The genesis of the West

Douglas Brinkley's new biography tells the story of TR

 

The Bible tells us that God created the Earth in six days.

Now comes historian Douglas Brinkley with his massive The Wilderness Warrior to tell us that President Theodore Roosevelt created the American West in seven years.

From Sept. 14, 1901, to March 3, 1909, Roosevelt forged a glorious legacy for those who revel in the beauty and wildlife of the West.

Where possible, he worked with Congress. Together, for example, they created Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. But if Congress resisted, TR would roll over it, as he did in 1906, when he invoked the newborn Antiquities Act to protect the Grand Canyon — one of 18 times he used the law to set aside national monuments. Overall, he issued executive orders creating 51 bird refuges, four game preserves, and 150 national forests.

Idaho, for example, should rightly call itself Rooseveltia to honor the man who created a dozen national forests and two wildlife refuges in the state. But other states have an equal claim to the name: TR created three national parks or monuments in New Mexico, five in Arizona, four in California, and two in Colorado.

The strength of Brinkley's biography lies in its description of our youngest-ever president's environmentalism. Only Jimmy Carter's 80-million-acre Alaska Lands Act of 1980 comes close to TR's protection of 230 million acres, most of them in the West. And only Richard Nixon's signing of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act Extension and the Endangered Species Act took us in a new environmental direction the way Roosevelt did.

But the actions taken by Carter, Nixon and then Clinton, with his 20-plus national monuments, were peripheral to their presidencies. Brinkley argues convincingly that TR's environmental achievements were at the core of his life, his presidency, and his strategy for creating a great and powerful nation.

TR's protected lands were a declaration that the United States could afford to set aside vast landscapes as symbols of its greatness. But Roosevelt also believed that the protected lands were useful. He believed that the nation's ability to develop industrially and to fight wars rested on men who were brought up leading "strenuous lives." To do that, they needed wilderness and wildlife to test themselves against.

TR lived the strenuous life he preached. As a hunter, he slaughtered thousands of large animals. As an explorer, he almost lost his life on the South American River of Doubt after his presidency. But he was also a scholar and writer, responsible for 35 books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of letters. His books are mostly forgotten, but he remains famous for signing hundreds of proclamations protecting land and wildlife.

TR knew that laws and proclamations alone wouldn't protect land and wildlife. So he recruited powerful protectors: straight-shooting frontiersmen from the Rough Riders who had accompanied him to Cuba and from the African-American Buffalo Soldiers who had fought the Plains Indians.

TR's conservation achievements were enough to earn him a perch on Mount Rushmore. But Brinkley reminds us that Roosevelt was as enthusiastic about developing natural resources as he was about setting some of them aside. Even as he was protecting Florida's birds, he was trying to drain the Everglades to further its development.

In the West, he backed and then implemented the Newlands Act, a 1902 law that led to the draining and damming of thousands of streams and rivers to irrigate millions of acres across 17 Western states.
Economically, his "trust busting" was mostly a matter of imposing restraint on those who called him "a traitor to his class." He had no desire to damage the industrialists and financiers he thought the nation's greatness also rested on. He said, and meant, "Conservation means development as much as it does protection."

Abroad, he was the great colonizer, achieving pre-presidential fame in Cuba at the head of his Rough Riders. In Central America, he carved Panama out of Colombia to build the Panama Canal. Finally, as peacemaker, he received the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the war between Japan and Russia.

In our liberal, environmentalist dreams, we might prefer a Roosevelt who was not an imperialist, who did not have a blood lust for big game, and who was not a social Darwinist.

But that would deprive us of the TR that Brinkley so vividly brings to life. That TR — with his squeaky voice, his puny childhood, his weak and bespectacled eyes, his draft-dodger father — transformed himself into a vigorous, indomitable, war-like man who learned to command the loyalty and obedience of a young and vigorous and brutal nation.

Luckily for that nation, and now for us, he was also a first-rate scientist, an intellectual, a voracious reader and author, and a man of such compassion and justice that he almost always overcame his race and class, although never his nationality, to do the right thing.

The American West could not have had a better founder.

The author is HCN's former publisher.

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