NYT hails Douglas Brinkley’s new book on FDR as the great conservationist

Historians in the News
tags: FDR, Douglas Brinkley

Franklin D. Roosevelt was many great things: our greatest economic president, pulling the United States out of the Depression; our greatest foreign policy president, leading the country to victory during World War II. But he was something else, too: our greatest environmental president, leaving a larger mark on the warp and weft of the American landscape, for good and ill, than any chief executive, before or since.

Consider: Roosevelt created 140 national wildlife refuges; established 29 national forests and 29 national parks and monuments; and enrolled 3.4 million men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built 13,000 miles of trails, planted more than two billion trees and paved 125,000 miles of roads. Not all his achievements were so eco-friendly: He built dozens of ­habitat-destroying hydroelectric dams and initiated what eventually became the national highway system, solidifying America’s future as a suburban car culture.

This was no incidental résumé, as the historian Douglas Brinkley makes clear in his enjoyably exhaustive new biography “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roose­velt and the Land of America.” Roosevelt thought deeply about the environment, more so than perhaps any other president save his distant relative and namesake, Theodore Roosevelt — as Brinkley well knows, having published a similarly extensive biography of Teddy Roosevelt as an environmentalist, “The Wilderness Warrior,” in 2009.

The Roosevelt cousins make for a satisfying historical diptych. Both came from wealth, and as children were exposed to the best that the American outdoors had to offer. Relatively early in their careers, they came to believe that capitalism had been allowed to run roughshod over much of America’s natural beauty, and that it was the government’s duty to set things right.

There were differences between them, starting with their personalities: Teddy, who as governor of New York had a boxing ring set up in his Albany mansion and was often accused of preserving land so he could have more animals to kill, versus Franklin, who preferred leisurely fishing to backcountry hunting and, in his free time, could often be found doting on the trees at his Hyde Park estate. ...

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