It’s rare when a 900-plus-page book keeps you interested, even riveted. But Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (HarperCollins, $34.99) keeps the reader focused in this epic biography of the life of our “naturalist president.”
Most people know that that “Teddy” Roosevelt (a nickname he hated) was a fan of the wild, but the expansive scope of our 26th president’s conservation accomplishments, covered with fascinating detail by Brinkley, will likely surprise many.
The next time you visit national treasure such as Devils Tower, the Grand Canyon or the Petrified Forest, you can thank Roosevelt and his dedication to conservation. Without his efforts, these vast ranges of wilderness would most likely have been obliterated long ago by industrialization.
But Roosevelt’s environmental accomplishments extend beyond these well-known wilderness vacation hotspots. His interest in ornithology, the study of birds, at a young age would later inspire him to set aside land across the U.S. for a number of federal bird reservations — from Flattery Rocks in Washington state to Pelican Island in Florida, the nation’s first national wildlife refuge to protect brown pelicans and other native birds that nest on the island.
“To him the destruction of pelicans — and other nongame birds — was emblematic of industrialization run amok,” writes Brinkley.
Roosevelt also created a number of national game preserves, forests, parks and monuments, many of them with the swipe of a pen and the pronouncement, “I so declare it.” This infuriated his fellow Republicans, who were often forced to accept his declarations as a fait accompli, but his bold (and sometimes legally questionable) actions ultimately safeguarded more than 230 million acres of wild America from 1901 to 1909.
But thankfully, Brinkley’s book isn’t merely a detailed list of Roosevelt’s greatest environmental achievements as president.
With compelling storytelling, the author provides insight into why Roosevelt was so passionate, to the point of obsession, about saving America’s wild places. Roosevelt’s deep appreciation for the wild was cultivated from a childhood spent collecting animal specimens and camping in wild areas like the North Woods of Maine.
It was this lifetime of lessons in wilderness appreciation that later led Roosevelt to take bold stances on conservation at a time when conservation was anathema to an ever-consuming capitalist society, eerily similar to today’s “Drill, baby, drill” culture.
But Roosevelt’s passion for wild places and big game hunting doesn’t mean he was just another Western cowboy. His Harvard education in Darwinian biology and naturalist studies “gave him a perspective on Western wildlife that no ordinary cowboy or hunter could have had.” After surveying the Dakota Territory in 1887 and finding only a smattering of elk, buffalo or pronghorn, he “understood that the ‘winning of the West’ had been accomplished at the expense of natural resource management.”
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As president, Roosevelt pressed on with his conservationist agenda despite pressure from greedy capitalists and shortsighted legislators who couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
One of Roosevelt’s greatest legislative victories, the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, allowed him to bypass the characteristically lethargic Congress by giving presidents “unencumbered power to unilaterally declare the protection of landscapes of archaeological, scientific and environmental value federal land.”
As Brinkley notes, Roosevelt’s genius as a conservationist was that “he never listened to other politicians about how to get things done.” Instead, his “instinct was to turn to the professional biologists, foresters and field naturalists first.”
Roosevelt served as president of the United States more than a century ago, but with the catastrophic environmental problems that we face today, his hard-hitting, no-holds-barred conservation policies have never been more relevant. In a time when lobbyists and industry are given more weight than scientists in ecological debates and while the planet continues to be plundered, politicians would do well to take a chapter from Roosevelt’s book.
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