When I started reading The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan, I was not thinking about current events, but as I read it, the parallels with current land use controversies was unmistakable. Some of the anti-conversationist rhetoric of Senators William A. Clark and Weldon Heyburn can be heard among the armed insurrectionists who have taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The debate between those who think all land exists merely for economic exploitation and those who believe in preserving land for future generations still continues more than one hundred years after these events.
The Big Burn begins with the Teddy Roosevelt and his friendship with Gifford Pinchot and how these two formed the US Forest Service and set aside millions of acres of national forest as public lands under its management. Today’s anti-public lands extremists describe this as taking the land from private ownership, but it was federal land that was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Federal Land Bureau to the new US Forest Service. Meanwhile their opponents Clark and Heyburn advocated just giving all the public land to the major oligarchs like Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Weyerhaeuser, suggesting that people who have proved they know how to make money would make best use of it. While they did not use the terminology, Clark and Heyburn had the same ideology as the present day Wise Use Movement.
When Roosevelt ended his second term and was replaced with the weak, ineffective and easily manipulated Howard Taft, the Forest Service was at risk of being shut down. Its enemies were ascendent and Roosevelt absent on a long African adventure and its founder Gifford Pinchot fired for insubordination. Its budget was cut and rangers were paid next to nothing and had to cover all their expenses including equipment and horses.
In 1910, after a long dry summer, a forest fire began that soon joined other fires and covered more than 3 million acres from Washington to Montana. The new Forest Service had its first and greatest challenge, fighting this massive fire. However, they lacked the people and the equipment. Nonetheless, with incredible courage and grit, they did their best.
Egan tells the story of that harrowing fire, the incredible courage and determination of the Forest Service rangers and the Buffalo Soldiers seconded to help fight the fire. It is an exciting, scary and sometimes tragic story. It is full of adventure, incredible feats of strength and bravery. It is a wild adventure.
It also was a pivotal moment in that it saved the US Forest Service from elimination, the courage of the rangers captured the imagination of the public and their full support. It also changed the view of the Forest Service mission, making forest fire prevention paramount – a view the prevails for many years to the detriment of good science and good management.
I think Egan does not, however, make the connections clear as to how this fire saved America. It certainly saved the US Forest Service and one could surmise that without the fire, it would have been eliminated. It’s possible, then, without the Forest Service, the land would have all been turned over the to oligarchs and we would be a poorer, uglier country. Egan does not mention the alternate future that the fire prevented. I think that preserving public lands is essential for the good of all of us, but I know and Egan acknowledges, that the Forest Service served as a handmaiden to the logging industry, doing the work of surveying and building roads and infrastructure and the allowing clear cuts for less than the cost of managing the land. That change in mission is also a result of the fire.
I recommend this book. It is an enjoyable and fast-paced book. There is a wealth of detail that bring the individual forest rangers, citizens and politicians to life. It is exciting and provides a background to an ideological conflict that continues to this day about the role of government in protecting public lands.