American Experience: The Big Burn
We need to Save the Trees!
Deforestation has ravaged our once great forests. The dwindling tree population is choking the oxygen-starved atmosphere.
Sorry, environmentalists: I’m being sarcastic. Every word of that last paragraph is false.
First, a solid majority of new atmospheric oxygen is produced by water-dwelling pytoplankton. If you love trees and walks through the forest, that is perfect understandable. Scientifically speaking, however, we don’t need trees to survive.
Second, North America has way more trees than it had at the turn of the 20th century. Right here in Central Vermont, deer sightings used to make the newspaper. Hubbard Park was a big, treeless field.
What happened? Did conservationists save the day? Nope: the automobile was invented.
In the 19th century, millions of acres of arable land were used for fields to feed horses. As horses were replaced by Model Ts, those fields became forests. Tree-Huggers should pause to hug a Ford Focus; it did more to save the trees than the US Forest Service.
Indeed, “The Big Burn” shows that the US Forest Service has been misguided from the very beginning.
In 1905, The US Forest Service was founded by patrician progressives who valued idealism more than common sense, and trees more than people.
The fledgling Federal agency sent intrepid young men far and wide. US Forest Rangers even found their way to the remote Bitterroot region of Western Montana and Northern Idaho. When Rangers told the hearty locals that they were no longer allowed to use the vast forest for clearcutting and strip-mining, they were furious.
As the PBS documentary “The Big Burn” reluctantly admits, the Forest Service’s rules that chose trees over people ended up being a disaster for both trees and people.
The summer of 1910 was bone dry in the Bitterroot. When a heat-lightning storm ignited a dry patch of trees, the largest fire in the history of the hemisphere began.
Despite its remote location, America quickly recognized the size and the seriousness of the blaze. Women and children were bustled out; federal troops rushed in.
Desperate men aboard the last train out of town were forced off their cars at gunpoint. Uncle Sam needed them to fight the fire, the soldiers said.
But those men were just being sent to their deaths. There was no fighting The Big Burn. By the time the blaze burned itself out, a layer of soot coated the ground as far away as Iceland. Ships in the Pacific Ocean couldn’t navigate because the air was so thick with smoke.
The only thing that could have stopped this fire in its tracks was a stretch of barren, treeless land. You know, the kind that you get when you allow people to clear cut a section of forest or build a strip mine.
In the end, the greatest boon to American forests was the invention of the internal combustion engine. And the greatest disaster was made worse by the myopic machinations of the US Forest Service.
We don’t need to Save the Trees. Take a drive down I89 and look around you. They are doing just fine without our help.