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Conservation up in flames

By Bill Gifford
Sunday, October 25, 2009

THE BIG BURN

Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America

By Timothy Egan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

324 pp. $27

In terms of sheer political courage, reforming the American health-care system is but a minor parliamentary maneuver compared to the chutzpah mustered by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, when he established the national forest system. In one frenzied week, Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, outlined 16 million acres of Western woodland that they felt needed to be preserved. Laying out maps on the floor of the White House, they carved out huge chunks of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the other Western states as inviolate preserves (on paper, anyway). A handful of executive proclamations later, the deed was done.

Grover Cleveland had created the forest reserve as a legal entity a few years earlier; now Roosevelt and Pinchot had breathed life into the idea. In so doing, they kept millions of dollars' worth of land and timber out of the hands of the robber barons, the Weyerhausers and Rockefellers and Harrimans who had already laid claim to much of the rest of the West "like European dukes dividing the spoils of a medieval war," Egan writes.

Congress had a fit, of course -- particularly Sen. Weldon Heyburn of Idaho, who dubbed the forest chief "Czar Pinchot" and persecuted him relentlessly in committee hearings. So did "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the House speaker, who thundered, "Not one cent for scenery!" They were not happy to have been outfoxed. And then, three years later, the forests caught fire.

In "The Big Burn," Timothy Egan reconstructs the legendary great fire of 1910, which torched more than 3 million acres of woodlands in Idaho and Montana -- an area almost as big as Connecticut, encompassing parts of 10 different national forests. It was, and remains, one of the biggest fires in American history (to which I hate to have to add, so far).

At the heart of the blaze lay a handful of rickety boomtowns, including Avery, Idaho; Wallace, Idaho (home of the ungrateful Sen. Heyburn); and the sinful Taft, Mont., which reportedly had one prostitute for every four residents. Like the incumbent president after whom it had been named, Taft stood as a monument to human appetites, an objective correlative for the naked greed that had defined the history of the West. When the hated forest rangers came through town, looking for able-bodied men to help fight the gathering blaze, most residents of Taft looked the other way and kept on drinking. That left the firefighting up to a motley crew of Yale-educated rangers, random immigrant laborers from Italy and Central Europe, and the Army's black regiments of "Buffalo Soldiers," who had not yet taken their place in legend.

Using eyewitness accounts and official documents, Egan reconstructs the fire in horrific, exhausting detail: the flames rushing across the tops of ridges, smoke infiltrating the towns, the panicked evacuation of women and children in overcrowded trains. The fire scenes occupy the bulk of the narrative, but the backstory is more interesting, centered on the curious friendship between Roosevelt and Pinchot that helped give birth to the modern conservation movement.

Both were eccentric sons of wealthy families who dedicated their lives to serve markedly progressive causes, for which their families regarded them as something close to class traitors. From their first meeting, when Roosevelt challenged Pinchot to an impromptu boxing match, the two became fast friends. In Washington, they rambled through Rock Creek Park together and even skinny-dipped in the Potomac, once with the French ambassador (surely cause for impeachment today). With Pinchot's shrewd assistance, Roosevelt ultimately protected some 230 million acres of Western land, over the objections of folks such as Sen. William Clark, a millionaire politician who unapologetically bought other legislators' votes and who once declared, "Those who succeed us can take care of themselves."

A longtime Pacific Northwest correspondent for the New York Times and author of "The Worst Hard Time," Egan always writes insightfully about his native region; here he commands the full sweep of characters, from the president on down to the loneliest mining-town drunk. The only off note, in fact, is the book's subtitle, which sells it just a little too hard.

Did the Big Burn really "save America"? Certainly it helped save the Forest Service, not least by thwarting the timber thieves who, prior to 1910, had been helping themselves to the government's trees. It pushed the idea of conservation, once an abstract debate, into the living rooms of the East; and it created something like a sense of unity in the every-man-for-himself outback. The fire also allowed much-maligned groups such as East European immigrants and black soldiers to demonstrate their bravery and skill.

What's most striking is how little has really changed since then. Huge corporations still angle for Western resources, misusing laws intended to encourage homesteading to help themselves to the oil, gas and minerals that lie underneath the Rockies. Recent immigrants are still despised in many political quarters, and our African American president has been portrayed as a monkey by his foes. And politicians, particularly Republicans, insist on invoking Teddy Roosevelt's name when in truth his progressive, anti-corporate and pro-conservation agenda would get him branded a radical tree-hugger today.

As the West fills up with dead and dying trees, killed by beetles and blights brought by climate change, another Big Burn seems likely, if not inevitable. I wonder how we'll handle it this time. Out in Idaho and Montana, the once-thriving boomtowns of Avery and Taft have one answer: They're gone, swallowed again by the great American forest.

Bill Gifford, editor at large of Men's Journal, writes

frequently for Book World.

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