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Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Teddy Roosevelt's Conservation Crusade

By Matt Vincent
Special to ESPNOutdoors.com

Great books are like buried treasure. The wealth hidden inside often comes from the past, assembled long ago under far different circumstances. But all things valuable appreciate over time, whether it's a cache of old Spanish coins or simply small nuggets of wisdom.

Thus, a great historical book can be viewed as a priceless treasure, especially as we struggle to make sense of our own place in history in a modern world that seems dangerously adrift on seas of uncertainty.

Such is the case with Douglas Brinkley's latest book, The Wilderness Warrior, Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.

In order to detail the story of Theodore Roosevelt, America's greatest conservationist, and the legacy he left behind for future generations, Brinkley has meticulously crafted what is destined to become the definitive biography of the 26th U.S. President and the origin of the modern conservation movement.

Call it fate. Call it divine intervention. Call it blind luck. But the moral of Wilderness Warrior is that America would have been a far poorer place today without Theodore Roosevelt at the helm at the turn of the 19th century. In fact, Brinkley's book should be required reading for anyone who has ever hunted, fished or enjoyed the countless benefits of protected lands and public access to the last wild places left in America.

Between 1901 and 1909, Teddy Roosevelt charged headlong into the most ambitious "set aside" in the nation's history, preserving over 230 million acres of land that would have otherwise been exploited, dammed, timbered, mined or buried in oblivion, including such places as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

Incredibly, Roosevelt was able to protect "almost half of the landmass Thomas Jefferson had acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803," Brinkley writes, and Roosevelt's grand total of protected lands was "... equal to one out of every ten acres in the United States, including Alaska."

Directly and indirectly, Brinkley effectively makes the case that almost all modern outdoor interests and activities (hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, tourism, etc.), indeed the survival of the United States, would not have been possible had it not been for Theodore Roosevelt and his boyhood love of natural sciences, particularly bird watching, an interest that was fueled by a book called On the Origin of Species by a once-obscure British naturalist named Charles Darwin.

Roosevelt's interest in Darwin, Audubon and other naturalists eventually developed into a lifelong obsession and was carried into the White House without reservation or apology following the assassination of President William McKinley. By then Roosevelt's interests in all things related to the great outdoors had grown exponentially and included first-hand experiences from his adventures in the American West, hunting and exploring the wild lands of Montana and the Dakotas for elk, bear, bison and other game. Through a detailed account of Roosevelt's formative years and Roosevelt's political will to fight for what he believed was right, Brinkley bridges what has always seemed like a great divide between the avid ornithologist and the avid big-game hunter, who in 1887 helped cofound the Boone and Crockett Club.

Throughout his life, Roosevelt's passion for all things wild was fueled and bolstered by a small but highly influential circle of friends he met along the way. And their advice and consent eventually became the foundation for this nation's land and wildlife management policies and philosophy. Among Roosevelt's many friends and personal associates were William Hornaday, George Bird Grinnell, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, to mention only a few.

More than anything, Brinkley's book explains why and, perhaps most importantly, how Roosevelt founded the modern wildlife conservation and preservation movement despite considerable opposition from both inside and outside of Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, Wilderness Warrior also underscores the troubling reality lurking beneath our many natural resource issues today — that similar initiatives in the modern world of smash-mouth politics and corporate influence would be bloody and probably could not happen again, especially in the 21st century and certainly not without the will and vision a powerful leader like Theodore Roosevelt, who inexplicably grasped the fragility of wildlife and understood that in order to preserve species, this nation would also have to protect habitat and wild places. As Brinkley put it, "Refusing to poke at the edges of the conservation movement like his Republican presidential successors, Roosevelt entered the fray double-barreled, determined to save the American wilderness from deforestation and unnecessary duress."

Roosevelt used the creative but sometimes controversial Executive Order, a high-velocity yet extremely effective conservation weapon still loaded in the breech of the executive branch of the U.S. government today. Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award with his The Great Deluge, about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Six of his books have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and the late historian, Stephen Ambrose, called Brinkley, "the best of the new generation of American historians."

By detailing Roosevelt's lifelong crusade on behalf of this nation's outdoor heritage, and by examining the many pitfalls he encountered along the way, Brinkley leaves us with a small sliver of hope and optimism: "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."

Note: The Wilderness Warrior is available for $34.99 from the publisher, HarperCollins, as well as major book retailers. It went on sale July 28, 2009 and spans 960 pages.