Thursday, June 30, 2016

Book Review: Rightful Heritage - By Douglas Brinkley

I’ve read many books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I’ve read about his domestic policy, his foreign policy, his battle to overcome paralysis, his relationship with the Jews, his health and his marriage - to name just a few topics. But, until now, I had not read a work completely dedicated to

Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation. Although a bit of a struggle at times, Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America is well worth the work. According to Brinkley, FDR was - without a doubt - the single-greatest conservationist president in U.S. history. Bar none. After reading Brinkley’s 626-page effort [including multiple appendices outlining in detail the various FDR projects from 1933 to 1945] I certainly agree. Brinkley acknowledges that FDR’s record is not spotless. FDR’s role in the development and widespread use of pesticides like DDT is detailed in depth. Roosevelt also faces criticism for the environmental damage done by one of his biggest causes - the building of dams to generate hydroelectric power. But Brinkley argues that when errors were made they were made in the interest of conservation.

From an early age, FDR was a world traveler. Indeed, by the time he was 14-years old he had made seven trips across the Atlantic Ocean. Among the many things that fascinated him were the forests of Germany. As Brinkley writes, “Germany was the landscape that most influenced FDR’s views on land improvement in the United States. The German people grappled effectively with the inherent tension between industrial progress and land conservation. The Germans were determined to improve soil, cultivate burned-out land, drain swamps, and take care of their impressive woodlands.”

By the time he ran his first campaign, for the New York State Senate in 1910, FDR considered himself first and foremost a farmer - specifically a tree farmer - on his lands at Hyde Park. Indeed, Brinkley argues that one of the things that helped him win that 1910 election was his ability to connect with farmers on topics important to them. As Brinkley writes, “In a relaxed, confident way, he enjoyed talking about forestry fundamentals with growers of trees, fruits, and vegetables up the Hudson Valley. At the drop of a hat, Roosevelt shared with fellow tree farmers logbooks about planting white pine on his western and northern slopes, and tulip poplar from stock held at a nursery. Part of his agronomist pitch to farmers in the district was that planting trees was, in essence, an insurance policy for the future of their families.” And while some asserted that Roosevelt praised farm life largely for political gain, Brinkley argues there was more to it than that. “Roosevelt, at heart, was truly a Jeffersonian-agrarian in outlook and conviction. Even if he had the luxury of delegating the more brutal chores at Springwood [his property on Hyde Park] to hired help and experienced the sunup-to-sundown pressures of farm life from a certain aristocratic remove, he had still grown up in a hay-strewn world.”

Brinkley does a wonderful job - probably the best I’ve read - in describing the days leading up to Roosevelt’s paralysis and exploring the theory of how FDR contracted the polio virus. Roosevelt – who loved the Boy Scouts of America - visited with a Boy Scout troop at Bear Mountain State Park in late-July 1921. As Brinkley notes, “From a distance, Bear Mountain was idyllic, but on a more minute scale there was a hazard. In the fall of 1920, New York’s Public Health Council dispatched water quality expert Earl Devendorf, a civil engineer, to inspect the sanitary conditions at both Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks. His findings were startling. The drinking water at [both] parks was compromised by human waste. The pit privies were in an ‘insanitary condition’, and the newly installed chemical toilets weren’t flushing properly. Devendorf reported that the well-water and groundwater had a high probability of contamination because so many potentially dangerous ‘carriers’ were present. Almost all of the water samples Devendorf collected contained specimens of coliform bacteria. Evidence suggests that when Roosevelt went for a swim at Bear Mountain, he contracted the polio virus that would soon fell him. The lake had been contaminated by human waste.”

As with his run for the State Senate eighteen years earlier, his 1928 run for New York Governor was also based to a large degree on conservation. With his return to politics, Brinkley writes, FDR, “preached the gospel of state parks, soil conservation, public utilities, and scientific forestry and took a stand against corruption. While campaigning for the governorship that October, Roosevelt specifically referred to the previous year’s devastating Mississippi River flood. All of his warnings about deforestation - warnings that had begun in 1911 - had been tragically borne out in the Mississippi Delta. Levees had failed in 120 places along the Mississippi, flooding more than 165 million acres. Six-hundred thousand people were left homeless. At least 246 people died. Many more were simply listed as missing. The 1927 flood, in Roosevelt’s mind, was a wakeup call for all Americans to take reforestation seriously. Roosevelt insisted that the Army Corps of Engineers needed a comprehensive national plan to improve levees, replant forests, and construct reservoirs to divert floodwaters, but he also thought some kind of state ‘tree corps’ was needed to help prevent flooding in New York’s Mohawk and Black River Valleys.”

As it turned out, Roosevelt’s gubernatorial victory on November 6, 1928, was only by a slim 25,000 vote margin. According to Brinkley, “All of [FDR’s] outreach to upstate rural districts had paid off. Without farmers, riverkeepers, and conservation-minded voters pushing Roosevelt’s candidacy forward, he probably wouldn’t have been elected governor.”

When Roosevelt ran for President of the United States in 1932, he broke precedent and went to Chicago to address the Democratic National Convention in person. Brinkley writes, “That so much of his Chicago convention speech was about conservation would have pleased Theodore Roosevelt.” In his convention speech Roosevelt said, “It is clear that economic foresight and immediate employment march hand-in- hand in the call for the reforestation of these vast areas. In so doing, employment can be given to 1 million men. That is the kind of public work that is self-sustaining, and therefore capable of being financed by the issuance of bonds which are made secure by the fact that the growth of tremendous crops will provide adequate security for the investment.”

Indeed, Brinkley notes, “It is striking how conservation issues were presented to the voters. The Republicans predictably pounced on Roosevelt for offering ill-conceived blue-sky oratory. If the public actually believed that 1 million unemployed men could suddenly find work reforesting millions of acres of submarginal land, then President Hoover was doomed to be a one-term president. And if FDR’s idea of a forestry corps took hold, then unemployment, erosion, and the nationwide timber famine would all be addressed in short order.”

The star of conservation in the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC]. As Brinkley writes, “The CCC probably best captured the public’s imagination as the showcase of the New Deal, along with the more grown-up and grandiose, Works Progress Administration [WPA]. Roosevelt knew that large-scale dams and scenic highways would take years to complete. But employing 250,000 young men to cut trails, plant trees, dig archaeological sites, and bring ecological integrity to public lands was immediately effective can-do-ism...There would be three types of CCC camps: forestry [concentrated in national forest sites]; soil [dedicated to combating erosion and implementing other soil conservation measures]; and recreational [focused on developing parks and other scenic areas].”

The CCC was more than ‘just’ a work-relief program. It had a deeper meaning. As Brinkley notes, “What made the CCC more than just a dazzling work-relief program was the professional expertise the local experienced men brought to land reclamation. Skilled young physicians, architects, biologists, teachers, climatologists, and naturalists learned about conservation in a tangible, hands-on way. If not for the Great Depression, these workers would have found themselves engaged in upwardly-mobile jobs. But by a twist of fate, as many of their diaries and letters home made clear, these local experienced men were indoctrinated in the New Deal land stewardship principles. Later in life, after World War II, many became environmental warriors, challenging developers who polluted aquifers, and unregulated factories that befouled the air.”

There is, however, a significant, sour note. Indeed, tainting the success and achievement of the CCC is the institutionalization of racial prejudice it allowed. Brinkley notes, “Although Roosevelt had originally considered integrating the CCC, the program wasn’t sold to Congress as a civil rights crusade. Nor did he want to offend his Democratic political base in the south - which had been instrumental in his election - by attacking Jim Crow. Early on the CCC created separate companies for African-American enrollees; 250,000 blacks enrolled in 150 ‘all Negro’ CCC companies throughout the nation from 1933 to 1942.”

As mentioned earlier, FDR was convinced that dam-building to create hydroelectric power was key to economic recovery. At FDR’s urging, also in 1933, Congress established the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA]. According to Brinkley, the TVA was created, “to address a wide range of water power needs in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and small sections of other southern states....The TVA, an enormous hydroelectric project, included intensive and extensive agricultural programs, habitat restoration, and educational efforts aimed at people who were often isolated from mainstream avenues of information. In addition, the TVA provided inexpensive electricity.”

And, yet, for all Roosevelt’s good intentions with hydroelectric development, there were unforeseen consequences. Brinkley writes, “The New Deal often ecologically damaged Americas rivers. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, turned the Mississippi River into one necklace of dams and levees. Likewise, for nearly 1,000 miles, the Ohio River became a series of impoundments. Almost all of California’s rivers were plugged in hundreds of spots to fuel the giant boom of agricultural and urban sprawl.” As for the benefits of rural electrification, “for all the public electricity generated, the once bucolic landscape was marred beyond recognition.”

Next, FDR turned to wildlife protection. The situation was dire. In 1903 - when Theodore Roosevelt established the first federal bird reservation in Florida - there were 120 million waterfowl in North America. Thirty years later, however, that number had dwindled to 30 million. Thus FDR established a Committee on Wildlife Restoration early in 1934. Brinkley writes, the committee’s report led FDR to secure $8.5 million, “to buy marginal stretches of water fowl habitat and then have the CCC plant that land with game.“ New migratory refuges would be set up in the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific Flyways; existing refuges would be restored and expanded.

The results were stunning. Brinkley notes that, because of Roosevelt, “Policies of habitat acquisition and refuge management, fueled by congressional appropriations and the [Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior] public awareness campaign, migratory waterfowl would increase in numbers from 30 million in 1933 to more than 100 million by the onset of World War II. After three years in office, Roosevelt had done more for wildlife conservation then all of his White House predecessors, including Theodore Roosevelt, establishing 45 new wildlife refuges. By the end of the fiscal year 1935, the government had acquired 1.5 million acres - surpassing all prior [federal government] refuge land acquisitions - especially in the upper Midwest.”

Soil was the next area addressed. One of the more famous innovations was Roosevelt’s Shelterbelt Program. As Brinkley writes, “The program entailed the planting of trees and shrubs as windbreaks along the borders of croplands and pastures to reduce wind speeds and decrease the evaporation of moisture from the soil. Running along a carefully configured patchwork from the Canadian border to Abilene, Texas, this great American wall of trees would protect crops and livestock and even contain the huge dust clouds...Roosevelt’s Shelterbelt was the most ambitious afforestation program in world history. Unfortunately, it was also certain to offend Great Plains farmers and ranchers who didn’t like the federal government interfering with their land.”

But Mother Nature was stronger than the federal government.  On April 14, 1935, a ‘black blizzard’ blew south from the Dakotas. Brinkley writes, “No amount of Shelterbelt plantings or national grassland designation could have prevented this environmental catastrophe, which destroyed over 50 million acres across the panhandle of Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska; western Kansas; southeastern Colorado; and northeastern New Mexico - the area known in 1935 as the Dust Bowl.”

After the Dust Bowl, Brinkley notes, Roosevelt decided, “The U.S. government needed to acquire submarginal lands, consolidate farms, relocate inhabitants, restore land, and return the reclaimed land for ‘commercial use’ under ‘the watchful eye of Uncle Sam’. This tall order was intended to ecologically restore cropland to grass and thus halt the dusters and revitalize agriculture. Here was an unexpected foray by Roosevelt into government planning and soil conservation on a very large scale.”

In his second term, FDR devised a brilliant method of raising money to increase federal aid to wildlife. On September 2, 1937, he signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act [to take effect July 1, 1938], which featured a tax on hunting licenses. As Brinkley notes, “President Roosevelt realized, with considerable pride, that he had achieved a legislative miracle with the act. It was one of the New Deal’s finest moments. And the tax (generated by the law) yielded results: thanks to the law, the American deer population swelled from fewer than one million animals to almost 30 million by the 21st-century.”

The law was also known as Pittman-Robertson because of the two sponsors [Senator Key Pittman of Nevada and Rep. A. Willis Robertson of Virginia]. As a result of Pittman-Robertson, Brinkley writes, “Within two years, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and wood ducks all started to make startling come backs. That year, almost $3 million in Pittman-Robertson revenue was allocated by the federal government to the states - real money during the Great Depression. A catastrophic situation had been reversed by Roosevelt’s environmental activism and, in fact, the law proved so successful that, in the 1950s, similar legislation was enacted for fish populations.”

Even with his preparing for war, environmentalism still meant a great deal to Roosevelt. Still, World War II obviously changed priorities. Congress refused to continue funding the CCC after Pearl Harbor and, on August 11, 1942, the last CCC ‘boys’ were dismissed. Brinkley writes, “A phenomenal era in conservation had ended. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC had enrolled more than 3.4 million men to work in thousands of camps across America. Roosevelt had used the CCC as an instrument for both environmentalism and economic revitalization. Its erosion control programs alone benefited 40 million acres of farmland. The success the agency had in building up American infrastructure is impossible to deny: 46,000 bridges; 27,000 miles of fencing; 10,000 miles of roads and trails; 5,000 miles of water supply lines; and 3,000 fire lookout towers. Credited with establishing 711 state parks, the CCC also restored close to 4,000 historic structures and rehabilitated 3,400 beaches. Nobody could deny the CCC’s enduring legacy from 1933 to 1942: combating deforestation, dust storms, overhunting, water pollution, and flooding.”

Even with the dismantling of the CCC, Brinkley concludes “The New Deal conservation revolution had already made a difference. Even while American troops were fighting in Europe and the Pacific, back home American lands brimmed with native grasses and cottonwoods, desert oases and high-country evergreens. The American land was healing and, in some regions, thriving. Around 3 billion trees had been planted by the CCC boys. The CCC was the single-best land rehabilitation idea ever adopted by a U.S. president and it rescued more than natural resources.... In its nine years of existence, the CCC introduced young American men to the rigors of outdoor living. By and large they had comported themselves well. It wasn’t intended as a form of military preparation, as was the Hitler Youth in Germany, but a generation of toughened CCC enrollees indeed became a wave of GIs during the war. Pick any CCC company roster from 1933 to 1942, and you will find alumni who went on to win Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and Silver Stars during World War II. Approximately one out of every six men drafted to fight during World War II was an alumnus of the CCC. Sadly, there was also a long list of heroic CCC alumni who were killed in action at Midway, Okinawa, Normandy, and Luzon, among other far-flung locales.”

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