DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, a history professor at Rice University, is a prodigiously productive author or coauthor of an amazing array of best-selling books on a wide range of topics, from the Cold War, espionage, and hurricane Katrina to lives of Ronald Reagan, Henry Ford, and Rosa Parks, among many others.
His latest is a huge (817 pages, not counting notes and index), eminently readable study of the environmental accomplishments and attitudes of Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps he writes too many books and too fast, however. For this one, at least so far as the Adirondacks is concerned, is replete with annoying errors. The big picture is clear and eloquently offered; Brinkley’s portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a protector of our wild heritage is thorough, convincing, and always interesting. But in the details, he slips repeatedly.
A child of wealth and privilege, born in 1858 in the noisy welter of New York City, TR was drawn from the start to the natural world, especially to the anatomy, variety, and marvelous visual and auditory appeal of birds. By the time he was in his teens, he had become a skillful birder. At the same time, he read assiduously in the literature of outdoor adventure and exploration. These two themes—a love for nature and an enthusiastic embrace of the strenuous life in wild and rugged places—defined much of his life, culminating in a dangerous, nearly fatal expedition down a remote, virtually unknown tributary of the Amazon after his defeat in the 1912 presidential election. (For an engaging account of this perilous adventure, see The River of Doubt by Candice Millard.)
He started out learning to identify the birds of Central Park—by appearance and song—and describing them in his journals with both common and Latin names. This fascination with birds stayed with him all his life; as president, he kept lists of all the birds he saw on the White House lawn. As a boy, vacationing with his family on the Hudson, he began to expand his horizon. He first visited the Adirondacks when he was twelve in the summer of 1871, shortly after publication of William H.H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness. Brinkley provides a thorough and useful account of TR’s time in and growing affection for the Adirondacks, a wilderness he returned to repeatedly and strove to protect throughout his packed political career.
But this is where the errors begin to creep in. Brinkley writes that on this initial visit, TR was in “the Adirondack Park,” although the Adirondack Park was not legislated into existence until 1892. Equally troubling is the index, where “Adirondack National Park” is apparently used to refer to our entire region, irrespective of the fact that there is not and never has been an “Adirondack National Park.” Throughout, Brinkley observes TR’s love for the Adirondacks but keeps getting little things wrong, writing at one point that the Adirondack League Club was renamed the Tahawus Club in 1897 (it was the Adirondack Club that changed its name to Tahawus Club—different club, different place). Later, he has Lake Colden at 3,500 feet above the sea (it’s just under 2,800). In a list of rare plants above tree line, we get “hapland, rosebay,” rather than Lapland rosebay. Each of these is a minor error, to be sure, but as they accumulate, one wonders why a high-powered New York publisher can’t do better.
In any case, TR fell in love with the beauties of Lake George and collected hundreds of species of lichen and fungi. Three years later, he was back in the North Country, eager to explore more remote corners of the Adirondacks. Starting out from Paul Smith’s famous hotel with a guide, Mose Sawyer, hired by his parents, who were concerned that he might take on more than his less-than-hale constitution could tolerate, he camped in the Franklin County backcountry, meticulously recording his adventures in a notebook he titled “Journal of a Trip to the Adirondacks.” He loved it all—rare plants, the vast forests, the diversity of habitat—but his chief focus continued to be birds. He returned in 1875 and 1877 and assembled his Adirondack ornithological observations for his first publication, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks (reprinted by the Adirondack Museum in 2001). This appeared, in a run of a few hundred copies, in October 1877, just as he was beginning his sophomore year at Harvard.
The Adirondacks remained important to Roosevelt throughout his life. In the 1890s, he worked to reform New York deer laws to outlaw the then-common practices of jacklighting and hunting with dogs. Brinkley falls for the propaganda of the day that these were a threat to the Adirondack deer population and that the local deer herd was in decline. At the time, our deer population was exploding as logging and fire continually opened up the canopy and encouraged new browse where deer could easily reach it. But jacking and hounding offended aristocratic sportsmen from downstate, who believed that stalking was the only gentlemanly way to hunt and manipulated public opinion and the deer laws in an effort to limit the hunting of year-round residents.
As Brinkley shows, however, Roosevelt’s love of hunting led to much more than a wish to protect wildlife for his own sport; it was but one impulse behind his drive to preserve vast parcels of wild country for everyone and for posterity. TR thus represents an important demographic in American environmental history: wealthy hunters and anglers who started with a personal love of field sports, observed the routine degradation of American lands after the Civil War, and set out to save prime habitat. Often these men— and it was nearly always men—were themselves involved in the exploitation of the Gilded Age, but in the Adirondacks and elsewhere we have them to thank for some of the well-protected lands that survived this era more or less intact. TR came from this tradition and by the end of his life had protected millions of acres of lands for all Americans.
As he indicated forcefully in his first annual message as governor to the New York legislature in 1899, he wanted the state to protect its natural resources in a way that was outside politics. The state’s administrative agencies were controlled by special interests, out to serve themselves and their cronies, and Roosevelt advocated a conservation bureaucracy staffed by academically trained experts. He strove to have policy driven by reason and research, rather than short-term gain for the few. He carried this resolve to the national stage when he ascended to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley.
As every Adirondack enthusiast knows, he was climbing Mount Marcy as McKinley lay dying, having been assured that the president would recover from an assassin’s bullet in Buffalo. In rehearsing this drama, Brinkley slips up again. Another failure of proofreading describes Roosevelt getting word of McKinley’s imminent demise at Lake Tear of the Clouds on September 13, 1901, and arriving in Buffalo five minutes later. More important, he claims that Roosevelt made it to Buffalo before McKinley died; it’s well established that McKinley died before Roosevelt left the Adirondacks and that Roosevelt was informed of the death when he arrived at the North Creek Station shortly before dawn on the morning of September 14.
Once he was president, TR embarked on a truly epic crusade to protect the nation’s scenic and other natural treasures; almost immediately after he took the oath of office, a “battle royal for the future of the West … erupted.” Brinkley’s account of this saga is impressive; apparently every memo, every committee hearing, every personal letter, and every word Roosevelt wrote, uttered, or heard have been scrutinized and summarized. Mostly west of the Mississippi (that’s where the federal lands were), Roosevelt’s accomplishments are stunning, unmatched by any successor: 150 National Forests created or enlarged and fifty-one Bird Reservations, four Game Reserves, six National Parks, and eighteen National Monuments created.
Have you been to Muir Woods, seen the giant redwoods? Roosevelt set this sacred place aside in 1908. Have you stood speechless on the rim of the Grand Canyon? Thank Roosevelt. For years, mining and cattle interests had used their influence in Congress to prevent the establishment of a Grand Canyon National Park, but with a pen stroke that same year Roosevelt invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906 and made it a National Monument (in 1919, Congress established the Grand Canyon National Park).
In fact, 1908 may have been the most remarkable year in the history of American conservation. Not planning to run for reelection and thus unconcerned about the reaction of lumber barons, cattlemen, and mine operators or their minions in Congress, Roosevelt set off on an incredible conservation spree: Natural Bridges in Utah, the Pinnacles in California, Mount Olympus in Washington, among many others. Then on one day, July 1, 1908, Roosevelt established forty-five National Forests in eleven western states. “All day long, Roosevelt signed documents,” writes Brinkley. These designated some well-known forests—Nez Perce in Idaho, Teton in Wyoming, Bighorn in Montana, and Uncompahgre in Colorado, for example— and included huge roadless areas that eventually would be incorporated into the National Wilderness System. From the Adirondacks to California, Roosevelt’s legacy is priceless.