You Must Read—The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America

In years past, wars had been fought and rivers of blood shed for far less land than that which was under consideration by the select group of “forest arrangers” as they called themselves. Never before had the fate of so much territory been determined by a small, mostly unarmed group of tree specialists. They were in one the creation, transforming by surveys, mapping, and suggestions areas larger than some eastern states. [Page 56]

9780547394602If you think that our modern conflicts over the role of the federal government in owning land is acrimonious and/or unique you must read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America.  It has everything that you would come to expect in a modern tale about conservation. Politicians making decisions about public lands who are corrupt? Check. Private industries with deep pockets looking to profit from the cheap sale of public lands? Check. A few dedicated politicians acting in the interest of public conservation? Check. It just happens to not involve anyone with the last name Koch or a corporation with the name Exxon.

The book is really about two events. The first is the creation of the United States Forest Service under the aegis of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The second is a massive fire in the American west, mostly on land managed by the Forest Service, that changed the perception of public lands in the American consciousness. The title of the book is slightly hyperbolic in that America itself was probably not at risk in the period, but the future of our public lands surely was in doubt.

These two stories are interwoven to provide the foundation for the fundamentals of the modern conservation movement in the United States where federal lands would be at forefront of the battle. Even today we see the same battles being fought when clowns like Cliven Bundy claim that their rights to land supersede any federal claim to the land and right wingers line up behind them in support. At least until it is revealed that the clown in question is a raving lunatic with horribly outdated and pathetic racist beliefs. Just saying.

Amazingly, history favors the conservation of lands. Few people, if any discounting those on the lunatic fringe, look back and view the creation of the national parks as a bad thing. Yet at the time of creation there was great debate. The same thing is true of lands managed by the federal government outside of the park system.

One of the great follies that came to be following the fires in 1910 was the so-called “ten o’clock rule,” which by the mid-1930s came to be defined as any fire reported the prior day had to be put out by ten o’clock the following morning. The result would be disastrous in terms of forest and people lost to fire:

The ten o’clock rule would stay in effect for most of the century until rangers who realized that fires were critical to the health of a forest started to have a voice. Budgets escalated as the fire control mission became even bigger and more intrusive. From the air and on the ground, with chemicals dropped like bombs and with bulldozers to scrape perimeter lines, the Forest Service attacked all fires, growing into a force of nature—or against nature, depending on the view. [Page 273]

Forest in the American west need fire. Fire clears out weaker trees and combustible undergrowth. Fire creates a patchwork of trees of various ages and, thus, heights which are not as susceptible to fires that hop along the crowns of trees. Fire can also be the mechanism for a forest’s regeneration as many seeds and cones will not release protective layers until a cleansing fire has pass through. These ideas were anathema to a generation of foresters who grew up under the tutelage and influence of men like Gifford Pinchot. If there is a place to lay blame on that generation of foresters it is on their belief that fire was inherently evil vis a vis the forest and that fire could be controlled by man. Time has proven that the suppression of fires only gives man the impression that he has controlled the elemental force.

Fire is a transformative event for forests, but it is part of the natural cycle:

They knew well enough that a forest after a fire is not a cemetery, set with stones—just a change of worlds. Still, it was hard to see any tomorrow in the ashen landscape. [Page 249]

We would do well to remember this fact as we approach the fire season in a year where much of the American west is affected by extreme drought. Time and time again, our government will send men and women into harm’s way because individuals have decided to ignore nature’s will and inhabit a combustible forest. It was done in the early-Twentieth Century and it will be done again in the Twenty First:

Then they did what all western boomers did after a combustible punch: got up off the floor and rebuilt, with brick, stone, and steel, shaking a fist again at nature. [Page 2]

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One response to “You Must Read—The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America

  1. Pingback: Friday Linkage 4/3/2015 | My Green Misadventure

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