Historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University credits two famous American cousins with the legacy that keeps Idaho wild. President Theodore Roosevelt saw the wild pristine as a source of America’s greatness. Younger cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt was equally if not more influential with forest programs implemented as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
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Brinkley linked Idaho to both Roosevelts in his October 19 address to the 31st annual Frank Church Conference, “Wilderness: America’s Heritage,” [pdf] at Boise State University. The energetic historian, an award-winning biographer of five presidents, now a professor at Houston’s Rice University, credits TR with saving millions of acres of Idaho forest. In Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior (2010), a tribute to TR, the 26th President implored Americans to protect the sublime. “You cannot improve on it,” said TR at the Grand Canyon. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
FDR’s greatest gift to the Idaho forests may have been the Civilian Conservation Corps’s “tree army” of 30,000 Idahoans. These “adult Boy Scouts,” as Brinkley called them, built 236 forest lookout towers and 91 diversion dams. Idaho’s CCC also restocked fisheries and planted 28 million Idaho trees.
Brinkley warmed to Idaho with cautiously worded praise for Republican Congressman Mike Simpson of Burley, also a speaker at the conference. Simpson, said Brinkley, had transcended party allegiance with his support for a Boulder-White Cloud wilderness area. The praise was also a shot at Senator Jim Risch, a fellow Republican: “Everyone,” said Brinkley, wanted wilderness protection — “well [everyone], maybe with the exception of one senator.” Brinkley recalled 2010 when the White Cloud legislation was last up for a vote and Risch withdrew his support, killing the bill.
Brinkley told Boise Weekly’s George Prentice that a state takeover of public lands is a bad idea:
I would tell the people of Idaho to be proud of the system they’ve built. Idaho has become the capital of wilderness that works. The state should be proud of that instead of trying to unravel it.
And discussing his forthcoming book on FDR, Brinkley told Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman that, “He was always the president of rural America, not New York City.”
Finally, watch two Idaho Public Television interviews with Brinkley: On December 30, 2010, Marcia Franklin discussed book writing (and coffee), conservation, Teddy Roosevelt’s dad and Idaho landscapes with the author. During his recent visit, Franklin spoke with Brinkley again, about his biography of television news pioneer Walter Cronkite.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.