How Franklin Roosevelt saved America’s lands and boosted Texas parks

Austin historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley offers an elaborate, lengthy examination of President Franklin Roosevelt’s dedication to conservation in “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.” And it’s safe to say that nature lovers owe him a big thanks, as Brinkley makes clear.

One of the highlights for Texas has to be Roosevelt’s finalizing of the long-delayed deal to create Big Bend National Park on June 6, 1944. That’s not just any old day in history, either. It’s D-Day. And Roosevelt took time on that momentous day to meet “with four steadfast Texan promoters of Big Bend: Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Senator Tom Connally, Congressman R. Ewing Thomason, and Fort Worth businessman Amon Carter,” Brinkley writes.

The 708,000-acre park had been a Roosevelt priority for years. “Whole mountain ranges, hundreds of square miles of Chihuahua Desert, and a complex of largely undisturbed canyons made by the Rio Grande … were now preserved for the ages. … Just six days later, on June 12, with America in a celebratory mood over the offensive in France,” the National Park Service took over Big Bend.

At the time, Roosevelt thought that Big Bend could be the starting point for an international park encompassing land in neighboring Mexico because of the shared watersheds and ecosystems. “That international park has yet to be completed, although Barack Obama signed a statement with Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, in 2012, expressing interest in realizing FDR’s dream,” Brinkley writes.

Roosevelt already had focused a lot of his conservation efforts in Texas. In 1935, he established the Muleshoe Federal Migratory Bird Reservation in Bailey County to help protect the sandhill crane, and followed that with another, the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, which protected a transitional zone between two different ecosystems known as blackland prairies and Eastern Cross Timbers. And in 1936, he established four national forests in the state — Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sabine and Sam Houston, buying the lands after the Texas Legislature authorized the sale.

The Roosevelt administration also dispatched more than 50,000 Civilian Conservation Corps recruits to Texas “to build trails, campgrounds, cabins, dance pavilions, and even an adobe hotel and motor court,” Brinkley writes. “When Herbert Hoover was president, Texas had only eight hundred acres of state parks, but by 1942, thanks to the efforts of FDR, that number had soared to sixty thousand acres.”

But these examples of conservation in Texas are only a small part of “Rightful Heritage,” which starts with Roosevelt’s early years in the Hudson Valley of New York, where he learned to appreciate trees and wildlife — an interest that played a big part in the rest of his life.

That was especially true after Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933, when during his first “Hundred Days” he pushed through a series of New Deal programs. “Few programs in 1933 would shine brighter than the conservation-based Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA),” 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.”

And after three years in office, Brinkley says that “Roosevelt had done more for wildlife conservation than all of his White House predecessors, including Theodore Roosevelt, establishing forty-five new wildlife refuges. By the end of fiscal year 1935, the Biological Survey had acquired 1,513,477 acres — surpassing all prior Biological Survey refuge land acquisitions — especially in the upper Midwest.”

Brinkley, however, points out that Roosevelt’s record wasn’t spotless on conservation, noting that environmentalists from the Pacific Northwest complained in 1938 that the Grand Coulee Dam, due to open in 1941, “was devastating riverine and riparian wildlife. Even with fish ladders, the ‘tamed’ Columbia aborted the spawning runs of salmon and steelhead. A geographer would be hard-pressed to find a major western river that Roosevelt didn’t want to dam. And FDR wanted not the small earthen plugs that the CCC built across streams to stock water or raise bass but colossal dams to steal the power of the Columbia, the Tennessee, the Sacramento, the Snake, the Red, and the Colorado.”

Brinkley says Roosevelt was trying to steer a middle course, “between reckless exploitation and extreme environmentalism,” and that he fancied himself as America’s caring riverkeeper. But some environmentalists would probably disagree.

Whatever your stance, Brinkley writes that “by the time U.S. Fish and Wildlife alumna Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 — the turning point in American environmentalism — FDR was widely praised for having saved such landscapes as the Kenai Peninsula, the Okefenokee, the Olympics, the Great Smokies, Isle Royale, Joshua Tree, Capitol Reef, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Cave, Kings Canyon, the Everglades, Big Bend, and the Desert Game Range of Nevada.”

It’s safe to say that most folks would agree that’s a pretty good list.

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