Thanking Teddy Roosevelt for water and the woods

By Jayson Jacoby January 28, 2011 12:22 pm

I was reminded recently why I ought to thank Teddy Roosevelt whenever I go for a hike in a national forest.

And, more crucially in a physical sense, that I owe Teddy my gratitude each time I down a glass of Baker City tap water.

I was alerted to my obligations to our 26th president in a particularly pleasant way — by reading a book.

An especially fine book at that.

The title is “The Big Burn” and the author is Timothy Egan.

He has prodigious talent both as a researcher and a writer.

Rarer still, it seems to me, is Egan’s knack for deploying those disparate skills to craft books which not only enrich the reader’s mind with nourishing fact but also ring richly in the ear by their precise prose.

The conflagration to which Egan’s title refers is the infamous fire along the Idaho-Montana border in 1910.

It was indeed big.

The blaze scorched 3 million acres in just two days, Aug. 20-21, and killed 85 people, 78 of them firefighters.

Although Roosevelt did not wield a shovel during the firefight, his role is hinted at in the the subtitle of Egan’s book, which was published in 2009: “Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.”

That fire, dramatic and devastating as it was, serves as the backdrop for Egan’s story rather than its centerpiece.

The heart of the book is Roosevelt’s campaign — although crusade is perhaps the more appropriate noun — to prevent the Gilded Age tycoons of his era from plundering the vast forests of the West, and to instead preserve the land as part of the public domain.

To stop the industrialists from repeating out here the waste they had laid to the hardwood forests of New England and the sprawling white pine stands of the Great Lakes, Teddy, with the aid of his faithful fellow East Coast aristocrat, Gifford Pinchot, devised what today is the 193-million-acre National Forest system.

They also created, in 1905, an agency called the Forest Service that was tasked with managing these sprawling swathes of public land. Pinchot was the agency’s first chief.

Roosevelt was out of office when the big burn happened, having declined to run for re-election in 1908.

(He could have done; he ascended to the presidency in 1901 when William McKinley was assassinated, served the rest of McKinley’s term and then was elected to his first full term in 1904.)

At the time of the fire, Pinchot had no authority either over the Forest Service crews that were the bulwark against the blaze.

Early in 1910, Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, fired Pinchot over the latter’s public criticism of Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger.

Which isn’t to say Pinchot’s absence had anything to do with the August disaster.

The fledgling Forest Service was nothing then like the powerful outfit we are accustomed to today.

It didn’t write 300-page environmental impact statements — wouldn’t, in fact, have known what such a thing was, or was supposed to be.

The Forest Service in 1910 had no interest in where people pitched their tents or how many cords of firewood they cut.

And even had officials cared about such matters there was scarcely anything they could do to influence the behavior of forest users.

This was largely because most rangers were individually responsible — in theory if not in reality — for hundreds of thousands of acres.

Egan explains in his book that the Forest Service was in the main incapable of thwarting not only relatively minor violations such as felling timber without permission, but also rather more blatant transgressions such as building a town in a national forest.

But the big burn, he shows, elevated the Forest Service’s status as drastically as it leveled the forests of the Bitterroots.

The fire turned out to be as much a political and social upheaval as it was a natural one.

A deadly blaze can become potent propaganda, and the proponents of a powerful Forest Service — among them Roosevelt and Pinchot — employed the 1910 tragedy with consummate skill.

Without generous budgets from Congress and widespread support from the public, they argued, the Forest Service would never be able to protect these invaluable lands or the people who lived nearby.

Future fiery catastrophes, perhaps on the scale of the 1910 inferno, would be inevitable.

That Roosevelt and Pinchot succeeded is perhaps not surprising to Americans today, who have seen only recently how quickly politicians can use citizens’ fears to justify great expansions in the size and scope of the federal government.

There was no great effort needed to create the Department of Homeland Security or to pass the Patriot Act after 9/11, after all.

But taking similar advantage of the 1910 fire seems, at least at a century’s distance, far from a sure thing.

Americans back then, and in particular Westerners, had comparatively little contact with the federal government.

And considering their general flouting of the young Forest Service’s authority, they seemed to prefer it that way.

Yet the 1910 fire, though probably not quite as significant as Egan’s hyperbolic subtitle claims, was without question a crucial event in the Forest Service’s history.

Perhaps even the most crucial event.

Certainly the blaze “saved” the agency from the real possibility of demise. And the blaze helped the Roosevelt-Pinchot cabal secure for the agency both the political and the actual capital that allowed it to become the ubiquitous presence which we recognize today in all the Western states.

Whether the fire also saved America is a different matter.

The bigger, richer post-fire Forest Service did become the firefighting force that Roosevelt and Pinchot envisioned.

But, as Egan chronicles in the latter chapters, most of the trees the agency saved from flames were in relatively short order sold to timber companies to satiate the nation’s rapacious appetite for lumber.

Just 27 years after the fire, Pinchot, while visiting clear-cut national forests in Washington and Oregon, would write in his diary that what he saw was “absolute devastation.”

Which shows, if nothing else, that the current controversy over what we ought to do with our public forests is merely the latest skirmish in a long conflict.

But let’s return, in conclusion, to Roosevelt and why he has earned our gratitude.

(Or mine, anyway; I don’t mean to be presumptuous.)

Before the fire, indeed before the Forest Service came to be, the president signed a document whose importance, for Baker City, is considerable.

Roosevelt, in 1904, created the Baker City Forest Reserve. It comprised 52,000 acres on the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains about 10 miles west of town.

Roosevelt’s main purpose was to protect the streams and springs from which Baker City, then a thriving place with about 6,500 residents, drew its drinking water.

We still do, 107 years on.

And even after all that time, after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and after the passage of the Clean Water Act, our water is so pristine that the city doesn’t have to filter it.

(The EPA’s patience, though, is not infinite. The agency seems determined to subject Baker City’s water to something more technologically advanced than the gravity that pulls it into our pipes. Within a few years we’ll likely be bombarding our water with ultraviolet light in order to kill a particular parasite, cryptosporidium, which the city has lately been looking for but has not yet found. Crypto’s absence seems not to trouble the EPA, though.)

Two years later, in 1906, Roosevelt signed into law a bill creating the Blue Mountain Forest Reserve. The Baker City Reserve was transferred into this new, much larger (almost 2.7 million acres) reserve.

The Blue Mountain Reserve was the ancestor of what became, after a series of name changes, land transfers and typically bewildering federal machinations, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

(There were separate Wallowa and Whitman forests until 1954, when some clever federal official, perhaps to save on stationery, decided to wedge a hyphen between the two.)

All of which is to say that, in large part because of the foresight and commitment of Teddy Roosevelt, we in Baker City have, literally, millions of acres of uninhabited land nearby where we can roam whenever we choose.

Plus, we don’t even have to go to the grocery store first to pick up a couple bottles of water.

In Baker City we need only twist a faucet.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.