Present at the Creation: The 1910 Big Burn and the Formative Days of the U.S. Forest Service

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Title

Ecology Law Quarterly

Journal Abbreviation

Ecology L.Q.


This review of Timothy's Egan's 2009 book, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America," lauds Egan's storytelling while questioning the title of his book. Egan tells a gripping tale about the largest wildfire in North America, a 1910 blaze in the Bitterroot Mountains along the largely unroaded Idaho-Montana border that cost a hundred people their lives and burned an area fifty percent larger than Yellowstone National Park. Egan claims that the big wildfire secured the young U.S. Forest Service's role as a public land manager and established conservation as a politically viable policy that encouraged Theodore Roosevelt to attempt to recapture the presidency in 1912. However, at the center of Egan's story is not Roosevelt, but Gifford Pinchot, whom Roosevelt appointed the first chief of the Forest Service in 1905. Pinchot convinced Roosevelt to preserve more public land (outside of Alaska) than any president before or since, and he made the Forest Service into one of the most respected government agencies in twentieth century America. But the Big Burn's legacy also led Pinchot's successors to give priority to fighting public land wildfires, which damaged the ecology and, ironically, led to larger wildfires. The review suggests that the Pinchot-Roosevelt conservation era produced more public support for environmental protection than ever in American history, and that the political lessons of that era may be useful in a twenty-first century challenged by catastrophic oil spills and global climate change.

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