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BOOK REVIEW: He created the Forest Service

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE CRUSADE FOR AMERICA

By Douglas Brinkley

Harper, $34.99, 935 pages

Reviewed by Claude R. Marx

During a period of political history when scientific issues are especially prevalent in the headlines, reassessing the legacy of a president who helped put science and nature in the forefront of the nation's consciousness is especially appropriate and timely.

Theodore Roosevelt combined a scholar's knowledge of the subject, extensive experience as an outdoorsman and the ability as president to implement policies that reshaped both the American landscape and the way people thought about their natural surroundings.

His complicated and controversial legacy in this area has been discussed as part of other books about his life and presidency, but there hasn't been a book that deals exclusively with this subject.

"The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America" is an important contribution to the scholarly and popular literature on the topic. Although Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley occasionally belabors his points and goes off on tangents, those who persevere will be richly rewarded.

In his childhood, Roosevelt suffered from a range of illnesses, including asthma, and initially made up for his inability to be physically active by becoming a voracious reader, especially on topics related to science. He read Charles Darwin as a teenager and became a committed Darwinist (and probably one of those annoying children who drive people nuts but go on to change the world); he also kept his own menagerie of live and stuffed animals.

Eventually, Roosevelt overcame some of his illnesses (with a relentlessness and iron will) and was able to get healthy enough to become an avid outdoorsman, with a special penchant for hiking, bird-watching and, eventually, hunting.

While the book describes many of these expeditions in great detail, this is far more than a travelogue. Readers learn about the natural history of the time period and also the impact of the travels on Roosevelt's psyche.

In describing a trip Roosevelt took to the Midwest and West after college, Mr. Brinkley notes: "There was something about the constrained landscape -- whether it was the natural meadows or the planted acres of wheat -- that soothed the soul ... Back east, city dwellers like himself studied nature too much; in Iowa, people lived with it as if by the grace of God."

Mr. Brinkley spends more than half of the book on his subject's pre-presidential years. While some of that section is quite informative, other portions read like the literary equivalent of a data dump and seem to indicate a hesitance to use the delete key.

Also, because of the overwhelmingly favorable tone of the book, the author gives short shrift to some of his subject's flaws. In all of the discussions of the influence of Darwin on Roosevelt, there is, for example, little mention of his unfortunate embrace of the principles of eugenics (which draw on and exploit the views of Darwin) and his worries about the erosion of racial purity. Ever the collection of contradictions, he was the first president to invite a black American to dine at the White House.

When the book finally gets to TR's almost eight years as president, Mr. Brinkley is at the top of his game. Mr. Brinkley's love of natural history coupled with a nuanced understanding of presidential power makes this a unique take on that time period.

And what a legacy TR left. He created the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, setting aside millions of acres of land. In addition, he signed the Antiquities Act, which led to his designation of the Grand Canyon National Monument.

Mr. Brinkley chronicles the legendary fights with business interests and TR's efforts to persuade lawmakers of the virtues of his position. He exacerbated both friends and enemies.

"Many congressmen felt bruised by Roosevelt's obvious contempt for them. They were hardly in the mood to squander political capital for the sake of his eccentricities," Mr. Brinkley writes.

What a grand tale of the nexus of political intrigue and natural preservation. Despite its shortcomings, "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America" does justice to the magnitude of the man and his environmental legacy.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.