The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in Western Montana, Northern Idaho, parts of Washington and British Columbia. The fire burned in newly created national forests including the Bitterrroot, Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai and Lolo. Timothy Egan tells the story of the fire and the larger story of the creation of public lands through the efforts of Teddy Roosevelt, forester Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. The politics of resource conservation and the role of fire are certainly relevant now, particularly with the additional complexities of climate change.
I never appreciated how difficult it was to create public lands, as they have existed since before my lifetime, and I grew up with Smokey the Bear ads telling us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” In the Pacific Northwest, land management has been under attack from industry and certain politicians, but this book details the difficulties of creating public lands in the first place. Not surprisingly some of the wealthiest people in the country opposed any efforts to create national forests. The timber, railroad and mining barons were political and financial power brokers and they weren’t interested in sharing any part of the nation’s resources with the public or future generations. They were rich and getting richer extracting the resources for themselves. After President Roosevelt created national forests in Idaho and Montana things did not get better because congress refused to fund them. Forest rangers were paid pittances, given no resources and were generally despised.
Teddy Roosevelt is pretty well known, but Gifford Pinchot not so much. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is just north of here, so it was kind of fun to learn about the man. Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service, was the grandson of a timber tycoon himself. He was wealthy, studied forestry in Europe and Yale, but fell in love with the mountains and forests of the West. He was a terrible politician, preachy and direct. However, he did become good friends with Roosevelt, and Roosevelt liked his ideas. He was also quirky, talking to his dead fiance for about 20 years, before marrying another woman.
Prior to the big fire the preservation efforts of the Forest Service were largely ignored. Railroad companies continued to build through the forests, using trees to build rails, trestles and lodgings for workers. Timber companies continued to cut trees, and to buy land within the forests through a variety of schemes. In this context, and in an effort to get support, Pinchot made one of the principle goals of the Forest Service to control fire. This kind of worked until the summer of 1910. Drought conditions and high winds combined to create one of the largest fires in US history. The forest rangers were relatively helpless and several towns were destroyed. In the aftermath of the fire, the timber industry argued that the fires were the fault of the Forest Service, but popular sentiment prevailed and the Forest Service got funding. The Forest Service thereafter focused on fire suppression at all costs, which hasn’t quite worked out as the early foresters hoped.
Egan is a journalist and this is a very readable and interesting book.