Monday, February 7, 2011

Not one cent for scenery!

I'm not sure I would have appreciated The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America before I lived out West. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is not far from Portland, but until I read this book I had no idea who he was. Timothy Egan, a journalist who covered "western issues" for the New York Times, has written a fascinating history of the beginnings of the U.S. Forest Service, the birth of the idea that some places should be preserved and not mined/harvested/settled until nothing is left, and a thrilling description of a huge fire and the men who fought it. And, on top of everything else? It shows us that it is possible to be both a Republican and a Progressive! Imagine that! (I will note, though, the speaker of this blog's title was also a Republican, Representative Joseph Cannon, who didn't exactly agree with Roosevelt's progressiveness.)

When he was a young man, Gifford Pinchot met the naturalist John Muir, which sealed his love of the wilderness. He went on to pursue a career as a forester because it enabled him to be outdoors. He met fellow nature enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt, and -- once Roosevelt became president -- they worked together to create the Forest Service, which -- essentially -- grabbed as much western land as it possibly could in order to protect it from the wealthy individuals and corporations who were interested only in what profits they could get from the ore beneath the ground, the trees that covered the magnificent mountains, and even the railroads that would haul the workers in and the riches out. Cities and towns were just plopped down in the middle of the wilderness to accommodate the men working in the mines, forests and railroads. One of these towns was Wallace, Idaho.

Pinchot and his wealthy family (whose money came from clear-cutting half of Pennsylvania) helped found the Yale School of Forestry, and soon after Pinchot began recruiting its students to come manage the forests out west. But few of these men knew how to fight a forest fire, and their budgets -- no longer protected by Roosevelt (who had left office) and Pinchot (who had been fired) --had been decimated. It's August 1910. In the Bitterroot mountain range, rain had been nonexistent, but lightning strikes were frequent. Small fires were breaking out all over and the Forest Service was keeping things under control. But then this freak windstorm blew in and the tinder-dry trees and undergrowth went up in a huge conflagration that grew to be the size of the state of Connecticut (three million acres). The foresters had no chance, and neither did the town of Wallace. It is astonishing to me how few people died (estimated at around 85). Check out this Powerpoint presentation which has lots of great pictures.

Egan tells the story of the fire by quickly moving from one story to another:
  • The last train out of Wallace -- full of wealthy men, when it was supposed to be reserved for women and children -- doesn't know which way to go to escape the fire;
  • A group of forest fighters -- including two Italian immigrants -- who seek shelter in a mineshaft but are burned alive;
  • Another group who also rode out the firestorm in a mineshaft, but who all miraculously survive (including their leader, the charismatic Ed Pulaski);
  • The Buffalo Soldiers (who had fought with TR at San Juan Hill) who rescued the residents of another town;
  • A woman who had hired on as a camp cook who escaped with the fire at her heels;
  • A young forester, Joseph Halm, who had been declared dead and his obituary published when he staggered into town days after the fire.
It's riveting stuff. I really enjoyed everything that Egan offers -- the story of the friendship of Pinchot and Roosevelt, how the initial excitement of the conservation movement got bogged down in politics, the character studies of the westerners who survived (or not) the Big Burn, and the aftermath -- including how it took the Forest Service another 75 years to realize that they shouldn't put out every fire that gets started on their lands. I like nonfiction like this -- nonfiction that tells a good story.

Robertson Dean narrates the book. He has a great newscaster-type of voice (in a good way), deep and resonant with a lot of quiet authority. He keeps Egan's multi-stranded narrative going at a steady clip, and when quotations appear or dialog is called for he gives the speaker an appropriate voice. I have heard Dean read a children's book once and -- from listening here -- it is clear that he is much better suited to adult titles.

I have been meaning to get to Mt. St. Helens ever since the Visitors Center on the edge of the crater opened 14 (eek!) years ago. At least now when I see the signs telling me that I'm entering the Gifford Pinchot Forest I'll know who he is!

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan
Narrated by Robertson Dean
Brilliance Audio, 2009. 10:05

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