Gifford Pinchot traveled to Missoula in 1937. Seventy-two years old, a former two-term governor of Pennsylvania and the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot had shipped his Buick to Missoula by rail earlier that summer so that he might embark on a summer tour, starting with the Cabinet Mountains in Montana to the Cascades in Oregon to the High Sierra in California. His purpose for such a trip was two-fold: He wanted to reacquaint himself with the wilderness he had spent much of his life fighting to preserve, and he was just beginning to write his memoirs on the conservation movement. The result, Breaking New Ground, would take Pinchot more than 10 years to write, culminating in more than 500 pages of discussion that references his close friendship with Theodore Roosevelt and revisits, in encyclopedic detail, his and Roosevelt's many battles to wrest the forests of the American West from special interests.
It is this history, combined with the narrative of the Big Burn, that Timothy Egan, National Book Award winner for The Worst Hard Time, chronicles in his newest—and perhaps most engrossing—book yet: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America. The Big Burn, still the largest ever wildfire in American history (though not the deadliest), swept through Washington, Idaho and Montana over the course of two days in August 1910, the combined result of a particularly dry summer, a few thousand small-scale fires throughout the national forests of the Pacific Northwest and one hurricane-force wind—called a Palouser—that created great gusts that reached 74 miles an hour or more, whipping all the small-scale fires into a great massive blaze.
"Everyone knew about Palousers," writes Egan, "...they could pack a punch, though they were rare in the Bitterroots. But a Palouser hissing flames at high speed—this was a peek beyond the gates of Hell."
In alternating sections, Egan weaves the tale of the Big Burn with the story of the creation of the Forest Service, leading the narrative with a colorful and highly detailed account of the large-scale personalities of his two leading good guys: Teddy Roosevelt, who "burned 2,000 calories before noon and drank his coffee with seven lumps of sugar," and the forestry pioneer, Gifford Pinchot, who sometimes slept on a wooden pillow and, for more than 20 years, secretly consulted with the ghost of his dead fiancée. "He read books to her," Egan tells us, "ran his ideas and speeches by her, craved her approval, checked opinions and policies with her."
Roosevelt and Pinchot worked together—from the time of Roosevelt's governorship in New York to his presidency and beyond—to save the American West from corporate plunderers. President Roosevelt appointed Pinchot chief of the Forest Service in 1905 and together the two men carved out 180 million acres of land for protection. According to Egan, Roosevelt wanted Americans to "understand that it was their right in a democracy to own it—every citizen holding a stake." Both he and Pinchot wanted people to experience wilderness as a relief from what John Muir called "stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury."
But, as in every good Western, there were bad guys aplenty, with perhaps the most insidious of all being U.S. Sen. William Clark, a Montana copper mining magnate (and the founder of Las Vegas) who fought Roosevelt and Pinchot on every conservation measure. Clark once declared, "Those who succeed us can take care of themselves."
The Big Burn, at least according to Egan, saved the conservationist movement. Drawing from eyewitness accounts and utilizing all his skills as a reporter, novelist and historian, Egan recounts the story of the massive fire in terrifying, exhausting detail. But, did the fire really save Teddy Roosevelt and the wilderness of America, as Egan's subtitle suggests? According to Egan, it did. By drawing attention to protected lands, the Great Fire of 1910 saved the conservationist movement, galvanizing it by persuading the public that more forests needed to be under federal protection. One year after the Big Burn, Congress passed a law that would eventually allow government purchase of 20 million acres of woodland in the east. The power of the Forest Service then expanded.
As much as one might be compelled to share in Egan's optimism, it's a little hard to swallow. Egan himself points out that by 1920 loggers had co-opted the Forest Service, leading to industrial clear-cuts. "[T]he Forest Service became the fire service," he writes, "protecting trees so industry could cut them down later." Pinchot, embarking from Missoula as an old man through the forests he'd fought so hard to save, was horrified to find a landscape stripped to mud and stumps. "Absolute devastation," he wrote in his diary in 1937. Today, the special interests of corporate investors and the hubris of American politicians still attempt to exploit the resources of the American West.
The legacy of the Big Burn may have furthered the conservationist movement, but the real message of Egan's book may very well be how much further we have to go.
Timothy Egan reads from The Big Burn at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 7 PM.