Rice’s Brinkley conserves a piece of FDR’s legacy in ‘Rightful Heritage’

Franklin D. Roosevelt is perhaps best known for pulling the United States out of the Depression and leading the country to victory during World War II. In his new book, Rice History Professor Douglas Brinkley shows that Roosevelt should also be remembered for his extraordinary, often unsung role as a great conservationist, particularly of public lands.

0328_BRINKLEY“Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America,” published March 15 by Harper, has earned widespread critical acclaim. “Among the best books on this major historical figure,” Publishers Weekly said in a starred review.

From childhood, Roosevelt was taken by the natural surroundings of his Hudson River home, and as he emerged to greatness, he never lost his interest in preserving natural habitats as state and national parks, wildlife refuges, monuments and forests — especially those lands near American cities. He did so more than perhaps any other president except for his distant relative, Theodore Roosevelt — as Brinkley well knows, having published a similarly extensive biography of Teddy Roosevelt as an environmentalist, “The Wilderness Warrior,” in 2009.

“The big game changer is FDR, because when Roosevelt comes into the presidency, in the midst of the Great Depression, just days after he said, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ he took a ride in a car with Horace Albright … and they drove to Shenandoah National Park, which Roosevelt wanted to see made into a huge eastern national park,” Brinkley said on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” show March 20. “At that point, he said, ‘I want a consolidation of all national monuments, all military battlefields, all big historic sites, the Mall in Washington, D.C., all brought and stripped away from other agencies and brought into an empowered national park service, because it’s about American heritage.’”

According to Brinkley, the country owes Roosevelt much for his crusading efforts to save and improve America’s forests, trails, parks, refuges and natural habitats. Under his watch, 3 billion trees were planted, crucial landscapes were saved, from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Olympic Mountains, and more acreage was conserved (118 million acres) than the size of California.

“Rightful Heritage’’ is broken into four sections: The first takes readers from Roosevelt’s birth to his ascension to the presidency, and the other three chronicle his efforts while in office. More than 700 pages long, the book reflects both how much conservation was a part of his life and the breadth of his achievements.

FDR’s greatest contribution to the preservation and management of American nature came during the New Deal: His “Tree Army,” or Civilian Conservation Corps, not only planted billions of trees but built many thousands of recreational facilities, from roads to trails and cabins, and helped more than 3 million young people without means get through the Depression positively.

“Until you read the book, it’s difficult to comprehend just how skillfully, and with what narrative brio, Brinkley manages to tell this story of one man’s single-minded odyssey, aided and abetted by men like Harold Ickes and FDR’s uncle Frederic Delano,” the Boston Globe wrote in a review.

Brinkley has also authored books on Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

He will discuss and sign the book at 7 p.m. April 28 at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, 2412 Bissonnet St.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.