by Whit Gibbons

July 22, 2007

The brochure for Theodore Roosevelt Island said, "While you are here, savor the sounds of the outdoors as you travel through marsh, swamp, and forest." Indeed I heard the warbling trill of gray treefrogs, the swish of a black rat snake as it slithered from the boardwalk into a stand of cattails, and the raucous insistence of a blue jay that something was amiss in its world.

But all of these sounds of nature were heard during three to eight minute intervals between the roar of giant jets only a few hundred feet overhead as they descended toward Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. The sounds of jet engines were so loud that I winced when one went over, and the anticipation of when the next one would arrive detracted from the wildlife experience.

The island is a national memorial managed by the National Park Service and located in the middle of the Potomac River between Arlington, VA, to the west, and the Watergate Hotel and Kennedy Center to the east. The more than half-mile-long island is reached by a footbridge (no cars or bikes allowed) that leads to walking trails and boardwalks. The complex of natural upland hardwood forests and lowland marsh and river swamp with cypress trees provides opportunity for a visitor to see impressive trees and an array of wildlife. The National Park Service has done a fine job of preserving most of the island as a wildlife sanctuary with its own natural beauty.

Theodore Roosevelt Island has potential as a wonderful retreat for anyone wanting respite from the stress of Washington politics. Healthy looking joggers passed me by, and an occasional person was seen sitting on a park bench enjoying a book. And the concept of a wildlife sanctuary near the nation's capital is a fitting tribute to the most environmentally oriented president we have ever had. Except for the mood-shattering commercial jets.

Nonetheless, on the mile-long walk along the Woods Trail, Swamp Trail, and Upland Trail I saw the rat snake mentioned above and a garter snake, 14 lizards (mostly five-lined skinks and a couple of ground skinks), and countless birds. I feel certain that during spring and fall, the wildlife scene becomes even livelier as migrating birds move through the area and other wildlife goes through spring courtship behaviors and autumn pre-hibernation activities.

Roosevelt is the youngest person to have become a U.S. president, was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and was responsible for the building of the Panama Canal. But to me his accomplishments in behalf of the environment and natural wildlife are his most impressive attributes, especially in regard to contributions to our country. As president, T. R. Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service and worked to have more than 70 natural areas, including the Grand Canyon, officially designated as national monuments, wildlife refuges, or national parks. His visage on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln is well deserved.

Theodore Roosevelt was a century ahead of the times when he said the country needed to take a careful look at "what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when soils have been . . . washed into the streams, polluting the rivers. . . ." We can only wonder what his presidential response to global climate change, the destruction of tropical rain forests, and the overall degradation of the world's natural habitats and biodiversity would have been.

The ranking from best to worst president of the United States will of course never be agreed upon. But Theodore Roosevelt had to be among the best, and if the debate focuses on conservation, the environment, or wildlife, he would surely be the winner. A presidential candidate who reiterated Roosevelt's sentiment from a century ago that "There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country" would still get my vote. And I bet if Roosevelt were president today he would find a solution for the interminable noise created by those airplanes flying over his park.

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