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Know the West

Saving the U.S. Forest Service


The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America
Timothy Egan
336 pages, hardcover: $27.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

The United States of America leaped into the 20th century with a surfeit of natural resources and a flamboyant leader. Early in his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt proposed a radical idea: Set aside and protect certain parts of the country for the enjoyment of all its citizens. Despite industry's opposition, he managed to create the Forest Service. But congressmen balked at paying for "scenery," and so "jungle capitalism" broke out in the West, according to Timothy Egan's new book, The Big Burn.

During the first decade of the 1900s, "Teddy's green rangers" bravely attempted to protect public lands. But they were losing the battle. Hard-knuckle brawls erupted in forests and on the streets of Western towns, in rowdy mining camps and in elegant dining rooms. Verbal fisticuffs broke out in the halls of Congress. Industrial capitalists like J.P. Morgan, William A. Clark and John D. Rockefeller scrambled to make all the money they could off the "free" natural resources in the West before Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, locked it all up.

When influential congressmen in cahoots with the powerful robber barons denied funding for the Forest Service, Pinchot deftly parried. He presented Congress with a new idea: His rangers, he said, could also fight wildfires.

Then, out in Idaho, a monster wildfire blew up. In less than two days, more than 3 million acres of trees and five towns were burned into ashes. Nearly 100 people died. Pinchot blamed Congress and promised to control future wildfires –– if his rangers were given adequate funding.

In The Big Burn, Egan posits that without the catastrophic fire of 1910, the public lands we enjoy today would not exist. But he also presents a down side to the salvation of the fledgling Forest Service: decades of fire-suppression policies. As "bigger, longer, earlier, hotter wildfires" have become more common, Egan says, "firefighting now accounts for nearly half of the Forest Service budget. This was not what Roosevelt had in mind."

Egan's meticulous research and engaging style enliven this many-sided story. His characters are round and fully animated, springing to life from the flat, dusty pages of history.