Theodore Roosevelt, first of the New York cousins who became popular, iconic presidents, willed himself through a sickly childhood by engaging in a staggering array of outdoor activities. Timothy Egan, in The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, says, “The outdoors may have shaped the body, but it clearly got into his soul,” and his love of the outdoors served as a driving force throughout his political career.
Indeed, Roosevelt became known as the “Conservation President,” largely for creating the United States Forest Service, establishing 150 National Forests, and protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land from development.
Throughout his administration, Roosevelt thwarted the efforts of railroad men, miners and loggers who lusted after opportunities to exploit the vast resources of the Western United States. He appointed his close partner Gifford Pinchot to be the first Chief of the Forest Service in 1905 and charged him with assembling an army of rangers to protect and nurture the lands that Roosevelt had set aside. Pinchot defined the profession of forestry as he went. He believed that the land should provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and he popularized the conservation of natural resources as a national ideal.
When Roosevelt hand-picked William Howard Taft to be his successor as President, he expected him to continue—or at least maintain—his progressive policies and hard-won conservation measures. But Taft was averse to confrontation and proved to be no match for the predatory commercial interests that continued to be promoted by men like Speaker of the House of Representatives Joe Cannon and Idaho Senator Weldon Heyburn. They opposed limits on development and the establishment of a system of national parks and forests. Taft failed to uphold Roosevelt’s legacy, and the Forest Service was gutted after Taft removed Pinchot as its leader.
It seemed that the work of Roosevelt, Pinchot and the foresters would be largely in vain until thousands of small lightning fires combined to tear through the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border over two days in August, 1910. The Great Fire of 1910 blackened an area the size of Connecticut and killed 92 people despite the efforts of Forest Service rangers who sought to contain it. But even more significantly, the fire intensified public debate over attempts to protect wilderness areas from both man and nature itself, and its impact on public policy regarding the creation and management of public lands—forests in particular—would continue for the next century.
Efforts to increase National Forest lands in the Eastern United States had passed a bill in the House of Representatives but were stalled in the Senate by delays, negotiations, and filibustering when the Great Fire occurred. The direct influence of the fire is debated, but the Weeks Act was passed by the Senate on March 1, 1911. According to historian Harold Steen, “Opposition in the Senate to federal purchase of eastern forests had gone up in the smoke of a 1910 holocaust in Idaho.”
It may be a stretch to say that the Great Fire of 1910 “saved America,” as Egan’s title does, but it is not a stretch to say that it played a key part in furthering and defining what Ken Burns called “America’s best idea,” National Parks which “should be available not to a privileged few, but to everyone.”