A tale of two Roosevelts

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


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.

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