Wilderness Warriors

Wilderness Warriors

29 October 2009

published by www.nytimes.com


For Americans bred on Smokey Bear, it’s a shock to learn that the first forest rangers were hated men whose work had little to do with smoldering s’mores.

In the still-wild West of a century ago, rangers evicted shotgun-toting outlaws who ran saloons and brothels on public land. A hunter shot a ranger dead, claiming he’d mistaken him for a deer. A mob, enraged by new limits on mining, hanged the firstForest Service chief in effigy. In Congress, foes of the agency lobbied for felling entire forests before they caught fire. “Not one cent for scenery!” cried the speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon, one of many legislators opposed toTheodore Roosevelt’s conservationist agenda. Trees, after all, were just boards and railroad ties in waiting.

The story of Roosevelt’s crusade to save wild places is becoming as well worn as a campfire tale. This summer brought“The Wilderness Warrior,”Douglas Brinkley’s biography, and the fall bringsKen Burns’s PBSspectacle on the national parks. But while Roosevelt is justly celebrated for his vision and his shrewd use of the presidency as a bully pulpit — “I am against the man who skins the land!” — the task of protecting public woodlands fell to a small corps of unsung foresters. It is in praise of these pioneering conservationists that Timothy Egan has written “The Big Burn,” an enlightening if uneven account of the Forest Service’s embattled founding.

Egan, who writes the Outposts column for NYTimes.com and is a veteran chronicler of the West, is evidently drawn to disaster. He won aNational Book Award for“The Worst Hard Time,” a harrowing portrayal of the Dust Bowl. Here, he shifts from the Plains to the Northern Rockies to revisit the worst wildfire in United States history. Known as the “Big Burn,” the 1910 blaze consumed three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington, scorched frontier towns and left a smoke cloud so dense that it hung over Denver after the flames had died down.

Egan weaves his account of the Big Burn with the creation story of the United States Forest Service. This might seem a dull, bureaucratic yarn, but Egan tells it as the stirring tale of a very odd couple: the irrepressible Teddy Roosevelt, who “burned 2,000 calories before noon and drank his coffee with seven lumps of sugar,” and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, an ascetic loner who sometimes slept on a wooden pillow and for 20 years mystically clung to his deceased fiancée.

Raised rich in Manhattan, like Roosevelt, Pinchot was heir to a chateau with 23 fireplaces and a fortune made from clear-cutting Eastern forests. Yet this city-bred scion became a friend of the naturalist John Muir, a champion of woodlands and Roosevelt’s confidant on conservation. “We dream the same dreams,” Roosevelt wrote to Pinchot, and share “a peculiar intimacy.” While lambasting robber barons and staking out tracts of national forest, the two men also boxed, wrestled and swam naked in the Potomac.

When Pinchot became chief of the new Forest Service in 1905, he recruited idealistic young rangers, many trained at a forestry school at Yale. This was a world away from the public lands that Roosevelt’s “green rangers” were sent to survey and police. Out West, rangers faced homesteaders and railroad, timber and mining magnates engaged in the frantic land and resource grab of the early 1900s. It was hard forIvy League foresters to get the attention — much less the cooperation — of folk in places like Taft, Mont., a boomtown of 2,500 serviced by 30 saloons and almost 500 prostitutes.

Making matters worse, Roosevelt’s successor, the 335-poundWilliam Howard Taft (a “platter of mush,” one adviser called him), had little appetite for conservation. He fired Pinchot, and the newborn Forest Service, starved for funds and beset on all fronts, appeared at risk of dying in its infancy.

It was at this juncture, in the dry summer of 1910, that electrical storms and high winds spread fire across the Northern Rockies. The heart of Egan’s book is a detailed, at times hour-by-hour recounting of the battle to contain the fire and evacuate towns. On one side, walls of flame; on the other, a ragtag army of rangers, Buffalo Soldiers, hastily hired immigrants and other recruits with little or no experience at fighting fire. This should make for tense, sweaty drama. Instead, it’s when “The Big Burn” runs astray.

One reason is structural. The book’s first act is driven by a few strong characters, Pinchot in particular. In the longer second act, which traces the fire, the cast becomes huge and the story hard to follow. Pinchot, the book’s appealing protagonist, all but vanishes. Ultimately, the coupling of the 1910 fire and the Forest Service’s founding feels forced, like a railroad where the gauges don’t match.

The prose adds to this disconnect. Egan’s research is deep, and his details are vivid: a pocket watch stopping at the wearer’s time of death, a woman burying her sewing machine to save it from fire, elk and bears fleeing the forest ahead of the flames. But rather than trust this material, Egan cranks up the temperature, charging through adjectives and clichés. Wind-driven fire is “a peek beyond the gates of hell,” while a weary ranger is “going on adrenaline, a kid trying to keep a tsunami of wildfire at bay, trying to save at least one town.”

The screenplay for a disaster flick also keeps elbowing its way into the text. There are obvious goodies (the humble, selfless firefighters) and baddies (the well heeled, and the purveyors of sin, who refuse to help or who escape on trains intended for women and children). Egan cuts quickly between scenes, always leaving the heroes on the brink. “I won’t die here,” declares “the homesteader gal with the pistol on her hip,” staggering into the woods alone. Many characters appear doomed, only to miraculously resurrect. In the end, 85 people die — a sad toll, but a fraction of what Egan has led the reader to expect after all the racing flames, choking smoke and crashing trees.

Thankfully, Pinchot and quieter prose return in the book’s brief final act, about the fire’s aftermath. But Egan’s concluding chapters seem at odds with the book’s buildup. Pinchot and Roosevelt cleverly used the Big Burn to barnstorm for the Forest Service, selling it as a brave band of firefighters that needed to be expanded and equipped to prevent a repeat catastrophe. The agency’s budget soared, more forests were set aside, and so, as the book’s subtitle suggests, the fire of 1910 “saved” America’s woodlands for future generations.

Well, not exactly. In the final pages, we learn that the Progressive Era vision of “people’s forests,” sustainably logged and conserved for all, was immediately betrayed. By 1920, Big Timber had co-opted the Forest Service, leading to industrial clear-cuts that “scalped” the land. “The Forest Service became the fire service,” Egan writes, “protecting trees so industry could cut them down later.” Pinchot, traveling as an old man to Western forests he’d fought so hard to save, was horrified to find a denuded expanse of mud and stumps. “Absolute devastation,” he wrote in his diary.

This is a powerful, tragic image of a dream subverted. But it’s not what the preceding heroics have prepared us for. If “The Big Burn” does become a movie, you can be sure that Hollywood will change the ending.

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