FDR’s Environmentalism: Saving Mankind and Nature
By Nancy Spannaus
(Sept. 24, 2019–I am reprinting this article because I believe it is crucial to resurrect the thinking of the author of the original New Deal, in order to address the array of crises being faced by this nation, and the world. These crises include widespread pessimism about man’s capabilities to shape a positive future, as well as the very real disasters of permanent war, millions dying from easily conquerable diseases like malaria and Ebola, the opioid crisis, and the lack of the electricity needed to provide clean water and medical care for more than a billion people on this planet. This article is the third in a series on the American System approach to the environment. The others were JFK’s Conservation Policy versus Today’s Environmentalism, and Nuclear Energy & the Environment: Bring on Small Modular Reactors .)
Jan. 5, 2019—In his own eyes, there was no more fervent conservationist than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet, because FDR saw the task of conserving nature as part and parcel of caring for and advancing mankind, he and his measures are denigrated by many of today’s environmentalists. That is a problem that must be corrected now.
Roosevelt’s Tree Army
From a young age, FDR became obsessed with forestry, and the planting of trees, ultimately planting half a million on his Hyde Park estate alone. As Governor of New York, in 1931 he established the Temporary Emergency Relief Authority, which employed 10,000 unemployed men to build fire roads, plant seedlings, and fight soil erosion. As President, he used the same model to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was popularly called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.”
All told, FDR is estimated to have set in motion the planting of anywhere from two to three billion trees across the United States, while at the same time expanding the number of National Park sites by the dozen, establishing 140 wildlife refuges, and creating 29 national forests. At the same time the CCC ultimately put more than 3 million young men to work, training them and allowing them to help support their families.
Among FDR’s major tree projects was the creation of the Shelterbelt, a 100-mile-wide belt of trees stretching from Bismarck, North Dakota to Amarillo, Texas. This swath of 220 million trees was created, along with the provisions of the Soil Conservation Acts, in order to break the power of the Dust Bowl conditions which had devastated the Midwestern Plains starting in the early 1930s.
FDR understood the importance of trees for both the beauty and usefulness of the environment, and he used his powers aggressively to get them planted. The process he began actually reversed the trend of tree reduction in the United States, according to an August 2018 article in Nature magazine.
The Human Dimension
So why don’t many of today’s environmentalists embrace FDR as their hero? Because, as Douglas Brinkley put it in his recent book Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, FDR’s approach to conservation was totally integrated with his concern to improving people’s lives. FDR was determined to control rivers so as to prevent devastating floods, so he built dams, electric power plants, and cities. He wanted people to be able to experience the beauty of the nature he preserved, so he ordered the building of 125,000 miles of roads in his parks. He electrified vast areas of rural America, which required utility poles in the natural environment. And he had to give people useful work.
FDR believed mankind, in providing for future generations, not only could, but should “manage” nature. That would be in the interest of advancing not only the natural world, but human life, which has always played an indispensable role in tending the “garden” Earth. He believed mankind could “green the deserts” from California to Africa, bringing life to barren places.
Unlike too many of today’s environmentalists, FDR did not view human beings as mere consumers and polluters. Like other American leaders in the American System tradition, he valued human life in itself, and understood human beings as producers, both materially and spiritually.
The reality is that, if one mode of production creates destructive byproducts (i.e., dirty water and air) for people and their environment, then human ingenuity has to be brought into play to find a solution. That solution will undoubtedly lie in the discovery of more advanced technologies, which give mankind more power over his environment. Thus, mankind has progressed from throwing his sewage in the street, to having modern sewage treatment plants—one of the major contributors to longer life expectancies. Similarly, the use of dirty soft coal or manure for fuel—major sources of air pollution–can be replaced by non-polluting, much more efficient nuclear fission plants. Mankind has both the ability, and responsibility, to not only preserve but improve nature—as the transformation of the Tennessee Valley and Southern California should attest.
For a taste of how FDR saw the challenge, I here reproduce his speech at Boulder Dam (now called the Hoover Dam) on September 30, 1935. Read it and think.
Inaugurating the Boulder Dam
September 30, 1935
Senator Pittman, Secretary Ickes, Governors of the Colorado’s States, and you especially who have built Boulder Dam:
This morning I came, I saw and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind.
Ten years ago the place where we are gathered was an unpeopled, forbidding desert. In the bottom of a gloomy canyon, whose precipitous walls rose to a height of more than a thousand feet, flowed a turbulent, dangerous river. The mountains on either side of the canyon were difficult of access with neither road nor trail, and their rocks were protected by neither trees nor grass from the blazing heat of the sun. The site of Boulder City was a cactus-covered waste. The transformation wrought here in these years is a twentieth-century marvel.
We are here to celebrate the completion of the greatest dam in the world, rising 726 feet above the bed-rock of the river and altering the geography of a whole region; we are here to see the creation of the largest artificial lake in the world—115 miles long, holding enough water, for example, to cover the State of Connecticut to a depth of ten feet; and we are here to see nearing completion a power house which will contain the largest generators and turbines yet installed in this country, machinery that can continuously supply nearly two million horsepower of electric energy.
All these dimensions are superlative. They represent and embody the accumulated engineering knowledge and experience of centuries; and when we behold them it is fitting that we pay tribute to the genius of their designers. We recognize also the energy, resourcefulness and zeal of the builders, who, under the greatest physical obstacles, have pushed this work forward to completion two years in advance of the contract requirements. But especially, we express our gratitude to the thousands of workers who gave brain and brawn to this great work of construction.
Contributing to People’s Health and Comfort
Beautiful and great as this structure is, it must also be considered in its relationship to the agricultural and industrial development and in its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.
To divert and distribute the waters of an arid region, so that there shall be security of rights and efficiency in service, is one of the greatest problems of law and of administration to be found in any Government. The farms, the cities, the people who live along the many thousands of miles of this river and its tributaries —all of them depend upon the conservation, the regulation, and the equitable division of its ever-changing water supply. What has been accomplished on the Colorado in working out such a scheme of distribution is inspiring to the whole country. Through the cooperation of the States whose people depend upon this river, and of the Federal Government which is concerned in the general welfare, there is being constructed a system of distributive works and of laws and practices which will insure to the millions of people who now dwell in this basin, and the millions of others who will come to dwell here in future generations, a just, safe and permanent system of water rights. In devising these policies and the means for putting them into practice the Bureau of Reclamation of the Federal Government has taken, and is destined to take in the future, a leading and helpful part. The Bureau has been the instrument which gave effect to the legislation introduced in Congress by Senator Hiram Johnson and Congressman Phil Swing.
We know that, as an unregulated river, the Colorado added little of value to the region this dam serves. When in flood the river was a threatening torrent. In the dry months of the year it shrank to a trickling stream. For a generation the people of Imperial Valley had lived in the shadow of disaster from this river which provided their livelihood, and which is the foundation of their hopes for themselves and their children. Every spring they awaited with dread the coming of a flood, and at the end of nearly every summer they feared a shortage of water would destroy their crops.
The gates of these great diversion tunnels were closed here at Boulder Dam last February. In June a great flood came down the river. It came roaring down the canyons of the Colorado, through Grand Canyon, Iceberg and Boulder Canyons, but it was caught and safely held behind Boulder Dam.
Last year a drought of unprecedented severity was visited upon the West. The watershed of this Colorado River did not escape. In July the canals of the Imperial Valley went dry. Crop losses in that Valley alone totaled $10,000,000 that summer. Had Boulder Dam been completed one year earlier, this loss would have been prevented, because the spring flood would have been stored to furnish a steady water supply for the long dry summer and fall.
Across the San Jacinto Mountains southwest of Boulder Dam, the cities of Southern California are constructing an aqueduct to cost $220,000,000, which they have raised, for the purpose of carrying the regulated waters of the Colorado River to the Pacific Coast 259 miles away.
Across the desert and mountains to the west and south run great electric transmission lines by which factory motors, street and household lights and irrigation pumps will be operated in Southern Arizona and California. Part of this power will be used in pumping the water through the aqueduct to supplement the domestic supplies of Los Angeles and surrounding cities.
Navigation of the river from Boulder Dam to the Grand Canyon has been made possible, a 115-mile stretch that has been traversed less than half a dozen times in history. An immense new park has been created for the enjoyment of all our people.
Of Permanent Value
At what cost was this done? Boulder Dam and the power houses together cost a total of $108,000,000, all of which will be repaid with interest in fifty years under the contracts for sale of the power. Under these contracts, already completed, not only will the cost be repaid, but the way is opened for the provision of needed light and power to the consumer at reduced rates. In the expenditure of the price of Boulder Dam during the depression years, work was provided for 4,000 men, most of them heads of families, and many thousands more were enabled to earn a livelihood through manufacture of materials and machinery.
And this picture is true on different scales in regard to the thousands of projects undertaken by the Federal Government, by the States and by the counties and municipalities in recent years. The overwhelming majority of them are of definite and permanent usefulness.
Throughout our national history we have had a great program of public improvements, and in these past two years all that we have done has been to accelerate that program. We know, too, that the reason for this speeding up was the need of giving relief to several million men and women whose earning capacity had been destroyed by the complexities and lack of thought of the economic system of the past generation.
No sensible person is foolish enough to draw hard and fast classifications as to usefulness or need. Obviously, for instance, this great Boulder Dam warrants universal approval because it will prevent floods and flood damage, because it will irrigate thousands of acres of tillable land and because it will generate electricity to turn the wheels of many factories and illuminate countless homes. But can we say that a five-foot brushwood dam across the head waters of an arroyo, and costing only a millionth part of Boulder Dam, is an undesirable project or a waste of money? Can we say that the great brick high school, costing $2,000,000, is a useful expenditure but that a little wooden school house project, costing five or ten thousand dollars, is a wasteful extravagance? Is it fair to approve a huge city boulevard and, at the same time, disapprove the improvement of a muddy farm-to-market road?
While we do all of this, we give actual work to the unemployed and at the same time we add to the wealth and assets of the Nation. These efforts meet with the approval of the people of the Nation.
The Role of Government
In a little over two years this great national work has accomplished much. We have helped mankind by the works themselves and, at the same time, we have created the necessary purchasing power to throw in the clutch to start the wheels of what we call private industry. Such expenditures on all of these works, great and small, flow out to many beneficiaries; they revive other and more remote industries and businesses. Money is put in circulation. Credit is expanded and the financial and industrial mechanism of America is stimulated to more and more activity. Labor makes wealth. The use of materials makes wealth. To employ workers and materials when private employment has failed is to translate into great national possessions the energy that otherwise would be wasted. Boulder Dam is a splendid symbol of that principle. The mighty waters of the Colorado were running unused to the sea. Today we translate them into a great national possession.
I might go further and suggest to you that use begets use. Such works as this serve as a means of making useful other national possessions. Vast deposits of precious metals are scattered within a short distance of where we stand today. They await the development of cheap power.
These great Government power projects will affect not only the development of agriculture and industry and mining in the sections that they serve, but they will also prove useful yardsticks to measure the cost of power throughout the United States. It is my belief that the Government should proceed to lay down the first yardstick from this great power plant in the form of a State power line, assisted in its financing by the Government, and tapping the wonderful natural resources of Southern Nevada. Doubtless the same policy of financial assistance to State authorities can be followed in the development of Nevada’s sister State, Arizona, on the other side of the River.
With it all, with work proceeding in every one of the more than three thousand counties in the United States, and of a vastly greater number of local divisions of Government, the actual credit of Government agencies is on a stronger and safer basis than at any time in the past six years. Many States have actually improved their financial position in the past two years. Municipal tax receipts are being paid when the taxes fall due, and tax arrearages are steadily declining.
It is a simple fact that Government spending is already beginning to show definite signs of its effect on consumer spending; that the putting of people to work by the Government has put other people to work through private employment, and that in two years and a half we have come to the point today where private industry must bear the principal responsibility of keeping the processes of greater employment moving forward with accelerated speed.
The people of the United States are proud of Boulder Dam. With the exception of the few who are narrow visioned, people everywhere on the Atlantic Seaboard, people in the Middle West and the Northwest, people in the South, must surely recognize that the national benefits which will be derived from the completion of this project will make themselves felt in every one of the forty-eight States. They know that poverty or distress in a community two thousand miles away may affect them, and equally that prosperity and higher standards of living across a whole continent will help them back home.
Today marks the official completion and dedication of Boulder Dam, the first of four great Government regional units. This is an engineering victory of the first order—another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and determination.
That is why I have the right once more to congratulate you who have built Boulder Dam and on behalf of the Nation to say to you, “Well done.”
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