Rightful heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the land of America.
Some years ago on I suggested on these pages that our two greatest presidents were (1) Abraham Lincoln for emancipating all the people of this country, and (2) Theodore Roosevelt for doing the same for all our other living things (Brattleboro Reformer, 17-18 October 2009, p. 23). My assertion regarding Theodore Roosevelt had been clearly substantiated by Douglas Brinkley's masterful 2009 biography of that truly great "wilderness warrior." Now this same author has produced yet another monumental biography, this one centered on the outdoor legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) — one in which the author now suggests that not TR, but rather FDR was our greatest environmental president. As important and far-flung as FDR's heritage in this domain was, I trust that it will become clear why I cannot agree with Brinkley's assessment.
Described in minute detail in this new book is the number and extent of the many national outdoor reserves (parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and forests) that were added to those of TR during the reign of FDR (1933–1945). Also outlined was FDR's support of automobile tourism and construction of scenic highways, as well as of his central role in establishing (for better or worse) the Tennessee Valley Authority and other ecologically hugely disruptive hydroelectric projects. But in my view, FDR's most important contribution to environmental conservation (and, of course, one of his major responses to the great depression), was that in 1933 he created the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The book contains 20 chronological chapters divided into four parts (1882–1932, 1933–1936, 1937–1939, 1940–1945) enhanced by an epilogue (13 pages devoted largely to FDR's elaborate funeral events) plus six tabular appendices that enumerate in detail the many advances in environmental protection that were achieved during FDR's four terms in the White House. The book emphasizes the divergent (and balancing) roles played by Harold Ickes, FDR's preservation-minded Secretary of Interior, and Henry Wallace, his sustainable-use-minded Secretary of Agriculture.
So, to conclude: I must certainly agree with Brinkley that FDR made many important and lasting contributions to the environmental conservation of this country. However, unlike Brinkley, the reason I consider TR's contribution to nature to have been more significant than those of FDR rests on essentially two factors: First, TR was breaking new ground in his many heroic political actions (moreover, with positive global ramifications) in the face of indifference or even significant antagonism to protect our nation's environment. On the other hand, FDR was able to build on previously well-
prepared ground. Second, TR recognized that while a significant portion of our nation's extensive wilderness areas had to remain forever inviolate, he also very clearly saw the need for substantial portions of the nation's undeveloped lands to be subjected to wise use, that is, to be managed humanely and sustainably for timber, livestock, and hunting. On the other hand, FDR, an avid bird watcher, functioned on the basis of what I
consider to have been a more simplistic intuitive urge to protect undeveloped land without a real appreciation of society's unavoidable need to sustainably exploit a substantial fraction of it for agriculture, pasturage, horticulture, and silviculture — for example, his favoring of the National Park Service over the Forest Service (although not so his wife, Eleanor). Thus, in fact, I am in sympathy with Aldo Leopold, one of my
environmental heroes, who at the time was challenging some of FDR's aggressive protectionist vision.
New York: HarperCollins, viii+744 pp. 2016. ISBN 978-0-06-208923-6. $35.
Arthur H. Westing is a resident of Putney and writes book reviews for the Brattleboro Reformer.