the National Park Service, with no more than “$8,100 annually expended for salaries of experts, assistants, and employees”). 

Wilson established 13 new national monuments during his presidency, protecting nearly three million acres of land. His creation of the Katmai National Monument—now a national park—was the first monument in Alaska. Wilson is also credited with establishing three of the most famous recreation areas in the East: White Mountain National Forest in Maine and New Hampshire, Shenandoah National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia (now a national park), and Natural Bridge National Forest in Virginia (which would later become part of the George Washington National Forest).  

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933–1945 

Although he is best known for his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt was, like his cousin, dedicated to conservation. 

In partnership with his farsighted and environmentally prescient interior secretary, Harold Ickes, FDR created 140 wildlife refuges, 29 national forests, and 11 national monuments—including the George Washington Carver National Monument, and sites that would later become Zion and Joshua Tree National Parks. He used the Antiquities Act to enlarge popular national monuments such as Death Valley and California’s Muir Woods. 

In 1933, FDR expanded the National Park Service to include national cemeteries, memorials, and military parks. He also signed into law the legislation to create Olympic National Park, Big Bend National Park, and the expansion of Kings Canyon National Park. 

One of his most lasting legacies was his creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal, which employed 3 million men over nine years in jobs such as tree planting and building new campgrounds and trails across the country. By the numbers, the corps established erosion control on 40 million acres of farmlands and revegetated 814,000 acres of rangeland.

Although environmentalists would eventually bemoan the dam-building spree that took place during FDR’s tenure, Roosevelt seems to have intuitively understood the environmental predicaments of industrial society. As he said during a 1940 speech at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, “We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods . . . all of this so greatly that we were brought rather suddenly to face the fact that unless we gave thought to the lives of our children and grandchildren, they would no longer be able to live and to improve upon our American way of life.”

Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–1969 

Lyndon B. Johnson created or enlarged 50 national parks and monuments while president. He added miles of land to the park system by creating the National Trails System in 1968, which created the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. LBJ’s passion for environmental protection started at home—his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, was a passionate conservationist. Lady Bird established the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital in 1964, and eventually took her beautification efforts nationwide as she toured places like Big Bend National Park in Texas and Redwood National Park in California, the latter of which she played a major role in helping to establish. 

Johnson was president during a time of growing environmental awareness, and he signed a number of laws to better conserve natural resources, including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Conservation Fund Act of 1965, and the Wilderness Act of 1964, the law that today safeguards nearly 112 million acres of lands with the highest level of protection possible. 

Jimmy Carter, 1977–1981 

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter made the biggest leap of any president to conserve land in Alaska when he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected more than 100 million acres of land in the Last Frontier. The act created 10 national parks, including the Gates of the Arctic and Kenai Fords National Parks, nine wildlife refuges, two national monuments, and 25 wild and scenic rivers. 

At the beginning of his presidency, in 1977, Carter further protected land within national parks by signing the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act into law, which prohibits surface coal mining within the boundaries of any unit of the national park system. 

In addition to the Alaskan parks and monuments Carter established, he created 21 historic sites, historic parks, and memorials within the Park Service throughout his presidency. Those included the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawai'i, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the District of Columbia, and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York. 

Bill Clinton, 1993–2001 

It’s a quirk of US history that a president from Arkansas would do perhaps more than any of his predecessors since Teddy Roosevelt to protect the unique desert landscapes of the American West. In 1994, Clinton signed into law the California Desert Protection Act, a law spearheaded by Senator Dianne Feinstein that converted Death Valley and Joshua Tree from monuments to national parks, established 69 new wilderness areas covering nearly 8 million acres, and created another 10 national preserves and heritage areas. 

Clinton also preserved the Utah desert when he used the Antiquities Act to create the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, despite strong opposition from Republicans, ranchers, and mining interests. Sierra wrote in 2001 that when Clinton began establishing new monuments in 1996, “mining, oil, and timber companies and their allies in Congress were apoplectic.” Altogether, Clinton used the Antiquities Act to establish 19 national monuments and enlarge three others. 

Early in his administration, Clinton convened a summit in Portland, Oregon, to resolve tensions between loggers and forest defenders—a gathering that ultimately resulted in the Northwest Forest Plan. Perhaps most important, right before leaving office, the Clinton administration put in place the Roadless Rule, which set prohibitions on road construction and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of national forest lands. Despite repeated legal and political attacks, the Roadless Rule remains in effect today. 

Barack Obama, 2009–2017 

In his second term as president, Barack Obama set a new record for his use of the Antiquities Act, establishing 29 new monuments and enlarging five. Many of those monuments preserved sites honoring Black history and the Civil Rights Movement; in one of his last acts as president, he created three more monuments in Alabama and South Carolina, saying in a statement that the sites will help to “ensure that our national parks, monuments, and public lands are fully reflective of our nation’s diverse history and culture.”

In 2010, Obama created the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which promoted “community-based recreation and conservation, including local parks, greenways, beaches, and waterways.” The initiative prompted the creation of new wildlife refuges and plans to improve rivers and waterways across the country. 

His legacy lies mainly in his protection of marine environments: Through the creation of three national monuments, Obama protected 756,010 square miles of coastline and marine ecosystems.

*Extra Credit: Abraham Lincoln, 1861–1865

Lincoln, of course, isn’t usually associated with environmental protection or lands conservation, but rather for his steady leadership during the Civil War and for helping to end slavery in America. But he does have the distinction of signing the law that created the world’s first-ever landscape-scale public park. The Yosemite Park Act of 1864 protected some 38,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias—and in the process opened the way for all of the other presidential accomplishments listed above. 

And if you’re looking for more presidential environmental trivia, check out our Presidents' Day Quiz from a few years ago