Lessons from the ‘The Big Burn’

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke needs to read “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”

By Joe Brenneman

This is the time of year when we throw another log on the fire, carefully position our chair, procure our favorite libation, and delve into the wonderful revelations of a good book. I highly recommend “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America” by Timothy Egan as an excellent choice to be read by the crackling fire.

The title of the book refers to the fire of 1910 in Idaho and Montana. The summer of 1910 had been hot and dry and by Aug. 20 many small fires burned throughout the area. That day hurricane force winds spread the fires at unbelievable speed until by the end of the 21st the fire had consumed nearly 3.2 million acres and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters. In addition to the devastating fire, Egan describes the astonishing vision, tenacity and fascinating idiosyncrasies of Teddy Roosevelt, the beginning of the Forest Service and the work of its first chief, Gifford Pinchot.

Growing up in the Flathead surrounded by national and state forestland the concept of public land has been something I’ve always known and appreciated. Prior to the work of Roosevelt and Pinchot that whole idea was a foreign concept. The timber and mining interests regarded the vast western lands as theirs for the taking and Egan describes the Robber Barrons’ nefarious efforts to secure the land and all its resources. It is truly astounding that Roosevelt was able to bring about the National Forest system, the National Parks, and the Antiquities Act providing for the establishment of National Monuments.

The person who really needs to read this book is the secretary of the Interior, our very own Ryan Zinke. He frequently describes himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.” Even a cursory reading of the book should make it abundantly clear to Mr. Zinke that he has only two choices if he is a person of integrity. One would be to announce to the world that after reading the book he realizes that he is not much of a conservationist in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. The other would be to drastically alter his course of action as secretary of Interior and convince his boss of the importance of conservation and public land. Of course the latter would likely take super human powers, for an almost uncountable number of reasons.

You would think that after 100 years of enjoying our public lands, a very important heritage to many of us, there would be unanimous support from our elected officials. Not so, the Robber Barrons are more powerful than ever and by all appearances have nearly taken over our government. I know that federal management style of the Forest Service lands can be frustrating, but that is a small price to pay to maintain this unique treasure for all Americans. I understand the desire for the land to be owned by the state. In Montana the state does a pretty good job managing the land it does own but the unconquerable road block is the liability that comes with land ownership. Fire suppression is only going to increase and it nearly undid the state this year. Besides that, I fear that transferring federal land takes us one step closer to being sold to private interests much less accommodating than Plum Creek or Weyerhaeuser. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, while hunting on land I thought was still owned by Plum Creek, was saddened to discover a big fence and locked gate with accompanying sign warning me of dire consequences should I proceed.

It’s a sticky wicket and the issues formidable, but so were the challenges faced by Teddy Roosevelt as revealed in Timothy Egan’s book. Thank goodness Roosevelt persevered and so must we.

Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.

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