Brinkley Pays Homage to Roosevelt's Conservationist Legacy
Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University
LAKELAND, Fla. (Sept. 24, 2010) -- If you cherish being able to watch birds by the lake or go fishing and camping in state and national parks, thank Teddy Roosevelt.
So says Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian and author of the 2009 Roosevelt biography, "Wilderness Warrior." Brinkley opened Florida Southern's Florida Lecture Series on Friday night in Branscomb Auditorium.
Roosevelt's uncle, Rob, and close friend, Frank Chapman, both were bird lovers and scholarly men, and they influenced Roosevelt's lifelong passion for environmentalism.
When Roosevelt was police commissioner in New York, he learned of sea captains who were capturing sea turtles in Florida and driving a spike through them to more easily transport them so they could be sold to restaurants. He publicly said, "Turtles have feelings, too," and lost a court case and was widely taunted by New York-area restaurateurs. "It's a little edgy even now when you talk about animal rights," said Brinkley, "but back then, this was fringe stuff."
As governor of New York, Roosevelt pushed for federal laws and inter-state cooperation to protect migratory birds. "He said, 'Birds don't know borders,'" Brinkley told the crowd. "He said what's the point in protecting birds in Massachusetts if they're going to come to Florida and get slaughtered"
As president, Roosevelt was shocked by the reports he got from Florida via his old friend Chapman. Tropical birds like pelicans were being killed for their valuable feathers, and then the hunters were taking their eggs, too. That was the impetus for his declaring Pelican Island the first national bird reservation, and he began to "exercise executive" orders to circumvent Congress and create the first national parks. Roosevelt also was instrumental in preserving the Dry Tortugas, the Ocala National Forest, and what is today known as the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve, he said. "Florida was Ground Zero of his crusade," Brinkley said.
Likewise, he issued an executive order to prevent the railroads from building through the Grand Canyon.
"Today, we debate a lot of environmental topics, like should we drill in Alaska, but nobody debates national parks," said Brinkley. "We've done well in America, protecting these areas and the wildlife in them."