Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, worked at the Interior Department from 1971 to ’77.
It’s campaign time, 1944. Franklin D. Roosevelt is running for an unprecedented fourth term because the middle of a worldwide conflict is not a good time to break in a new president. But he’s having trouble staying on message. To him, the threats posed by the German and Japanese war machines are less engaging than policies to ensure healthy forests. At one whistlestop, a voter ribs the president for dwelling more on “trees, soil, and water . . . than [on] the war in Europe and the Pacific. ‘I fear,’ FDR replied, ‘that I must plead guilty to that charge.’ ”
Trees, soil and water must have been welcome distractions from global savagery, but as portrayed in “Rightful Heritage,” Douglas Brinkley’s high-spirited and admirably thorough new book on FDR, the 32nd president was a tree-hugger from way back. He was born in New York state, which had fostered a conservation ethic starting in the late 19th century by setting aside large tracts of forest in the Adirondacks and Catskills to be “forever kept as wild.” Nature loomed large for a boy who played along the Hudson River and whose mother had been raised on an estate designed by Andrew Jackson Downing, the country’s first great landscape architect. Roosevelt was recognized as “a local authority on birds” from a young age and grew up to be a crack sailor and a partisan of wild lands. To a man of such background and tastes, the presidency offered what his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt would have called a “bully” opportunity. Franklin left an environmental legacy second to none (albeit overshadowed by other aspects of his presidency).
In support of this thesis, you can list, as Brinkley does, the major landscapes that Roosevelt incorporated into the national park and wildlife refuge systems: the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, Okefenokee Swamp, the Olympic Mountains, the Great Smokies, Isle Royale in Michigan, Joshua Tree, Capitol Reef in Utah, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Cave, Kings Canyon, the Everglades, Big Bend and the Desert Game Range in Nevada. You can cite the many reforestation projects undertaken by the young men of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. But perhaps the most dramatic evidence has to do with waterfowl. Wild ducks and geese were in a bad way until Roosevelt and his lieutenants went to work. Their efforts led to a doubling of the U.S. waterfowl population between 1934 and 1941. (Some urbanites may find it hard to believe that without those policies, the now-ubiquitous Canada goose might be extinct.)
Brinkley is good at showing how strands of Roosevelt’s life united to shape approaches to preservation that other presidents might have missed. Take an idea to raise money for waterfowl conservation which had been working its way through Congress. It culminated in the Duck Stamp Act of 1934, which requires all waterfowl hunters over 16 to buy, in addition to a state hunting license, a federal stamp, the proceeds from which go to acquiring wetlands and funding wildlife refuges. As a lifelong philatelist, Roosevelt “loved stamps too much to allow each year’s duck issue to be anything but irresistible.”
Roosevelt was a great believer in bipartisanship, and the director of what was then the Biological Survey in the Agriculture Department (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department) was Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a Republican who, in his previous job as a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, lampooned the Democratic president repeatedly. At FDR’s request, Darling designed the first duck stamp, featuring “two striking mallards in flight descending on a lake.” From this literally splashy beginning evolved a much-anticipated annual contest — still being held — in which wildlife artists vie to submit the winning design (and to rake in the income generated by fans who buy reproductions). In addition to excitement and artistry, the program has generated more than $500 million through 2009, which has been used to purchase 5 million acres of waterfowl habitat.
Besides Darling, Brinkley paints vivid portraits of the peppery Harold Ickes, greatest of all interior secretaries, and two Ickes opponents within conservationist ranks: Gifford Pinchot, who had headed the Forest Service under Teddy Roosevelt, and Henry Wallace, who supervised the Forest Service as secretary of agriculture from 1933 to 1940. Pinchot and Wallace lobbied FDR not to support Ickes’s fondest wish: that the Forest Service be transferred from Agriculture to Interior to form a Department of Conservation. Brinkley suggests that the timing was wrong. Ickes made his push in 1940, an election year, and the expected opposition of Westerners (the move almost certainly would have meant reduced harvests of federal timber) may have jeopardized the president’s chances of winning a third term.
Brinkley styles “Rightful Heritage” as a sequel to “The Wilderness Warrior,” his account of Theodore Roosevelt’s equally stellar environmental record. In the new book, Brinkley can be superficial when it comes to legal issues — it’s not always clear what authority FDR is drawing on when he takes a pro-environmental stance. And it’s misleading to say, as Brinkley does, that Missouri was “a Confederate state during the Civil War.” Missouri had its share of Confederate sympathizers, but the state never seceded from the Union.
More than any list of projects completed or tally of species saved, Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy as a conservationist may have been a kind of enlightened nostalgia. He wanted Americans to see the value — not so much dollars-and-cents as spiritual — in hanging on to as much unspoiled nature as they possibly could. That, in words spoken by Roosevelt and borrowed for Brinkley’s title, is our “rightful heritage.”
By Douglas Brinkley
Harper. 744 pp. $35