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Dutchess County & the Roots of Environmentalism

Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. HarperCollins, 2016.
by Douglas Brinkley
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

There are numerous biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but Douglas Brinkley’s new biography Rightful Heritage is the first biography to focus on the crucial environmental heritage that FDR left our nation. The origin of that seed is rooted right here in Dutchess County where Franklin grew up. Born in 1882, and growing up in Hyde Park on one of the precious few wooded strips remaining in a county 90% denuded (from making charcoal for steel manufacturing on the eastern end where I live, the western half being logged for New York City firewood), he noticed the abuse of wooded land and the results of scarred landscape left behind. From youth FDR described himself as a “tree grower.” Bird-watching was a serious hobby throughout his life.

Since FDR in his childhood was thrilled to see wild animals in natural settings, he realized urban folks wanted to see live animals in national parks, and that, along with camping facilities, would be a key element to the success of national parks. He was also opposed to guns and hunting in parks, and he forbade guns around monuments; he created the national landmarks program, and put together an amazing portfolio of national parks: “As historians look back over the twentieth century, they discover that it was the Roosevelt-Ickes united front that turned the National Park Service into perhaps the most beloved agency in the U. S. government.”

As a young man Franklin often boated on the Hudson in all weather; he was also addicted to iceboats, small, medium, large, and awesomely gigantic. (But the Hudson no longer freezes over.) Some of the forty or so iceboats he owned are on display at the Hyde Park Presidential Museum.  

A lover of water and swimmer all his life, FDR created river as well as parkway programs that excluded trucks to protect august viewsheds. Yet in politics one does not get things done by proposing plans for rivers, roads, tourists, fishermen, or dams, but by fighting for every inch of any plan: the quirky details and quarrels are here, tricky sticking points discussed, yet the overall Herculean panorama of the consummate politician in a wheelchair remains breathtaking.

Brinkley infuses the complex practicality of Franklin’s enormous achievement with an epic arc that melds story, anecdote, and historical fact. This book is the sequel to Brinkley’s much-acclaimed conservation-orientated biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Wilderness Warrior (2009).

FDR’s environmental legacy, sensibility, and concepts continue to endure and thrive at the local Cary Institute, Innisfree Gardens, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension, all located in Millbrook. Franklin’s achievement nearly matched his enormous vision. While we appear to live in a time of limited vision, this book memorializes what great vision and determination can accomplish—a lesson that can inspire us today. During blowback aftermath of the so-called “packing the court” scandal in 1938, FDR moved to expand the Alaska’s Tongass National Forrest, which boasts the largest remaining old-growth temperate rainforest on earth. The House of Representatives is now organizing to open up this land to commercial use. Check with The Sierra Club’s current opposition to this move. 

Brinkley's combination micro-and-macro national narrative offers ideal summer reading that combines local roots and national achievement.

If you have any interest in local history, as well as national history, this is the summer reading book for you—Brinkley writes clear, elegant prose—the kind of prose that works best under the benevolent shade of a tree.