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Review: Douglas Brinkley's 'Rightful Heritage' explores FDR's legacy as environmental steward

It might surprise many to learn that Florida's award-winning state park system grew out of the green vision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We typically remember Roosevelt for his four-term presidency and the successive wars he waged against the Great Depression and foreign enemies. His famous initials, FDR, harken to those of his federal agencies — AAA, CCC, TVA, WPA — and to relief workers, farm subsidies, Social Security and organized-labor protection. Images emerge of him exercising his polio-stricken legs at Warm Springs, Ga., and sitting with Stalin and Churchill at the Tehran Conference. We know well his indelible avuncular smile, often clenching, paradoxically, a Cruella de Vil-style cigarette holder, yet we know virtually nothing about his environmental legacy.

In American minds, the anointed sire of federal conservation is the other President Roosevelt, Theodore. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who affirmed this image in a biography of TR, says it's time to make room on the throne for his distant cousin.

Brinkley writes a lot of big books about white men whose vision and drive shaped America. The suggestion is that history originates with those at the top and trickles down to the rest. Brinkley, however, is also aware that the race, class and sex of his subjects has privileged their stories in the traditional historical narrative. In their lives and legacies, he therefore searches for underexplored particulars that speak to all of us, often resurrecting forgotten or politically suppressed strategies that forged social good.

Brinkley is a sleuth in the archives, turning over every leaf and letter, which is one reason for the size of his books. Thankfully, they are engrossing. His latest is a commanding sequel to his 2009 environmental tome on Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.

Starting with the title of this book, Rightful Heritage, Brinkley draws FDR out from Theodore's formidable shadow, showing, in 717 pages, that the environmental record of cousin equaled cousin, that Franklin, to be sure, was a bona fide tree hugger.

Inasmuch as both Roosevelts loved spending time in nature, their interests also tended to diverge there. FDR emulated his older cousin on many levels political, personal and intellectual, but never published works on wilderness and wildlife as did the prolific TR. Whereas FDR occasionally shot wildfowl, and eventually abandoned the sport, TR relished the challenge of big-game hunting to the end. The Bull Moose's engagements with nature amounted to quests for masculine confirmation, while the Squire of Hyde Park, the Hudson River setting that introduced young Franklin to nature, limited his to mostly noncompetitive activities.

Yet their presidential achievements in conservation reveal few differences. TR was the bold groundbreaker who, against firestorms of protest, laid a foundation on which other presidents could build. His tendency was to set aside large swaths of protected and managed areas and to push for laws to do the same. FDR raised the first floors on TR's foundation, matching its durability brick for brick. He authorized 29 national monuments and parks (including Everglades National Park) and 140 wildlife refuges, and he added millions of acres to national forests. In contrast to TR, he put many more boots on the ground to defend the country's natural heritage.

To quell his own critics, FDR appointed members of the opposing party to head agencies that oversaw conservation programs. Republican Harold Ickes, "Roosevelt's environmental conscience," directed the Department of the Interior for 13 years. Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling, who had attacked the New Deal in his syndicated cartoons, captained the Biological Survey, from which he defended the rights of wildlife.

Moreover, the nation's desperate need for jobs enabled FDR to implement conservation through works projects. His favorite was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which he modeled after programs he had created when governor of New York and when involved with the Boy Scouts. The CCC developed 800 state parks nationwide and established the nucleus for park systems in several states, including Florida. The CCC gave jobs to nearly 4 million, and, through their labor, gave 2 billion to 3 billion trees to environments ravaged by the timber industry. No one loved trees more than FDR.

His conservation went beyond protecting beauty and natural resources. FDR had been an avid birder since childhood, spent time in the field with top ornithologists, surrounded himself with scientific minds and recognized that all things are connected — birds to trees to soil to streams. During a time when top universities rejected ecology as a pseudoscience, New Deal conservation employed ecologists to combat land erosion in the South and Dust Bowl states, and to manage parks, forests, wildlife areas and fisheries.

A birding and fishing trip to the Everglades in the 1920s exposed Roosevelt to an ecological wonderland he believed should be protected. Once in the White House, he challenged the many who said the alligator wasteland lacked the physical appeal required of a national park. With his presidential pen, Everglades became the first national park to prioritize biological assets over beauty.

Instead of moderating his agenda during world conflict, Brinkley writes, Roosevelt "determined that global conservation was a casus belli of winning the war." He continued to create national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges, including one on Sanibel (eventually named for Ding Darling). He encouraged Americans to plant victory gardens and recycle. He called for tighter regulations on extraction and pollution, and he appointed Ickes, despised by big business, as coordinator of petroleum for national defense. During the Tehran Conference, FDR spoke to the shah of Iran about the merits of reforestation, and during the 1944 organizing meeting of the United Nations, he lobbied to make conservation an international concern.

So what are the new particulars we learn from this big book about Roosevelt's life and legacy? FDR more than anyone showed that saving the economy and protecting the nation did not require sacrificing the environment, and he validated conservation as a creator, not a destroyer, of jobs. In each of his presidential campaigns, he elevated environmental protection to a priority concern — setting an important example that too many ignore, even in these climate-change days.

Jack E. Davis is a professor of history at the University of Florida. His latest book, "The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea," will be published in March.

Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America

By Douglas Brinkley

Harper, 752 pages, $35

Review: Douglas Brinkley's 'Rightful Heritage' explores FDR's legacy as environmental steward 12/22/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 5:54pm]
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