Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior is a comprehensive, almost exhaustive account of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation accomplishments. Most historians usually rank Roosevelt fourth or fifth among America’s many presidents, behind Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it is inarguable that, regarding environmental protection and preservation, Theodore Roosevelt ranks alone at the top. In his seven and a half years as president (from September, 1901 to March, 1909), he established five national parks, 234 million acres of national forests, and fifty-one national bird sanctuaries, and he preserved such iconic archaeological treasures as the Native American Mesa Verde site. All of these accomplishments were made in spite of broad-based opposition from both political parties in Congress and many economic interests, from miners and lumbermen to milliners and fashion manufactures.
Brinkley reveals that Roosevelt’s fascination with nature began when he was a young boy growing up in Manhattan. He collected birds and other animals, preserving them through the use of formaldehyde and other methodsthe fumes from his bedroom were often overwhelming. His collecting range increased to Oyster Bay, Long Island, where his family rented a summer house and where eventually he would build his own home, Sagamore Hill. He also collected specimens from Egypt and elsewhere when his family vacationed abroad. Roosevelt suffered from asthma as a child, and his health was problematic, but almost as an act of will he overcame those physical disabilities, in large part by actively engaging the wilderness. He traveled to New York’s Adirondacks and to Maine, where his collecting of birds and other animals was combined with his lifelong passion for hunting.
Roosevelt’s contribution to conservation and preservation was singular. His personality was such that it was said that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral: He was invariably the center of attention. Brinkley claims that Roosevelt’s manipulation of the press in promoting his own causes, as well as himself, exceeded that of all other presidents, and the humorist Finley Peter Dunne once characterized Roosevelt’s account of the Spanish-American War, in which he commanded the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, as “Alone in Cuba.” However, one of the strengths of The Wilderness Hunter is Brinkley’s inclusion of many other individuals who were central to the environmental crusade. An early influence and inspiration on Roosevelt was his uncle, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, a black sheep in the highly moralistic Roosevelt family because of his amorous proclivities.
Like Theodore, Uncle Robert was a hunter (or, in his case, a fisherman), but he was a major influence on the preservation of fisheries that were being depleted and destroyed, and he served as fishing commissioner of New York. Another ally in Roosevelt’s environmental efforts was George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream. Grinnell reviewed Roosevelt’s Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1884), which related his hunting adventures along with acute environmental observations. This review began a collaboration that led the two men to found the Boone and Crockett Club, established in 1888. The club combined hunting with a strong preservationist ethos and was committed to using legislative means to conserve natural resources. A generation older than Roosevelt, naturalist and essayist John Burroughs was a friend and confidant, as was the younger Gifford Pinchot, America’s first scientific forester.
Before assuming the presidency in 1901, Roosevelt was a member of three earlier presidential administrations, and all three of those presidents had significant conservationist accomplishments, even if they were not as extensive as Roosevelt perhaps desired. Benjamin Harrison’s Forest Reserve Act of 1891 gave the president the power to transfer public lands into forest reserves, a power that Roosevelt later used to great effect. In Grover Cleveland’s last weeks in office in 1897, he established 21 million acres as forest reserves, much of it in the Northwest, where lumbermen were heavily engaged in massive logging activities. Cleveland also appointed Gifford Pinchot as chief forester, and William McKinley subsequently appointed Pinchot as head of the Division of Forestry in 1898.
Roosevelt was elected as McKinley’s vice president in 1900 and ascended to the...
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