Tracking History of Our Forest Fire Policy through a Maze of Politics

By West, Woody | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 20, 2001 | Go to article overview

Tracking History of Our Forest Fire Policy through a Maze of Politics


West, Woody, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Massive forest fires these days for the 80 percent of us in urban-clotted America are experienced vicariously, through television mostly - dramatic, fearsome and fortunately removed from where most of us live.

As the 20th century began, forest fire was viewed not simply as wasteful. It was evil, to be suppressed by attacking quickly and thoroughly. This was a radical notion. Fire had been intricately part of sustaining the natural environment long before the white man ventured deep into the continent - both from natural causes and annual burning by Indians.

Suppression was a "doctrine that was fast becoming dogma" for conservationists as the century turned. Only as the 20th century was fading, writes Stephen J. Pyne in "Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910," has "the false dichotomy that forced one to choose between suppressing and starting" fires broken down.

The evolution of forest fire policy might seem a tinder-dry academic topic. Not so with Mr. Pyne, professor of history at Arizona State University. The "Year of the Fires," he writes, "grew out of an extraordinary cultural context. Wind, drought, and woods collided with bureaucracies, railroads, political scandal, pioneering, ideas about nature, and reformist zeal." Devastating millions of acres across the middle tier of North America and especially the Northern Rockies, the fires of 1910 assumed a "moral force." This is a provocative essay on both public attitudes and civic morality, if you will, and the calculus of government policy as a vector of political power. Mr. Pyne has constructed a harrowing and vivid narrative of this complex phenomenon.

The United States in the late 1800s was "a fire-flushed agricultural country that was rapidly industrializing. Flame was everywhere." Fire followed the ax, feeding on the debris left by logging and land clearing; as the railroads pushed deeper into the still unsettled West, fires caused by engine embers and sparks from rails were constant and routine.

"But America's emerging elite - its scientists, technocrats, political reformers, those who argued for Progressivism - were less willing to accept laissez-faire settlement with its wastage of soils, forests, waters, field, and lives. They saw fire as cause, catalyst, and consequence of a frontier economy" that a modernizing nation could no longer tolerate.

The polar figures who would contest for policy dominance were John Wesley Powell, the renowned explorer of the West who became head of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1881, and Gifford Pinchot, bosom pal of Theodore Roosevelt, who would be the nation's first chief forester.

Powell contended that an effective fire-protection structure should be controlled by rural Western communities. The rival strategy was based on the European model, in which "only imperial institutions had the power and the purpose" for discharging the responsibility - that is, the central government.

Powell and an acolyte or two rejected the "fire is evil" concept, contending that annual and periodic burning prevented a buildup of fuel, for instance, that would cause much greater devastation. But the zealous Pinchot prevailed, with the aid of President Roosevelt, and was named chief forester in 1898. The Forest Service was created under Pinchot's "fierce brand" of conservatism. His dominant sway officially ended when President William Howard Taft fired him but, as the author says, he left many little GPs behind while Powell left few little JWPs.

Although the Great Fires of 1910, during the driest period ever regionally recorded, were popularly interpreted as an episode of "heroic" struggles (there were indeed myriad acts of individual courage), the conflagrations represented rather an event of "hopeless bungling," Mr. …

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