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Purple mountain majesties

Teddy Roosevelt’s battle to preserve wild America

President Roosevelt was able to promote conservation by taking trips with well-known preservationists like John Muir, shown here in Yosemite. President Roosevelt was able to promote conservation by taking trips with well-known preservationists like John Muir, shown here in Yosemite. (Mpi/Getty Images)
By Kathleen Dalton
September 6, 2009

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Douglas Brinkley’s dramatic and entertaining “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America’’ tells us how an earlier generation saved endangered animal species and huge expanses of threatened wilderness. Roosevelt’s first 50 years of life can be understood anew, Brinkley argues, by concentrating on his passionate love of nature and his fight for conservation. Not quite a full biography but much more than a study of Roosevelt’s conservation policies, this grand book is about Teddy and the outdoors.

Young “Teedie,’’ though a Manhattanite, learned to collect birds in his own juvenile museum of natural history, and he made his troubling asthma less daunting by getting into the woods to observe nature and climbing mountains in search of game. Roosevelt family members were, according to Brinkley, early animal-rights advocates; this includes TR’s Uncle Rob, who wrote what Brinkley calls “the mid-nineteenth-century equivalent of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring.’ ’’ Rob urged his countrymen to clean up rivers and streams to save America’s fish, and converted his young nephew to conservation. Roosevelt’s sojourn as a rancher in the Dakotas, which Brinkley judges as his salvation from a near nervous breakdown in 1884, ignited his passion for the West. Born again under the magic of the stars, Roosevelt turned eager to urge others to recover from what Brinkley calls a “nature-deficiency disorder’’ and to preserve the beauty of wild nature. So Roosevelt wrote about what he loved.

By the late 1880s, Roosevelt made himself “the authority on big game,’’ a major historian of the West, a serious naturalist, and a fierce defender of game-protection laws. Identifying himself more and more with nature and its salvation, Roosevelt sought out allies. TR developed close friendships with C. Hart Merriam, a US Biological Survey mammalogist, and George Bird Grinnell, the hunter-naturalist editor of Forest and Stream. Merriam enlisted TR’s aid in his survey of animal species across America, and they carried on a 30-year conversation about wildlife protection. Together Grinnell and Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club for conservation-minded big-game hunters and lobbied successfully for federal big-game protections.

Brinkley, like his late co-author Stephen Ambrose, is a talented chronicler of the heroic deeds of bands of brothers, and this book is full of appealing portraits of TR’s “subtle brotherhood of men’’ - hunters, nature writers, naturalists who turned activist, and nature enthusiasts - who joined Roosevelt to lobby for game and forest protection.

The campaign for America’s wilderness gained leverage when Roosevelt entered the White House in 1901, but Brinkley shows that opponents were laying in wait. Bird plunderers and lumber companies outnumbered the Audubon Society. To get conservation bills passed, Roosevelt relied on his friendship with Congressman John Lacey of Iowa who risked his political career for the cause. Lacey helped Roosevelt extend the national parks, create a national forest reserve system, and pass the Antiquities Act of 1906, which preserved the Grand Canyon when it was threatened by despoilers. Despite his historic accomplishments, Lacey was turned out of office by unsympathetic voters.

Roosevelt soon discovered that enforcement of game protection required more manpower than he had available, and Brinkley again shows TR expanding his band of conservation brothers. He appointed some of his Spanish-American War buddies who had served with him in the Rough Riders to act as sheriffs and game wardens in the West. In Florida, he befriended game wardens like Paul Kroegel, the “Pelican Watcher,’’ who volunteered to patrol rookeries on Pelican Island.

Once TR created federal bird reservations, Kroegel and neighboring warden Guy Bradley patrolled the Florida coast in motorboats. Armed commercial plume hunters (selling feathers for fashionable ladies’ hats) rejected the federal government’s right to curb their trade and their slaughter of nesting pelicans. Soon a “Feather War’’ broke out with shots fired on both sides. Finally, commercial hunters shot Bradley to death. Their crime went unpunished. The tragedy enraged Roosevelt and heightened his determination to fight even harder for the protection of birds.

Roosevelt joined with a group of friends to found the Bronx Zoo to introduce the public to rare animals and teach them about conservation. Later the zoo was instrumental in saving the buffalo. A master of public relations, Roosevelt took two famous trips, one with natural history writer John Burroughs to Yellowstone Park and one with preservationist John Muir to Yosemite, which made the beauty of America’s natural wonders front-page news. He used his “bully pulpit’’ to make conservation more popular.

Called a socialist when he extended federal protections over 234 million acres of land, Roosevelt answered that every society needs police and firefighters to protect the average citizen, and no one calls that socialism. He fought back against Congress and used the authority given him by the Antiquities Act to expand protected lands without legislative consent.

This compelling and impressively well-researched book provides new information about the preservation of cliff dwellers’ and other archaeological sites as well as the saving of the Petrified Forest, sequoias, redwoods, and selected Native American ancestral lands. It is by far the best and most detailed story of the Roosevelt administration’s fight for conservation.

Environmental historians may wonder where the women preservationists went, but history buffs and general readers will treasure Brinkley’s latest success.

Kathleen Dalton teaches history at Phillips Academy and is the author of “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life’’ (Vintage, 2004).

THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
By Douglas Brinkley
Harper, 940 pp., illustrated, $34.99

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