A paean to Teddy's preservation work

  • Article by: STEVE WEINBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2009 - 11:02 PM

A look at the life of Theodore Roosevelt through the prism of his environmental work.

The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley

As an adolescent in the late 1860s, Theodore Roosevelt developed a passion for nature that early in the next century would benefit Minnesotans and residents of every other state in the union. Nobody expressed surprise at young Theodore's passion. The newest member of a prominent family, he could afford to travel and did not need to accept menial jobs as a youngster to help his parents survive. Theodore's paternal uncle, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, had already carved out a national reputation as a naturalist; Uncle Robert would later write a groundbreaking book about bird species that thrived near oceans and lakes across the United States.

Although Theodore Roosevelt could have lived leisurely without setting ambitious goals, he decided to seek the top job in politics -- the presidency of the United States. As the new century opened, he became vice president, a heartbeat away. Then the assassin of William McKinley took away a president's heartbeat, and by 1903, when Douglas Brinkley opens his massive new book, "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America," Roosevelt had succeeded McKinley.

In that year, Roosevelt began using the powers of the presidency to set aside land nationwide for the recreation of future generations. Not everybody agreed with this program, meaning Roosevelt had to resist special interests who would have preferred to cut timber, mine the land, build commercial districts and construct homes rather than opt for wilderness designation.

Those special interests are still with us, giving the history book a contemporary story line.

Roosevelt, the outdoorsman who became known by a more contemporary word, environmentalist -- it's a familiar story, generally. But none of Roosevelt's many biographers has built such a massive narrative around that aspect of his personality.

Brinkley, a professional historian who ranks as one of the most prolific academics writing books for general readerships, has performed superb research at archives across the nation to fill the book with compelling details.

Among the features of the book are lists and maps demonstrating Roosevelt's environmental legacy. One of those lists carries the heading "National Forests Created or Enlarged by Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1909." Of the 150 individual places, Minnesota accounts for one, labeled "Superior." Neighboring North Dakota also accounts for one, as does nearby Michigan. Minnesotans who travel to the west beyond North Dakota will especially appreciate the Roosevelt-inspired national forests, national parks and national game preserves most heavily concentrated in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

After leaving the presidency, still a vigorous and relatively young man, Roosevelt did not halt his crusade on behalf of ecology. As Brinkley writes, "Freed from the restraints of public office, Roosevelt amped up his recriminations against despoilers, finding solace in the world's deepest, darkest forests. ... He saw the planet as one single biological organism pulsing with life, and championed the interconnectedness of nature as his own Sermon on the Mount. As forces of globalization run amok, Roosevelt's stout resoluteness to protect our environment is a strong reminder of our national wilderness heritage, as well as an increasingly urgent call to arms."

Steve Weinberg is the author of "Taking on the Trust." He lives in Missouri.

  • THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR

    By: Douglas Brinkley.

    Publisher: Harper, 940 pages, $34.99.

    Review: Some of this ground has been covered before, but historian Douglas Brinkley has brought a wealth of scholarship to the topic of Roosevelt's environmental legacy, and he presents it in a way that is interesting and accessible to the general reader.

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