The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan
The Big Burn begins with a highly readable account of the founding of the National Forest Service in 1905. Fighting against political opponents allied with timber magnates, President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, set aside as much western land as possible as Congress was passing a bill preventing the president from ever doing so again.
Their belief in conservation, unpopular though it was, never faltered, and the underfunded Forest Service soldiered on with young recruits who struggled against powerful business interests who wanted to profit from the resources on the newly declared public land.
In 1910, the Forest Service was dearly tested by a massive fire in the Bitterroot Mountains which ultimately burned 3.2 million acres of forest and several towns in its path. Many foresters fought bravely and lost their lives or suffered lifelong injuries from the fire.
The human drama of both the fire and political machinations makes The Big Burn a compelling story. Egan shows the fire, and its outcome, through the experience of foresters and volunteer firefighters on the ground, homesteaders in its path, townspeople in panic, and politicians thousands of miles away.
More than any other individual, however, this is the story of Gifford Pinchot, who tirelessly advocated for conservation of our nation's forests for fifty years.