A tale of two Roosevelts

Two books examine how both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt helped build an American conservation ethos.

 

books-fdr-mthood-jpg
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt drive past Mount Hood on their way to dedicate Timberline Lodge in 1937. There, Roosevelt said, “I take very great pleasure in dedicating this Lodge, not only as a new adjunct of our National Forests, but also as a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come.”
Bettmann/Getty Images
At his recent confirmation hearings, Donald Trump’s new Interior Secretary, former Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., frequently evoked his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, comparing their shared devotion to wildlife conservation. While what the future holds remains to be seen, few presidents are more closely associated with protecting nature than Theodore Roosevelt. Until recently, though, his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, remained relatively unsung as a conservationist. Now, two books examine how these men helped preserve the nation’s natural treasures and build public institutions dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and wilderness. The books provide an unexpected contrast in heft — Darrin Lunde’s The Naturalist weighs in at a reasonable 352 pages, largely because it confines itself to exploring Theodore Roosevelt’s work as a private citizen. Douglas Brinkley, however, tackles the entirety of Franklin Roosevelt’s conservation career, starting from his childhood, making for an exhaustive 752-page volume, Rightful Heritage.


TR’s eight years in the White House are almost entirely ignored in The Naturalist, though as president he enacted powerful conservation laws and designated over 50 national parks. Instead, the book focuses on the time he spent hunting and writing — pursuits that were impossible for him to enjoy as commander-in-chief.

Lunde traces Theodore’s love of nature to his youth, when the sickly boy acquired a seal skull as his first natural specimen. He championed scientific inquiry, writing books and pamphlets on birds and mammals throughout his lifetime. A trilogy of hunting books penned and published in the 1890s highlights TR’s ability to articulate conservation principles, without neglecting the economic benefits of properly managing the country’s natural resources. “I wanted to make a plea for manliness and simplicity and delight in a vigorous outdoor life as well as to try to sketch the feeling that the wilderness, with its great rivers, great mountains, great forests, and great prairies, leaves on one,” he wrote. “The slaughter of the game, though necessary in order to give a needed touch of salt to the affair, is subsidiary after all.”  This kind of thinking placed the 26th president nearly 50 years ahead of his peers in conservation theory. His cousin would unite the two concepts during the Great Depression with environmental public works projects like the Civilian Conservation Corps, also known as FDR’s “tree army.”

Both Roosevelts loved the great outdoors — Franklin fancied himself a Hudson River silviculturist and farmer, while Theodore built much of his public persona as an outdoorsman. But Brinkley and Lunde suggest that life-altering illnesses profoundly shaped their views on preserving the wilderness. Plagued by asthma as a child, young Theodore spent most of his time indoors, reading adventure tales in his father’s windowless library, which fueled his dreams of life in the country. Had he been healthy, he would have spent more time outdoors, less time reading, and, Lunde suggests, might not have been as passionate about wild places as an adult. His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was a “muscular Christian” who believed that a righteous life included moral and physical fitness. He was convinced of the curative power of nature and often took his son on “restorative” rides in open air-carriages. As an adult, Theodore advanced from weekend backpacking excursions to month-long treks in the wild, often virtually unassisted.

After decades spent sailing, fishing and tree planting, Franklin’s devotion to the outdoors only intensified after polio ravaged his limbs at the age of 39. He harnessed the therapeutic powers of nature, and though bathing in the buoyant waters of Warm Springs, Georgia, did not bring about a miraculous recovery, his improvement helped convince him that all Americans were equally entitled to enjoy such natural treasures. Ironically, FDR’s own planned super-roads and hydraulic power plants would cut through the wilderness and disturb wildlife populations, impeding the animals’ abilities to migrate and repopulate. Yet no president has done more to protect America’s wilderness; Brinkley’s appendices detail every land parcel he placed under federal protection, and it takes 100 pages to list them all.

“Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore, they just wave at the bills as they go by,” mused humorist Will Rogers on FDR’s frequent use of executive privilege. It seemed there wasn’t an open space or imperiled creature that the president didn’t want to protect, and from 1933 to 1945, he conserved 118 million acres, caused more than 3 billion trees to be planted, and founded hundreds of federal migratory bird sanctuaries. Cedar Breaks, Joshua Tree, Aransas and many other jewels of the natural world owe their protection to FDR. These battles weren’t won easily; Brinkley illustrates the resistance the president faced from Congress, and the bureaucratic jiujitsu required to carry out his environmental agenda.

Convincing Americans of the value of wilderness preservation was (and remains) an uphill battle. The Roosevelts cleverly invoked practical arguments, noting that conservation and restoration could aid ordinary people by providing long-term solutions to problems like soil erosion and wildlife depletion. They also implored their fellow citizens to think of future generations. Still, in the end, the reader comes away believing that these two presidents fought so hard for wilderness, simply because they truly loved it.

The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of American Natural History
Darrin Lunde
352 pages, hardcover: $28.
Crown Publishing, 2016.

Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America
Douglas Brinkley
752 pages, hardcover: $35.
Harper, 2016.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.