Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on the environment.

We’ve all heard stories of close calls with disaster, such as missing a flight that then crashed, killing everyone on board. Yet few but-for-the-grace-of-God tales can match that of George Bird Grinnell, who in 1876 received a telegram from Gen. George Armstrong Custer inviting him to join an expedition against warlike Indians. By declining, Grinnell escaped near-certain death at Little Bighorn.

As John Taliaferro notes in his strapping biography of Grinnell — an extraordinarily productive and influential writer, editor, explorer, ethnologist and conservationist — no record of Custer’s wire has survived, but we have no reason to think it wasn’t sent. Custer was a friend, and Grinnell, at 26, was already well-known as an expert on Plains tribes. Scion of a well-to-do family that could trace its lineage to the Mayflower, Grinnell had been making forays to the Wild West since the summer of 1870, when he and other newly minted Yale graduates dug up dinosaur bones under the tutelage of one of their professors, the paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh.

That experience whetted an appetite for adventure that Grinnell had first felt in the Audubon Park neighborhood of Manhattan (now part of Washington Heights), where he grew up reading dime novels and exploring the bucolic environs. Not only was Audubon Park named after the great portraitist of American birds — the Audubons themselves were the Grinnells’ next-door neighbors. Young George became such a favorite of John James Audubon’s widow, Lucy, that she bequeathed him one of her husband’s most striking paintings, “The Eagle and the Lamb.”

After his summer of fossilizing, Grinnell worked for his father’s securities-trading firm in New York and then as an aide to Marsh in New Haven. The young man began contributing articles to a magazine called Forest and Stream, whose staff he joined in the fall of 1876. Later taking over as editor and publisher, Grinnell stayed with the publication for more than three decades, changing it from must-reading for posh hunters and fishermen to the stern voice of the burgeoning American conservation movement.

His passion for hunting led Grinnell to co-found the Boone and Crockett Club, composed of gentlemen interested in preserving fish and game habitat and in proselytizing for so-called “fair” hunting — no killing of “bear, wolf, or cougar in traps,” for example. One of the most successful efforts mounted by Grinnell and his fellow toffs was stopping the widespread slaughter of birds so that their feathers could adorn women’s hats. In 1886, a volunteer strolled along busy 14th Street in Manhattan, taking a kind of milliner’s census. “Of seven hundred hats observed,” Taliaferro sums up, “77 percent had feathers.” Aided by the fledgling Audubon Societies that Grinnell also had a hand in founding, the campaign was so effective that chastened women began stripping feathers from their hats and publicly burning them. Preaching from his pulpit in Forest and Stream and later as a freelance writer, Grinnell also deserves credit for such laws as the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, which exerted federal control over the hunting of creatures whose survival had previously been left to the vagaries of the states.

Grinnell’s passions were so numerous and varied that he can be an elusive figure, and it doesn’t help that Taliaferro stuffs his biography with too much detail, including plot summaries of the adventure novels Grinnell wrote for boys. But two more of Grinnell’s contributions should be singled out. It was largely thanks to his exploring and publicizing that a magnificent chunk of the Northern Rockies was set aside as Glacier National Park in 1910. And his tireless observation of tribal customs and rituals, as well as his interviews with elders, bore fruit in the two-volume “Cheyenne Indians” (1923), a marvelously detailed record of the tribe before its heritage was almost eradicated by white missionaries, settlers and soldiers. “Of all the books written about Indians,” the anthropologist Ruth Bunzel declared, “none comes closer to their everyday life than Grinnell’s classic.” An even better tribute came from one of his sources when Grinnell visited him for the last time. In sign language the old man said that being in Grinnell’s presence again “was like the sun shining on him.”

Taliaferro doesn’t shy away from the issues posed by his subject’s life, including the ethics of hunting, the level of development that should be allowed in a national park, even homosexuality (Grinnell’s best friend for many years was gay, and Grinnell himself didn’t marry until he was 48 years old). In each case, the author levelheadedly presents the known facts and lets the reader make up his or her own mind.

If you’re inclined to dismiss Grinnell and his good friend Theodore Roosevelt, surely the greatest conservationist ever to occupy the White House, as meddlesome elitists, remember what happened to the nation’s first world-class wild attraction, Niagara Falls. Until the mid-1880s, when elitists on both sides of the international border successfully lobbied for a joint cleanup and government ownership, the falls’ banks were carnivals of piecemeal exploitation, hucksterism, chicanery, circus tricks (e.g. tightrope walkers crossing the Niagara River below the falls) and general neglect. American conservation history has largely been made by men and women who drew upon their wealth and social position to save land and water for us all to enjoy in a natural state.


America's Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West

By John Taliaferro

606 pp. $35