Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan writes another wonderful history about the terrible fire that destroyed millions of acres of forest in Montana and Idaho is the summer of 1910. Surrounding the fire he also tells the story of how the forest service was created and fought against. It is also an important reminder that the battle continues to be fought today.

The creation of the Forest Service was the brainchild of Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt. A couple of progressive Republicans who would find no acceptance in their party today. Between the two of them they essentially created our national parks as you see them today.

Egan does an excellent job of beginning his story with the introduction of these two extraordinary Americans. It is important to tell not only as a historic background to the fire itself but as a way of reminding the reader how the country was feeling in 1910. It was an aggressive time of growth with Robber Barons like JP Morgan consuming the countries natural resources as fast and rudely as humanly possible.

Pinchot and Roosevelt showed the American people a different path and suggested that these resources belonged to them and shouldn't be squandered completely on the altar of greed. This was radical and ground-breaking thinking in the early twentieth century and Roosevelt could not point to similar examples anywhere else in the world. The robber barons fought him at every step but the hugely popular President would not be denied.

In typical fashion his political opponents fought a rear guard battle against the newly created Forest Service. Whittle away at the laws, call them useless and a taxpayer waste, and deny them funding. Sounds like every social program ever passed; social security and medicare come to mind.

The result of all this negative behavior in the summer of 1910 was a Forest Service badly stretched with personnel covering territories of thousands of square miles. A public that often gave them no respect and even open hostility except when they wanted something from them. And, finally, a complete lack of resources for equipment and recruiting firefighters.

Egan sets the stage for the fire and then brings the events of those days vividly back with first hand accounts. Characters such as "Pinkie" Adair and the great Ed Pulaski feature strongly in his narrative. Those of us from Washington State will appreciate the story of Ranger Joe Halm and his young heroics during the firestorm.

He also reminds us, ever so politely, that the battle is not over. He recounts a celebration in 2005 euglogizing Ed Pulaski and featuring George W Bush appointee Mark Rey, head of the Forest Service. "Rey was an odd choice to preside over this ceremony in the woods. He had been a powerful advocate for the logging industry, a lobbyist and partisan, arguing fiercely against protection for dying species and wild lands in the public forests." There was no mention of conservation during the ceremony.

Perhaps a not-so subtle reminder that the battle continues and there are few who are fighting on the side of forests anymore. The few newspapers who remain in business are corporately owned and therefore interested only in profit and not conservation. Remember, as long as there are forests to cut somebody will want to cut them.