Book tells how our National Forests came to be


If you are planning a camping trip this summer to one of our National Forests, be sure to thank Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, who were instrumental in creating these national treasures.

Reading Timothy Egan's "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America" (2009) is a great way to learn about the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service and the politics of the late 1800s and early 20th century. The book is divided into three parts. Part I, "In on the Creation," tells of the friendship of Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt and their commitment to the idea of conservation of our national forests.

In the late 1800s the govnermnet gave public land in the West to railroads, developers, mining conglomerates and timber syndicates. The railroads had been given more than 100 million acres, logging was unrestricted and anyone could establish a mining claim on land not yet staked by another.

Naturalist John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 with a small group of men who advocated protecting land in California from exploitation. In 1896, Muir and Pinchot toured the West to help President Grover Cleveland decide what to do with parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California and Wyoming. They recommended that two National Parks, Mount Rainer and the Grand Canyon, be created and that a number of forest reserves should be established.

Two powerful senators, copper king William A. Clark of Butte, Mont., and Weldon Heyburn of Wallace, Idaho, were opponents of any measure that would protect public land from their mining and timber interests. Ten days before leaving office, Cleveland established 21 million acres of forest reserves. Congress quickly passed a bill to nullify protection of any public land, which Cleveland vetoed as one of his last acts as president. William McKinley inherited the controversy over the forest reserves and suspended Cleveland's order. In September 1901, Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency after McKinley's assassination. Roosevelt wrote, "The forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the shortsighted greed of a few." He established the United States Forest Service in 1905 and named Gifford Pinchot as chief forester. Pinchot assumed responsibility for 60 million acres of forest reserves.

The second section of Egan's book, "What They Lost," describes what happened on Aug. 20-21, 1910, when a series of wildfires burned about three million acres (an area the size of Connecticut) in northeast Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. The Forest Service had assembled 10,000 firefighters, yet it seems that they never had a chance once the fire merged into one huge inferno fed by 80-mile-per-.hour winds. Several towns in the region including one-third of the largest city in the area, Wallace, Idaho, were burned in the fire. Eighty-five people, 78 of them firefighters, lost their lives in the fire.

Using letters, newspaper articles and Forest Service records, Egan personalizes the fire by telling the stories of several of the men who fought and died in the fire: rangers, soldiers and immigrant miners imported from all over the country to help the firefighting effort.

One of the heroes of the fire was Ed Pulaski, a former miner who hired on with the Forest Service as an assistant ranger in Wallace. Pulaski saved several firefighters' lives by taking shelter in a mine tunnel. Pulaski was badly burned and lost much of his vision. Yet the Forest Service refused to pay Ed Pulaski's medical bills. A year later, he invented the tool that has since come to symbolize fire-fighting in this country: the "Pulaski," a pick on one side, an ax on the other.

Part III, titled "What They Saved," winds down with the post fire days and a brief history of how the Forest Service and its mission have evolved since 1910. The United States currently has a system of 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as other special areas, covering more than 192 million acres of public land. The Forest Service has grown into a 30,000 employee agency that manages the national forests for a number of multiple uses, including recreation, timber, wilderness, minerals, water, grazing, fish and wildlife.

What I especially liked about Part III was Egan's follow-up of what happened to Gifford Pinchot, several of the foresters and residents of the area affected by the fire. One of those foresters, Elers Koch, wrote a book, "Forty Years a Forester," which gives a detailed history of the early days of the U.S. Forest Service.

In 2005 the Forest Service finally recognized and honored Ed Pulaski and his contributions to the Forest Service. A walking trail about one mile south of Wallace, Idaho, is dedicated to Pulaski's memory. The trail's two-mile course ultimately brings hikers to a spot across the creek from the abandoned mine where Pulaski saved all but six of his 45-man firefighting crew in the 1910 fire. The trail has been equipped with numerous large-format interpretive signs and a number of bridges where the trail crosses the creek. Both the trail and the mine are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

If you are interested in learning more about the fire, the area that burned includes parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d'Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo and St. Joe National Forests -- all within commuting distance for a camping trip.


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