A combination of decades of vigorous fire suppression and the waning of the timber industry over environmental concerns has left many forests a tangled, overgrown mess, subject to the kind of super-fires that are now regularly consuming hundreds of homes and millions of acres. As firefighters continue to battle massive blazes in New Mexico and Colorado, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is renewing his call to restore forests to a more natural state, in which fire was a part of the landscape and in many instances was far less destructive.
-- June 13, 2012, Associated Press
Gifford Pinchot, two-time Pennsylvania governor and full-time eccentric, was a man who missed the forest for the trees somewhat intentionally. More than the great outdoors, he loved the trees themselves, the living, breathing Pennsylvania oaks and maples that financed his Yale education. His father, James, a post-Civil War lumber baron, regretted the harm his family's lumber work had brought to the eastern forests and was determined that young Gifford would pursue a less profitable, more academic passion. That passion, by no coincidence, was forestry.
Pinchot is the oft-forgotten man in the holy triumvirate of American woodland preservation and conservation, less identifiable today than Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, but certainly as influential in his time. And while Roosevelt and Muir advocated for a philosophically broad protection of the land -- the streams and rocks, the views and vistas, all sewn into TR's progressive "New Nationalism" platform -- Pinchot's focus was more singular: those trees. How to care for them, how to protect them from the wholesale hillside slashing of lumber companies -- and how to keep them from burning, as they are now doing in Colorado, consuming tens of thousands of acres and forcing evacuations up and down the state.
So it has been, this tension between man and fire and the trees, for as long as humans have inhabited the continent. When Spanish and European settlers arrived here en masse, around the 1600s, they marveled at the pristine wilderness that was North America, thousands of miles of untamed woodland and plains, and they supposed that the region's native inhabitants, the Indians, had always kept it that way, living like soft-treading apparitions.
We now know this wasn't the case -- the reason that the land was so idyllically overgrown is because so many of the Indians had already died of disease or other causes, post-Columbus, and were no longer cultivating the landscape to suit their needs. The reality is, when Native Americans were at their peak, populating the Americas by the millions, they practiced some advanced (for the time) land management techniques, using fire as weapon to beat down young forests, clear brush and weeds, and drive bison from one spot to another.
"Broadcast" burning (compared to firewood burning and localized "patch" burning) was "the practice of setting fire to the landscape for multiple purposes, [such as burning] a prairie to cure tarweed seeds, eliminate Douglas-fir seedlings, expose reptiles and burrowing mammals, and harvest insects," according to "The Great Fires: Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patterns of the Oregon Coast Range."
They used fire to manage crops (and to make cropland more fertile), to hunt elk and alligators, even to wage war, by forcing foes from the tree stands in which they were hiding, or to scorch the earth to drive away European settlers, hunters and fur traders. Most often, it was the prairie and underbrush that would burn at the Indians' hand, but sometimes it was the woods; those local patch fires would rage, especially in the Plains and the West, and especially now, in these summer months, when drought is more common and such fires are more likely to spread, galloping over the mountains and through the valleys on the backs of those ferocious Chinook and Palouser winds.
Even without the benefit of ecology degrees, the Indians understood that fire was a natural, native force -- and a necessary one, whether started by lightning or by man. But by the time Gifford Pinchot became America's first chief forester, tapped by Teddy Roosevelt to head the newly renamed United States Forest Service (previously it had been the Division of Forestry), America's relationship with forest fire, and the trees, was more complicated.
Rail companies wanted the western forests cleared to build depot towns and new roads. Homesteaders wanted the land cleared so it could be farmed. And logging companies wanted the lumber for themselves -- and weren't keen on Roosevelt's and Pinchot's nascent conservationism, nor the duo's plan to set aside millions of acres of woodland as national forests, creating, nearly overnight, "the largest public land agency the world had yet known," by Timothy Egan's account in "The Big Burn."
The Big Burn in reference happened 102 years ago this August, a catastrophic, once-a-century forest fire that wiped out parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Canada, 3 million acres in all. A combination of man and nature -- an unprecedented dry spell, mixed in with lightning and sparks thrown off by locomotive cinders -- had created more than a thousand, and possibly up to 3,000, separate wildfires. By mid-August 1910, they'd merged into one all-consuming firestorm, moving along at a 60 mph clip, bringing low whole towns and killing dozens of overmatched, under-trained firefighters.
When the rains finally came, dousing the fire, America began debating what went wrong, and how best to fix it. Pinchot, who by 1910 had been fired by President William Howard Taft for insubordination, had an ax to grind, blamed the anti-Roosevelt politicians who had tried to starve the Forest Service of men and resources.
The truth, though, is that even with 10,000 men, the Big Burn could not have been stopped. And that truth, eventually, was a revelation to Pinchot and many like minds, who had previously believed that with the right technology, and with a cast of dedicated young rangers, fire could always be defeated. It could not be -- and there was a touch of reality to the anti-conservation remarks of the Pennsylvania-born Idaho Sen. Weldon Heyburn, who blamed the Big Burn on the forest service itself.
If the great forest preserves did not exist -- if they had been turned over to loggers and homesteaders, as he wished -- the fires wouldn't have any fuel: "The exclusion of responsible settlers, and the substitution of irresponsible persons as rangers account in a large measure for the fires," the senator said. "The presence of thousands of men in the forest whose principal industry is to establish the necessity for their own employment will always constitute a menace to the forest."
The senator found more common ground with one of Pinchot's successors, William Greeley, who as head of the U.S. Forest Service thought that the woods were a commercial resource as much as a natural preserve (and who believed he was doing God's work in extinguishing Satan's hellfires). He wrote:
"The national forests are no longer primeval solitudes remote from the economic life of developing regions, or barely touched by the skirmish line of settlement. To a very large degree the wilderness has been pressed back. Farms have multiplied, roads have been built, [and] industries have found foothold and expanded. Although the forests are still in an early stage of economic development, their resources are important factors in present prosperity."
And as a factor in commercial prosperity, the trees had to be protected for the lumber companies that would later chop them down. In 1935, another forest chief, Ferdinand Silcox, decreed that all forest fires, upon discovery, should be extinguished by 10 a.m. the following day.
It was an impossible -- not to mention foolhardy and dangerous -- charge. But that policy turned what had been Pinchot's small band of Ivy League forest rangers into a full-scale firefighting army of 600,000, and beating back woodland fires would become the Forest Service's primary cause for being.
Pinchot, a lifelong Republican whose opinion of the lumber industry soured as the years went on, thought Greeley's and Silcox's stewardship of the Forest Service put the service "at odds with Pinchot and Roosevelt's founding mission," writes Timothy Egan. "The timber industry was the enemy; to partner with it would be letting the wolf in the hen house ... Industrial clear-cuts had come to the woods, entire mountainsides clipped of all trees, the land literally scalped."
In Pinchot's mind, the nation's forests -- those trees -- looked no better under Greeley and Silcox than they did after the Big Burn.
In the short term, it can be argued, Greeley and Silcox had it right -- World War II came, and the Japanese hoped that setting massive forest fires in the Pacific Northwest would shift our attention, and deplete our timber resources. In 1944 and 1945, the Japanese launched 9,000 incendiary fire balloons, hoping to light the woods ablaze (they never succeeded, though five Oregon school pupils and their teacher were killed by one of the fire bombs). The Forest Service came up with a new mascot, Smokey Bear, in 1944, enlisting all of America in the service's mission. Fighting wildfires was now good civic stewardship, part of the national defense effort.
In the long term, though, Pinchot's late-in-life views have won the day -- fighting all the fires, all the time, is an unprofitable business, interfering with the forests' primary agent of generational, ecological change. By the 1950s and '60s, forest and park stewards were advocating for "controlled" fires. And within the National Parks Service, they've long since come around to the theory of natural burn. Yellowstone, for example, adopted a natural fire policy in 1972, letting most wildfires extinguish on their own in all but the most dangerous situations -- as in 1988, when dozens of summer fires turned 1.2 million acres to ash; more than a third of the park burned that year.
The 1988 Yellowstone burn may be the most-studied forest fire in U.S. history. According to a National Park Service report, we learned that, while some elk and other large mammals were lost, "most wildlife populations showed no effect or rebounded quickly from the fiery summer ... precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx [made] for spectacular displays of wildflowers in burned areas. ... a new cycle of forest growth [began] under the blackened canopy above."
But if fighting fires is unprofitable, so is thinning the woods -- the Forest Service now says it will need decades, and billions of dollars, to deploy mechanical thinning and to use prescribed fire to help "restore forests to a more natural state, in which fire was a part of the landscape and in many instances was far less destructive."
Science, ecology especially, works like this sometimes, propelled by man's high regard of himself, only to learn that nature had it right all along.
"Everybody has to keep in mind that fire will play a huge, significant role in our landscape for the rest of time," Forester Corbin Newman said. "Sometimes people think through either restoration or suppression we can just make fires go away. We have to remind folks we're just trying put fire back into its natural processes and cycles as opposed to what we're seeing in today's world."
-- June 13, 2012, Associated Press
Bill Toland is a Post-Gazette staff writer who usually covers business and spirits (email@example.com, 412-263-2625). First Published July 8, 2012 4:00 AM