Our next Past Environmental Hero is Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“FDR”) who was a true American hero on three other major fronts—health care, economic issues, and military prowess—in addition to land conservation. Born in 1882 on his family’s estate in Hyde Park, New York, FDR was availed the best schooling at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts, Harvard University, and Columbia University. As an adult standing more than six feet tall, Roosevelt was a strikingly handsome, lean, and athletic young man with deep blue eyes, dark wavy hair, and a strong thrusting jaw. He was also ebullient, charming, persuasive, gregarious, and genuinely interested in people and their problems.
Bronze statue of a multi-faceted hero: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“FDR”) and his beloved dog, “Fala”.
In 1921 while visiting his beloved Campobello Island on the border of New Brunswick, Canada and the State of Maine, Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis otherwise known as infantile paralysis or simply the dreaded—at the time—disease called “polio”. Perhaps his most heroic feat was how he dealt with this debilitating affliction with dignity for the rest of his life. He not only worked out ways to make it appear that he wasn’t really disabled—which was, unfortunately, considered a dehumanizing disgrace in those days—but he also initiated the “March of Dimes”, a fundraising organization which led to the development of the Salk Vaccine that eventually wiped out polio in the US.
From an economic perspective, Roosevelt’s election in 1932 proved to be the saving grace of the United States and the US Environmental Movement. Known as the “New Deal”, his program for relief, recovery, and reform included a great expansion of the role the federal government played in the economy. New Deal policies introduced an array of social programs—including Social Security, the Wagner Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act—that still form the backbone of the federal government’s provision of economic prosperity and wellbeing for all of its citizens. According to Benjamin Kline: “If it were not for the ravages of the Great Depression, Roosevelt may have ranked among the most successful of environmental leaders in American history.”
Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup” of other federal programs included the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The AAA paid subsidies to farmers for not planting crops—intentionally leaving fields fallow—and not slaughtering livestock. This avoided having surplus agricultural products—like wheat, corn, livestock, and dairy products—which would have driven the price of these commodities down and put many farmers out of business. Although always controversial, the federal price subsidy program still exists today—using federal subsidies to maintain the price of agricultural products.
The CCC put young men to work on federal lands all across the nation. Many of the hundreds of infrastructure improvements—including bridges, dikes, impoundments, roads, trails, and shelters—still form the backbone of recreational uses in our national parks and monuments, national forests, and national wildlife refuges. FDR’s concepts for multi-purposing conservation and development were perhaps best epitomized by his TVA projects that were established to bring water supplies, flood control, and inexpensive and renewable hydropower—as well as recreational amenities—to underserved areas of the nation.
Several new national parks—Olympic, Shenandoah, Kings Canyon, plus the groundwork for Grand Teton—came to fruition during FDR’s administration. He also oversaw two momentous turns in wildlife management—the outlawing of killing predators in national parks and the establishment of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940.
Today, there are more than 560 national wildlife refuges across the country, with at least one in every US state and territory. Today, wildlife refuges attract nearly 50 million visitors every year in pursuit of a mix of active and passive recreational activities— including wildlife-watching, hunting, fishing, photography, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and environmental education.
Roosevelt’s final heroic act occurred during his unprecedented third term in office when he assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief throughout WWII’s conflict with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We’ll discuss this war that saved the world from dictatorial enslavement in more detail later in this section. But it’s important to note that Roosevelt served as the American counterpart to Great Britain’s Winston Churchill throughout the war, staying actively involved in all military activities and even overriding the decisions of field commanders when he believed the situations were called for.
Roosevelt also moved to create a “Grand Alliance” against the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—through a peacekeeping organization that is today known as the United Nations. Many historians believe that the additional stress of WWII—on top of managing his severe handicap and the nation’s economic problems—proved too much for Roosevelt. He died a few hours after experiencing a massive stoke at his Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, ironically on the eve of the US’s complete military victory in Europe and just months before the victory over Japan in the Pacific Theatre.
“We seek to use our natural resources not as a thing apart but as something that is interwoven with industry, labor, finance, taxation, agriculture, homes, recreation, and good citizenship. The results of this interweaving will have a greater influence on the future American standard of living than the rest of our economics put together.”
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Despite FDR’s diligent remediation efforts, most of the concerns about environmental protection went out the window—along with just about everyone’s dutifully scrimped-and-saved-for life savings—during “The Depression Decade” of the Thirties. In the minds of many preservationists, this was payback for generations of disregard for and rampant misuse and degradation of the Nation’s natural resources.
On a positive note, however, many of the ideas FDR put into practice—in an effort to bring the US out of the Great Depression—have relevancy to solving the Climate Change crisis. As with the AAA’s price subsidies for agriculture, providing payments to fossil fuel companies not to extract new reserves could maintain their financial statuses while forcing them to develop renewable energy sources to meet the customer demands on their systems. Also a new federal agency along the lines of FDR’s TVA could be established. This new agency would be specifically tasked with solving the Climate Change crisis by promoting and managing the concurrent reduction in fossil fuels with the expansion of renewable energy supplies. Finally a CCC-like organization could put hundreds of scientists and laborers to work immediately on designing and constructing the sources and infrastructure required to deliver renewable energy supplies to every corner of the US.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books. Photo credit: Copyright Zack Frank/Shutterstock.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.