America’s Environmental Historian
Excuse us for living, but some author’s works, by subject and content, immediately distinguish them from the numerous others in their field. Douglas Brinkley’s “environmental biographies” on Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are two such books that catapult him into greatness as, what I would call him, America’s environmental historian. With these books, Douglas Brinkley enters the halls of accomplished historians the likes of David McCullough, for whom I hold the highest regard.
Douglas Brinkley has authored 23 books on an array of historical topics and people, including one on Alaska and one on Katrina. He has edited 8 books, including a collection of articles on the environment. But almost as bookends to these works are his 2009 The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and his more recent 2016 Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. These are amazing biographies on TR and FDR, telling their stories: their contributions to America’s environmental posterity; masterly weaving in what was going on in their personal lives; and the unfolding events in our nation’s history in their respective eras.
Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University, Houston, Texas, since 2007 & a fellow at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy. Prior, Brinkley taught at Hofstra University, the University of New Orleans, & Tulane University. His Hofstra years in the 1990’s were unique, teaching from the “Magic Bus,” a roving transcontinental classroom. At the University of New Orleans Brinkley worked closely with historian Stephen Ambrose, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. Ambrose appointed Brinkley director of the Eisenhower Center where he served for five years.
Douglas Brinkley lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife & three children. Brinkley is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, American Heritage, & Audubon. He also serves as Presidential Historian for CNN. His books have earned numerous awards. He received several awards for The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Douglas Brinkley is a member of the Century Association, the Society of American Historians, & the Council on Foreign Affairs. But most of all, Douglas Brinkley has earned high regard for his studies, his books, on our country’s natural history.
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America is, no doubt, Douglas Brinkley’s more entertaining of the two books. Teddy Roosevelt’s “larger than life” personality with his energy and vitality and love for all things natural cannot be surpassed. Just consider this. We are talking about a President who said it was our patriotic duty as Americans to know the species of all the birds in our community! – – Imagine! As I started reading the book, I said to myself, “Douglas Brinkley isn’t going to attempt to write a full biography on TR while relating his conservation accomplishments.” But that’s exactly what the author does. No wonder it takes Brinkley 940 pages to accomplish that task! It’s all here: Teddy growing up in New York City and his education; his political career prior to becoming President; the summer home, Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, New York; the sudden death of wife Alice and his mother both in the same day; TR’s sojourns in the Dakota Badlands; TR’s Rough Rider fame; President McKinley’s assassination, 1901, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becoming President; vowing only to run once for re-election in 1904; TR’s progressive reforms from trust busting to regulating railroads, pure food, & drugs; even the derivative story of the “Teddy Bear”; building the Panama Canal; sending the Great White Fleet around the world; winning the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing peace between Russia and Japan.
What the author is describing is President Theodore Roosevelt, 1901 to 1909, saving over 234 million acres of “wild America” and putting it under federal protection. Teddy sets aside more Federal land, national parks, and nature preserves than all his predecessors combined. In the telling of this achievement, the author includes the people who influence TR and with whom he works: the likes of John Burroughs, naturalist/essayist, one of the early conservationists; Frank Chapman, ornithologist/writer, originator of Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count, Curator at Museum of Natural History; George Bird Grinnell, anthropologist/historian/naturalist/writer, organizer of Boone and Crockett Club/the first Audubon Society/and New York Zoological Society; Gifford Pinchot, forester, Governor of Pennsylvania, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service; and John Muir, naturalist/author/environmental philosopher, explorer, one of the first preservationists, founder of the Sierra Club; to name the major personalities, and there were more.
President Theodore Roosevelt with conservationist John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite, 1906.
The sum total of Teddy Roosevelt’s naturalist achievements, the legacy of his years as President, are staggering. Douglas Brinkley gives order to what TR accomplished throughout the book’s narrative in his maps and appendices at the end of the book; establishing the United States Forest Service, creating five National Parks, signing the 1906 Antiquities Act, proclaiming 18 new U.S. National Monuments, establishing the first 51 Bird Preserves, establishing 4 Game Preserves, and establishing 150 National Forests. Douglas Brinkley also touches on TR’s environmental failures and TR’s struggle to balance “preservation and growth.”
Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America is Douglas Brinkley’s effort to claim FDR’s rightful place as America’s greatest environmental president, despite the fame of his fifth cousin, “Uncle Ted,” in that regard. – -Plus, FDR’s wife, Eleanor, was Teddy Roosevelt’s niece! FDR had three terms as President and elected to a fourth term, 1933-1945, leading us out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II, which he never saw, dying 82 days into his fourth term. But Douglas Brinkley shows us that along the way, FDR left a larger mark on the American environment than any president before or after. Brinkley’s book provides the details to more than reach this bold conclusion. As early as 1936, at The North American Wildlife Conference, held in Washington, D.C., FDR’s efforts to save land, water, and wildlife were recognized. At the Conference, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes proclaimed FDR as the “most environmentally conscious president in American history.” And here again, just as in his book on TR, Brinkley sets FDR’s environmental accomplishments in the framework of his life and the events facing the nation during his presidential years. As I read this book, I was amazed to come to the realization that FDR’s environmental efforts were part and parcel of his programs to get the nation out of the Great Depression. And it is hard to believe that Brinkley is able to describe the many facets of FDR’s indefatigable efforts in a brief 744 pages. It’s all here: FDR’s life growing up at Springwood, his family’s Hyde Park estate in New York state, and his education; his political career leading up to his presidency & overcoming his illness; his New Deal programs to work our way out of the Great Depression; FDR’s neutrality in the 1940 re-election campaign; the Lend Lease Act to aid our Allies; the Atlantic Charter with Churchill in 1941 committing the U.S. to stand with them; the war effort after Pearl Harbor, 1941; even his sojourns to Warm Springs, Georgia, the Little White House; to “deprioritizing” his conservation policies with the American war effort during World War II, while still “guarding” his conservation gains, fully intending to resume them after the war.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sets out to combat the severe unemployment of the Great Depression. In doing so, FDR used his ideas about conservation, the environment, which became synonymous with his economic policies. He used his favorite agency, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to carry out the major thrust of his environmental projects in conjunction with other New Deal agencies such as the WPA, PWA, AAA, plus the other departments from Forestry to Parks, Wildlife, and others. The CCC’s accomplishments over a period of 9 years are hard to fathom, from 1933 until the last of the CCC boys were dismissed in 1942 due to World War II: 3.4 million young men built 13,000 miles of trails; planted 2 billion trees; upgraded 125,000 miles of dirt roads; built state park systems and scenic roadways; saved landscapes that became national parks and forests, monuments, wildlife refuges, and more. Their “Shelterbelt” tree and shrub planting to save the soil of the Great Plains “was the most ambitious afforestation program in world history.” No greater example of the gravity of the situation was “Black Sunday,” April 14, 1939, making the “Dust Bowl” an infamous part of that history, destroying over 50 million acres of topsoil across the Panhandle of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. The accounts of the slow demise of the CCC boys were sad to read as World War II approached and progressed; first the CCC assisting on military bases to the last 82 boys enlisting in the armed services. Naturally, FDR’s efforts were supported by a cadre of talented people: most prominent among them his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt; Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior; Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture and FDR’s new Vice President in 1941; Aldo Leopold, head of the Department of Wildlife Management; Jay Darling, Biological Survey director; and numerous others. Besides the billions of dollars FDR was able to get Congress to appropriate in these hard times, these able managers were skilled at getting FDR to “shift” funds from other programs to theirs!
President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yellowstone, Sept. 1937. He hoped to encourage people to visit the national parks by car.
And just as with TR’s conservation record, FDR’s tally of environmental achievements are looked upon with awe today. Douglas Brinkley again provides at the end of this volume maps and charts of exhaustive detail, including sites established, modifying national forest boundaries, and fascinating statistics on the CCC; creating 140 National Wildlife Refuges, establishing 29 National Forests, establishing 29 National Parks and Monuments. And again, Douglas Brinkley discusses the shortcomings of FDR’s environmentalism with the negative consequences of his building of dams; the TVA’s dams in the east and the Grand Coulee Dam and others in the west. Farm subsidies also started by FDR were subsequently called into question.
Excuse us for living in the twentieth century under the leadership of these historic giants, TR & FDR as our Presidents, though before our time. Teddy was an ornithologist and life-long bird-watcher and a big game hunter. Franklin was into ornithology as a young man too, but became a forester on his Hyde Park estate and was a lifelong fisherman. TR’s conservation was an effort to correct the excesses of the Industrial or Gilded Age. FDR’s environmentalism took the next step. In his own words, “Our new policy goes a step further. It will not only preserve the existing forests, but create new ones.” – -“Territorial set-asides…environmental regulations, farmer education…replanting and ecological research.” FDR led us into our twenty-first century environmentalism. He fought for clean air and water. And at the time of his death in 1945, in the first months of his fourth term, FDR envisioned “global environmentalism” as a core mission of the new United Nations he was putting into place.
Sources: the above two books, plus Wikipedia