Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt were champions of national and state parks. The Roosevelts set aside more than 230 million acres of land for conservation and created 140 national wildlife refuges, 29 national forests, and 29 national parks and monuments, respectively.
President Donald Trump, like Theodore and his fifth cousin FDR, was born in New York. That’s about where the similarities between the Roosevelts and Trump end, especially when it comes to conservation policy, historian and author Douglas Brinkley told more than 100 guests at a lecture Wednesday night hosted by Trinity University and Trinity University Press.
“It’s going to be a Sagebrush Rebellion of drill, mine, [and] extract in public lands in Trump years,” said Brinkley, referring to the movement started in the ’70s by ranchers, miners, and others in protest of federal environmental protection laws.
“At the very least [Trump will] de-prioritize – I would say roll back – climate change [mitigation]. I know the Trump administration will be trying to cut the money that we give to the United Nations on climate,” he added. “He’s not going to be a great conservation, environmental president.”
Brinkley and some in the audience chuckled slightly at the obvious statement.
But it’s not the end of public parks and natural resource conservation. As CNN’s presidential historian and a professor at Rice University, Brinkley was able to put the unease about Trump’s disregard for the environment into perspective.
Presidents of the past such as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, similarly threatened to tear down the Roosevelts’ and others’ legacies. But in their second terms, they actually added more protections to various parks and resources, Brinkley said.
“So, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said, noting that Trump may not make it to a second term.
Conservation is a long-term game of return on investment – it will benefit generations long after us, Brinkley said. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly said he’s more interested in initiatives that will bring “quick profit” to the United States. His priorities include creating jobs, rebuilding industries, and oil and gas production.
National monuments and parks are relatively safe, as Congress rarely removes their special designations, Brinkley said. Other designations such as national forests and grasslands, however, will be at risk.
“The challenges are great, but I’m very optimistic,” Brinkley said, citing the new generations of environmental scientists and advocates studying at schools and universities every day. “I don’t mean to be bleak about it, but the Trump view is very different from the Rooseveltian views. Obviously from my enthusiasm you can tell I’m on the Rooseveltian side.”
Brinkley has written two New York Times best-selling books on “TR” and “FDR,” as he refers to the presidents. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America was published in 2009, and Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America came out last year.
The distantly related presidents shared a passion – some would say obsession – with nature, and FDR followed closely in Teddy’s footsteps, Brinkley said. Both of them grew up with an appreciation for open spaces and wildlife. Both of them discovered that, after great tragedies, “nature has curative qualities.” Teddy hijacked the Antiquities Act, meant to protect cultural artifacts for scientific reasons, to preserve places such as the Grand Canyon. FDR’s New Deal fought unemployment during the Great Depression by putting people to work planting trees and participating in other conservation projects.
“In recent times [the environment has] become more of a Democratic issue; it used to be Republican,” Brinkley said, referring to the fact that Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican.
Laura Huffman, director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, sat down with Brinkley after his lecture to talk about the future of park conservation.
Huffman asked what kind of future might be in store for the Conservancy, a national, member-supported nonprofit that partners with public and private entities to protect land, water, and air quality.
“[This could be a] boon time for the Nature Conservancy because the modern Republican Party and people around Trump actually feel better about the Nature Conservancy than other organizations because it’s people buying and giving, and it fits into a kind of capitalist paradigm that I think is embraced and supported,” Brinkley said. “You’re not going to see [Trump] doing what Obama did in saving these last bits of wild places by the federal government, but that gives an opening for the Nature Conservancy, ironically, to come in.”
While the White House may not be standing up to support park conservation, Huffman said, Texans’ attitudes about protecting natural resources have become more mainstream.
According to a poll the Conservancy conducted last year, “nearly 90% of Texans believe that our successful economy is a function of our natural resources – not just that those two things can co-exist and certainly not that there’s a forced tradeoff,” she said.
People love wilderness and recreation, but it was politicized by the liberal “tree-hugger” movements in the ’60s, Brinkley said. On the other hand, socially conservative ranchers can be strong conservationists when it comes to their livelihoods.
The tone of the evening in the Laurie Auditorium wasn’t all doom and gloom, but the topic of climate change weighs heavy on conservationists.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue to save our beautiful places in America, and we’re going to keep our rivers and lakes clean,” Brinkley said. “The climate change issue is rough … that [is what is] going to create poverty.”
Strong, 21st-century economic powers with low poverty are the same countries that have conservation programs, he said, listing Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
“You want to see poverty?” he asked. “Go to places that treat the natural environment terribly.”
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first politicians of his time to see the Earth as a single, interconnected system, Brinkley said.
Modern politicians might do well to remember that history isn’t important simply because we want to avoid repetition of mistakes, said Trinity University Press Director Thomas Payton while introducing Brinkley and Huffman to the crowd.
“In learning about history, we’re really more prepared to defend it and improve upon what we’ve built,” he said.