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How Forest Burning Could Have Become Federal Policy

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A century of forest growth at Bear Creek Fire Guard Station in Plumas National Forest | Image: Capital Public Radio, from USFS photographs 

Forests in California and across the American West face an odd calamity. They are crowded with trees, crawling with beetles, and loaded to explode with wildfire at the next spark. While other environmental crises in history—for instance, destruction caused by the industrial revolution—may have been largely unavoidable, this one truly might not have happened.

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In the first decades of the twentieth century, a range of powerful actors, virtually all white men, struggled to define how American foresters ought to deal with forests and fires. The fire historian Stephen Pyne has recounted their debate in multiple books, perhaps most compellingly in Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. A range of opinions and practices vied for prominence, but basically they fell into two camps. 

One was a sort of libertarian, local-control model, in which foresters close to the land administered regular, small fires to protect themselves and the resources around them against large conflagrations. In California, high-profile voices like the poet Joaquin Miller and Sunset magazine (owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad, a huge timber landowner itself and a supporter of light burning), defined this as “the Indian way.” A California forester wrote in 1904, “The white man has come to think that fire is a part of the forest, and a beneficial part at that.” A 1910 Sunset article declared, “practical foresters contend and can demonstrate that from time immemorial fire has been the salvation and preservation of our California sugar and white pine forests.” 

The second model was a top-down, expert approach associated with President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and a new conservation movement.

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On the right, a more open Sierra forest with a plume of smoke suggesting a Native fire. At left, the dark, dense forest that came to be seen as natural by some foresters. | Artwork: Edwin Deakin, “Donner Lake,” 1869, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, Autry Museum of the American West

In 1905, Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service, and installed his friend Gifford Pinchot as chief forester. Pinchot had studied forestry in France and founded the Yale School of Forestry in a quest to rationalize America’s timber management. He and his successors saw all fire as profligate waste of timber, an inefficiency incompatible with a modern nation.

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1930s-era fire-suppression poster | Image: U.S. Forest Service

Or, for that matter, a modern empire. The United States had recently conquered a number of territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and it still held New Mexico and Arizona (not to mention Alaska and Hawai’i) as imperial territories. Like those imperial holdings, the vast tracts of federal land across the West could also be administered by centralized authorities. As Pyne writes, “They would keep fire out by keeping fire-setting people out, and regulating those who could enter. The premier agencies were forestry bureaus like those devised by Britain for India and France for Algeria. In the late nineteenth century they offered the boldest experiments in wholesale conservation.”

The fire suppression model mostly won out, its partisans consistently denigrating light burning as “Paiute forestry.” In 1910, a ferocious series of wildfires in the Northern Rockies — one called the Big Blowup — captured the nation’s attention, burning more than 3 million acres and killing at least 85 people.

Reaction to the Big Blowup set the new Forest Service on a path of absolute fire suppression for generations. Twenty years later, when Big Blowup veteran Ferdinand Silcox became head of the Forest Service, he enacted what became known as the“10:00 a.m. policy”: a Forest Service goal to extinguish all wildfires by 10:00 am on the day after the fire was reported. 

But the dogma of what one historian called the “gospel of efficiency” in the first decades of the twentieth century did not need to wipe out the practice of controlled burning completely. As an analogy, consider the similar, efficiency-inspired movement toward “Simplified Spelling” of American English from the same era, promoted by Roosevelt and funded by Andrew Carnegie. This kindred folly would have removed and replaced every silent or counterintuitive letter from the language, using spellings like “hav,” “ruf,” and “abuv” on the grounds that it would reduce the size of, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica from 24 to 20 volumes. 

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A USFS bookmark | Image: courtesy Estes Park Museum

Fire suppression could have flamed out too. It could have been a footnote, an absurd overreach by Progressive Era experts. Some balanced approach might have emerged, the way Americans changed the spellings of “colour,” “honour,” and “civilised,” but left “rough” as it was. Fire suppression did become more decentralized, undertaken cooperatively between state and federal governments. But the timings of the Big Blowup, partisan and regional political fights, and now-outmoded conservation theories allowed fire suppression to become gospel long enough for the forests to grow impossibly, dangerously thick. Today, there is no easy way to put fire back on the land in many parts of California and the rest of the West without the chance of spurring the destructive fires known as holocausts.

To be clear, light burning was not the same as cultural burning, which Native Californians had practiced for thousands of years. Though it was described as the “Indian way,” and sometimes even learned directly from Native people, the crucial aspects of spiritual and particular place-based knowledge were mostly lost in translation. It would be hard to square cultural burning with the capitalist markets for timber that fueled light-burners and fire-haters alike.

But keeping in mind that California Indian populations were at their nadir in the beginning of the twentieth century after genocidal violence and a near complete loss of their land, the “folk” tending of forests by newcomers likely would have left the landscape in much better shape as Native people regained their populations and political power over the next century.

It remains to be seen what compromises and collaborations can develop in coming decades. Can tribal, state, federal, and other stakeholders define—in a positive recasting of the term—a new “Paiute forestry,” or Mono forestry, or Karuk forestry, or other variations based on resource needs, local knowledge, and tradition?

Banner image: The Meadow Fire in Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, 2014 | Photo: National Park Service via NASA Earth Observatory

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.

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