By Jane Beathard
WEST PORTSMOUTH, Ohio – President Theodore Roosevelt himself (i.e. Josef Otmar) kicked off the 100th birthday celebration of the former Roosevelt Game Preserve — now part of Shawnee State Forest and State Park — in Scioto County on Aug. 19.
The “Father of the American Conservation Movement” told those assembled about his life, his many outdoor adventures and how he became an advocate for restoring the nation’s decimated forests and seldom-seen native animals.
“Many are those who share my conservation values,” he told the audience.
It was a fitting way to begin the centennial celebration of Ohio’s oldest state-operated nature center.
Before there were state parks, wildlife areas and forests, there was the Roosevelt Game Preserve.
It was a different place from today’s wildlife areas, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Bought with hunting license proceeds and dedicated by Gov. Harry L. Davis in December 1922, it was named in tribute to the 26th president who had died just months earlier.
Fifteen-thousand acres of the Roosevelt preserve aimed to showcase wild turkey, pheasants, raccoons, white-tailed deer and black bear – animals that were rarely seen in Ohio in those days due to habitat loss and over-hunting.
Another 5,000 acres were set aside for reforestation, since most of the state’s wooded hill country had been cut bare in order to fire the area’s iron furnaces during the Civil War.
The Roosevelt preserve was more of a “zoo,” where people could come to see deer, bear and other critters held behind fences. These animals bred and multiplied as part of an overall plan to eventually release them into the wild.
By contrast, today’s wildlife areas are more about creating and maintaining healthy habitats where native animals can flourish and multiply naturally.
The preserve had some success stories, and some not-so-successful stories.
The most successful was restoration of white-tailed deer in southern Ohio. Many bred at the preserve were released in 1930. And by 1943, Adams, Pike and Scioto counties had sufficient numbers to host a hunting season.
A not-so-successful effort involved wild turkeys. Those raised at the preserve failed to thrive in the wild. Ohio eventually imported birds trapped in southern states to restore the state’s now-flourishing population.
In the 1930s, more than 2,000 men – members of the old Civilian Conservation Corps – worked to build the preserve’s trails, lakes and roads.
Until 1949, the preserve was under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Fish & Game Commission — then part of the Department of Agriculture. That commission eventually became the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
In 1933, 400 acres were sectioned off the preserve as a state park. Initially, it was called Portsmouth State Park. That eventually changed to Shawnee State Park in honor of the Native Americans who once lived in the area.
Although Roosevelt accomplished much in his administration as a trust buster, canal builder, and mediator of disputes at home and around the world, he is best known today as a leader in preserving America’s great outdoors.