Posted by: philipfontana | September 29, 2016

Douglas Brinkley

Douglas Brinkley

America’s Environmental Historian


Philip Fontana

     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.

Comments: Please!

Sources: the above two books, plus Wikipedia








  1. Well, you’ve opened a door here for me…a lot of reading to do and a lot of discoveries to make.
    Many thanks for the introduction to this author.

    • Helen, Many thanks for your comments indicating an interest in Douglas Brinkley & these two works! Compliments to you should you take on these books to read.Since the 2 books combined are around 1500 pages, for some people I hoped to at least expose them to an overview of their content. Many thanks, Helen! Phil

      • I have them on order, but will not receive them until the next friends come out to see us from England…a couple of months to wait. I’m a compulsive reader, so these should keep me busy – and learning.

  2. A remarkable collection of history from one author.

    • GP Cox, And here you are commenting as a loyal follower of history yourself! Since the 2 books combined are around 1500 pages, for some people I hoped to at least expose them to an overview of their content. And as I posted this today, in all honesty, my one guilt trip was that I had not visited your site in a while. Yet, here you are commenting. Hope I visit your website soon. I am “out of control” busy with fixing this old house! It’s a wonder that I struggle but write these posts once in a while. Thanks, GP! Got to look at your “About” again to see from where you hail. Phil

      • Take care of priorities first and foremost, Philip! I’m hoping this site will survive long after me – I can hope can’t I? 🙂
        I was born on Broad Channel, NY and grew up in Nassau County, NY, but I moved here to Florida 46 years ago.

  3. Thanks for the comprehensive review. We’ve had the pleasure of visiting a fair number of these cherished parks and monuments, but not nearly enough. And just last year, were enlightened by a day in Hyde Park. Looking forward to reading the books. M 🙂

    • mvschulze, Glad this was useful to you!!! And I am sure you are ahead of us seeing parks & monuments to your credit! Yes, FDR’s Hyde Park! Be sure to visit TR’s Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, too!!! We’ve been to both & they are very different & worthwhile! Glad you want to read these books! While the FDR book is the shorter, it DOES get labor-some in detail. See what you think! And thanks! Phil

  4. Hi Phillip. My 24 year old son has always loved history. He has read many books about this subject. I may just buy these books for him!

    • Cheryl Wright !!! Your son will just love these books!!! One of the NICEST things a parent can do for a child is to say, “I care about you because I know your interests,” by buying him a book. Very nice! Thanks! Phil

  5. Another interesting piece my dear friend! 🙂
    I will take a look at these books for sure, because I love history.
    Hugz & Love ❤

    • Just Patty is here!!! Thanks, Patty! Love you Loving history as I do! When I write a post on American history, I THINK OF YOU & the people of many countries that look at my website. And I say to myself, “They are not interested in this!” But they always are! Hm. Many thanks! You might consider just reading these two book reviews because 1500+ pages is time consuming…..& especially the second book on FDR is so detailed & tedious! –even me saying so! Phil

  6. Hi Phil-
    you wrote a great article….AGAIN! I want to ask if you ever watched the series “The Roosevelts?” I taped it ans watched it at convenient times-it was excellent.
    I also went with Jim and my cousins to Warm Springs, GA and saw the small house where Pres Roosevelt passed away in. I also saw the pool where he would swim with kids who had contracted polio. It was very interesting. I would also like to some day see Hyde Park…
    All my best to you!

    • Marg Krass, Marg, hope my reply is sent notice of by email so you look here. Thanks for the nice compliment from my person with the most comments, YOU! Thank you! Yes, Geri & I have seen that more recent series on the Roosevelts & have it on DVD as well. –So good! Wonderful that you & Jim visited Warm Springs, GA. Quite a story in itself with FDR spending a great amount of time & personal money developing it for those similarly impaired as he was & as a foundation to keep the place going. You must visit Hyde Park & Sagamore, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, TR’s home, both an hour from New York City. Good discussion! Thanks! Phil

  7. Teddy and Franklin in the same breadth? Hmmm. Makes me wonder. Two cousins with very different world perspectives. I’ll need time to mull this one over –maybe sitting on a National Park picnic bench.

    • CHARLES!!! That was the old viewpoint from our “survey of American history.” While actually TR & FDR were very much alike from the positions they held, to viewpoints & style, the environment! Now true, policy-wise, TR would have had difficulty with the size of FDR’s New Deal programs. But TR would have been right there with FDR fighting WWII! Thanks for taking a look here! Phil

  8. Excellent book review, Phil. Certainly piqued my interest in the “conservationist” aspect of Roosevelt history. (Love the Roosevelts.). I’m reading Chernow’s Hamilton biography and Scott’s reading McCullough’s book on the Johnstown flood, but I see this in our future. Thanks for sharing this insight.

    • VIV!!! AND, just thinking of YOU & how this article would be of interest to YOU! And here you are! ESP! Conservation/environment & the Roosevelts certainly are a draw to some people! YOU! When the show Hamilton came to Broadway based on Chernow’s book, I was thrilled because I read it when it was published years ago. And I couldn’t believe this was happening….Like a dream for an old history teacher! And the Johnstown flood, David McCullough’s first book (!) I read years ago after I read his book on the Brooklyn Bridge. What a book, Johnstown! At first I wondered why would he write on such a narrow topic….until I read it!!! And right in your old state of PA! His wife encouraged him to quit his job & write full-time to work on Johnstown! His writing success followed! That book & ALL David McCullough’s 10 books (I read them all) can be found on my website, rt. margin, bottom of the archives, under Book Reviews. You & Scott are on the history trail with your reading & I love hearing about your reading. Many thanks for commenting, Viv. May all things be well with you both & your big family! Phil

  9. […] Douglas Brinkley // Excuse Us for Living […]

    • Ace Worldwide History!!!!!!!!!!! Many thanks for the honor of my article on Douglas Brinkley’s books on TR & FDR appearing on your website! Phil

  10. I met Brinkley in March 1994 at the University of New Orleans. My step-niece, Bobbie, a lesbian woman that her mom wanted me to come out to specifically since that was when I was coming out, and Bobbie was not out, to anyone. Mom suspected, though, and thought that I could help Bobbie be a happier person if she knew other GLBT in the family. We went over to her house and The Majic Bus was parked nearby. Since I’m a big Who fan, I noticed the misspelling but Bobbie told me what it was. He was to give a lecture at UNO in a couple of hours, so I went. The lecture was tied into his book “Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years.” When I met him afterwards, I told him that my uncle had the same name, except they had left out the K. Since I’m don’t wearing my glasses at the computer, I at first read Douglas Brinkley as Douglas Brinley and wasn’t going to read your blog post. But knowing that Philip always has nice posts, I decided to make the text larger and read away. That’s when I saw that it was about Brinkley instead of Brinley. At that point I read away. Google Douglas E. Brinley and you’ll understand why I don’t want to read anything by or about him, uncle be damned.

    • Russel, So nice of you to checkout my latest post! Quite a story on the road to hearing & speaking to Douglas Brinkley, 1994, U of New Orleans, with your step-niece Bobby. And you saw the Magic Bus! I googled Douglas E. Brinley & now understand how you feel! Again, thank you for looking at this & the nice comment! Phil

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