Free Essay On The Big Burn And The Odd Couple Of Environmentalism

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Franklin Roosevelt, Forest, Services, United States, America, Fire, Politics, Burn

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/11/26

In The Big Burn, Timothy Egan analyzes events associated with the worst forest fire in American history. In 1910, the “Big Burn” scorched over three million acres in Washington, Montana and parts of Idaho, leaving a thick cloud of smoke that lingered throughout the western U.S. days after the fire was extinguished. Egan argues that the big wildfire “cemented the recently established U.S. Forest Service in the mind of the American public, enabling the agency to enjoy one of the most respected reputations of any federal entity throughout the twentieth century” (Egan 14). However, there were also negative consequences of the fire. The Forest Service became so concerned with wildfires that they allowed the timber industry to decimate large expanses of forest in the name of fire safety.
Along with a dramatic and action packed description of the fire, Egan’s story offers a unique perspective on two American political and environmentalist leaders, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service and a pioneering American conservationist. They were an odd couple, who boxed, swam, and rode horseback together (Egan 17-20). Egan’s story is about much more than just a fire, but the creation of the environmentalist movement and a close relationship between the two men, who had a similar passion for nature and the wild west. Their personalities were different, but they complemented each other, creating an effective team that fought for progressive natural conservation legislation.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was a larger than life character. He loved nature and was instrumental in establishing the Forest Service and the state and national park system. He had an extroverted and masculine personality, with a Harvard education and cowboy swagger. His famous slogan, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," represented the physicality of his demeanor (Roosevelt 9). Like Pinchot, Roosevelt was born in New York City to an affluent family. His mother was a socialite and his father owned glass factories and was a well-known philanthropist, supporting progressive causes. Many historians attribute his love of the outdoors to a series of illnesses that kept him in bed for much of his childhood. It is suggested that Roosevelt crafted his larger than life sportsman identity from many adventure books he read as child, while sick in bed. In his autobiography, he talks about his personality development, and how he “was nervous and timid. Yet from reading of the people I admiredgreat admiration for men who were fearless and who could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them” (Roosevelt 18).
The two men had similar educations. While Pinchot went to Yale, Roosevelt went to rival Harvard. They were both from the same socioeconomic background. However, they had much more in common than just their upbringing. Roosevelt was a true renaissance man. He was a congressman, a cowboy in North Dakota and a New York City policeman. In 1898, the Spanish-American war broke out and Roosevelt formed his own battalion of horseback soldiers called the “Rough Riders,” a mixture of elite Ivy League Easterners and rough Western cowboys. The Rough Riders became famous for their courage fighting in Cuba. When Roosevelt was done, he moved on to the next chapter of his life, as governor of New York and eventually President of the United States.
While Roosevelt seems interesting, the real protagonist of Egan’s story is Pinchot. Roosevelt loved nature because he was stuck in bed throughout his youth, and dreamed of the wild west. Pinchot may have felt guilty about his family’s fortune, which was made clear-cutting large portions of forests throughout the Eastern seaboard. Like Roosevelt, Pinchot was born in Manhattan to an rich and socially prominent family. After attending Yale, Pinchot was part of a new social and political forestry movement that endorsed conservation and protection of national lands. His family helped start and finance the Yale School of Forestry (Egan 14-15). Both Roosevelt and Pinchot were friends with the naturalist John Muir, the father of the American environmentalist movement. They were both passionate about the necessity of preserving and protecting the great forests of the United States. “We dream the same dreams,” Roosevelt wrote to Pinchot, and share “a peculiar intimacy” (Egan 88). In 1903, they both hiked through the Yosemite Valley four four days, where they shared ideas on how they wanted to shape the Forest Service and the park system. (Egan 43).
While they shared similar background and the same interest in forestry, they were very different men. Roosevelt was married twice, but Pinchot was a solitary man who lived an austere life, devoid of many luxuries. While Roosevelt was gregarious and social, Pinchot preferred to spend his time alone in a cabin in Yosemite National Park sleeping on a “wooden pillow” (Egan 44). Handsome and single, he was at “one of the most eligible bachelors in Washington” (Egan 64). Although married, Pinchot “apparently carried on a two-decade long relationship with his dead fiancée, Laura Houghteling, through apparitions.” (Egan 64-66). He was not as outgoing as Roosevelt, but they both shared an interest in outdoor sports and athleticism. Pinchot was a star athlete and captain of the Yale football team. He regularly played tennis with Roosevelt and once “played six straight sets of tennis and then raced the president to the White House” (“Governor Gifford Pinchot”). Throughout the first and third parts of The Big Burn, Pinchot is the center of the story. He is energetic and proactive, putting all his efforts into solidifying the Forest Service. While Roosevelt was all action, Pinchot was more of a cerebral leader, who has been called Roosevelt's “conscience on conservation” (Frantz). Pinchot was a member of the Republican Party, but he helped “ghostwrite” many of Roosevelt’s proposals and legislation regarding both natural resources and fighting the corruption of “robber baron” and industrialists who he thought were out to exploit the land (Frantz). Roosevelt and Pinchot have different personality, but the same goals, which is why they complemented each others so well. They both cared deeply about “forests, wildlife, clean water, irrigation, and fire suppression” (Egan 66).
The narrative of The Big Burn shows how their relationship helped the Forest Service survive tumultuous era. Egan explores the strong relationship between Roosevelt and Pinchot and creation of the Forest Service. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service. Pinchot enthusiastically set out to establish a strong “policing” force made up largely of alumni from the new forestry department at Yale, his alma-mater. The “idealistic” young rangers were mostly from the Eastern aristocracy, and did not interact easily with the rough population that lived in the desolate areas the western U.S. In fact, they were met with hostility and violence. The cowboys, lumbar jacks, and miners did not take Pinchot’s “Green Rangers” seriously. There were not seen as authority figures in places like Taft, Mont., a mining boomtown with 2,500 people, thirty saloons and 500 prostitutes. The west was a wild place, and it was not until the “Big Burn”, that America appreciated the role of the Forest Service.
When Roosevelt left office in 1901, he was succeed by William Howard Taft, the fattest president in American history at 335 pounds. Taft did not share Roosevelt’s enthusiasms for the wild west, and immediately replaced Pinchot. He withdrew most funding and the Forest Service almost died before it had a chance to establish itself as a governmental entity. Congressman created a slogan against the Forest Service and the new conservationist movement in general: “Not a penny for scenery” became a battle cry against everything that Roosevelt and Pinchot believed. After the Big Burn, Pinchot and Roosevelt used the fire as a rallying point for Forest Service, and lobbied to raise the budget to prevent a repeat catastrophe.
Ultimately, the two friends have left very different legacies. Pinchot wrote much of the speeches and legislation that made Roosevelt famous for his progressive views on conservation. However, he is largely forgotten in the sweeping narratives of history. It is fitting that Pinchot, a solitary loner who loved being alone in the wilderness, has not gone down in history a the same way as the larger than life, heroic cowboy Roosevelt. Pinchot was a quiet leader, the idea man, pulling the strings behind the scenes. He did have a political career, becoming governor of Pennsylvania in 1931, but his true love was the Forest Service. "I have been governor every now and then, but I am a forester all the time” (“Governor Gifford Pinchot”). Together Roosevelt and Pinchot helped preserve and protect the Western landscape from exploitation and misuse. They created a legacy of conservation that is the foundation of the modern environmentalist movement.

Works Cited

Egan, Timothy. The big burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the fire that saved America.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
"Governor Gifford Pinchot." 1879-1951. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. < 1951/4284/gifford_pinchot/469112>.
Roosevelt, Theodore. Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt. Start Publishing LLC, 2013.

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