The Big Burn (Book Review) by Doug Osgood

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan

Copyright 2009.

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Teddy Roosevelt believed in preserving the West for all Americans. To that end he set aside millions of carefully chosen acres among the vast tracts of empty wilderness. Then he placed them in the care of Gifford Pinchot, head of the newly formed forest rangers. Teddy’s own party revolted against him to stand with powerful, wealthy timber and railroad barons seeking more—more land, more money, and more power. By 1910, with Roosevelt out of office and his hand-picked replacement, Taft, proving to be weak-willed and more interested in his golf game than politics, the wealthy business interests seemed to be winning. Until August 20, 1910.

A windstorm turned several small drought-fueled fires into a raging conflagration unlike anything any living man had ever seen. To the wealthy railroad and timber executives, this seemed a Godsend. Destroy the forests the rangers protected and eliminate their need. Then the acreage could be reclaimed for the sake of big business.

The narrative is engaging and entertaining despite the author spending significant portions of the text explaining the history of the war between preservation and big business. The impact of Roosevelt’s presidency on the preservation movement and his friendship with Gifford Pinchot are covered in depth. Interspersed are heroic stories of men and women who bravely stood against the overpowering flames.

Who wins? The barons rejoiced. But in the end, the ranger’s defeat turned into victory. This is a story of hope, bucking the odds and the power of public sentiment. In light of even more recent history, this book needs to be shouted from the mountaintops.