The Wilderness Warrior
California Lawyer

The Wilderness Warrior

August 2010

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
by Douglas Brinkley
Harper Perennial, 960 pages, $19.99, paperback

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It's a matter of no small political irony that when it comes to environmental policymaking, America's most influential presidents have been Republicans. It was Abraham Lincoln who, in the midst of the Civil War, first provided government protection from development for portions of what ultimately became Yosemite National Park. Eight years later, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating America's first national park - Yellowstone. And a century later, President Richard Nixon's administration presided over the enactment of a profusion of environmental legislation that to this day remains the nation's foundational environmental laws.

But no president in American history did more for the cause of wilderness protection and conservation than Theodore Roosevelt. That fact is confirmed and thoroughly documented in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, an excellent book by Rice University history professor and author Douglas Brinkley. Californians in particular owe an enormous debt to "T. R.," because it was Roosevelt's visionary use of presidential authority that preserved many of the state's natural resources we now take for granted.

The scope of Roosevelt's environmental achievements as president is stunning. Roosevelt quadrupled America's forest reserves; established five national parks and 18 national monuments; by executive decree saved the Grand Canyon - fully 1,900 square miles - from destructive mining interests; founded national game preserves and scores of bird reservations; and created the enormous Tongass National Forest, which stretches 500 miles from north to south and encompasses more than 11,000 miles of rugged, pristine Alaskan shoreline. All told, in the years between 1901 and 1909 Roosevelt set aside for future generations more than 234 million acres of wilderness - an amount equal to one in every ten acres in the United States (including Alaska) and almost half the landmass President Thomas Jefferson had acquired from France via the Louisiana Purchase.

As The Wilderness Warrior recounts, Roosevelt was not shy about using the full weight of his office to promote conservation objectives. In 1906, with little fanfare, he secured passage of the Antiquities Act. For the remainder of his presidency, Roosevelt exploited that law by issuing executive orders to create national monuments across the American West, ignoring howls from developers and Congress alike.

In California alone, Roosevelt created three federal bird reservations, including the Farallon Islands, and four national monuments, among them a redwood grove that Roosevelt named for his friend, the naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir. He established or enlarged a staggering 20 national forests here, from the Klamath National Forest in northernmost California to the Cleveland National Forest near San Diego.

But the book is far more than an encyclopedic rendition of T. R.'s environmental accomplishments as president. It is also a thoroughly entertaining chronicle of the people and times that influenced his ambitious conservation agenda. A particular highlight is Brinkley's colorful account of what the newspapers dubbed Roosevelt's "Great Loop Tour": a 66-day trek mostly by rail through the American West in the spring of 1903 that encompassed 14,000 miles, 25 states, and more than 260 presidential speeches; it is the longest trip by a sitting president in U.S. history.

Along with his breathtaking introduction to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the centerpiece of that expedition was his visit to California. The day after he received an honorary law degree from UC Berkeley, Roosevelt met and struck off for Yosemite with Muir, whom the president had admired for years. The personalities of the two men could not have been more different, but Brinkley reports that they hit it off famously, joined by their love of the outdoors, wildlife, and what T. R. proclaimed "the rugged life." For three days, Roosevelt and Muir hiked and rode through the wilds of Yosemite National Park, sleeping under the open skies. Their trip produced one of the most iconic images of American environmental history: a photograph of Roosevelt and Muir standing at the precipice of Glacier Point, with Yosemite Valley and a thundering Yosemite Falls in the background.

To be sure, The Wilderness Warrior touches on some aspects of Roosevelt's personality and policy record that trouble some environmentalists. Throughout his life, Roosevelt coupled his love of nature with a passion for big-game hunting. (While hiking Yosemite, Muir asked, "Mr. Roosevelt, when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?") And then there was his ardent support for reclamation and irrigation projects that he fully understood would both transform and populate the American West. Brinkley casts a critical eye on the Hetch Hetchy project in Yosemite and federal dams and canals that wound up damaging the Klamath Lake wetlands along California's border with Oregon.

Even so, Roosevelt's abiding legacy is that he saw the spectacular natural resources of his nation as worthy of permanent protection. No American president has ever done as much to further the cause of environmental protection.

Richard Frank is executive director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

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