Wednesday, February 4, 2015

American Experience: The Big Burn (PBS-TV, produced 2014, aired 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was an American Experience episode on the so-called “Big Burn,” a huge set of wildfires in Montana and Idaho in 1910 that started in separate parts of the recently proclaimed national forests in that area and ultimately converged into a huge firestorm that almost completely wiped out the town of Wallace, Idaho. Apparently this is still the worst fire in U.S. history in terms of the total amount of acreage burned and the property damage — dwarfing such celebrated urban conflagrations as the Chicago fire of 1871 or the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 — and what made this documentary, written and directed by Stephen Ives and based in part on the book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan, especially interesting was how much it was bound up with the overall politics of conservation and in particular the determination of President Theodore Roosevelt and his appointee to head the newly created U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, to set up “national forests” in which logging and other extractive activities would be permitted, but only carefully and sustainably. As I noted before when PBS showed Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts, the idea that a U.S. President — and a Republican President, at that — would take such an interest in preserving nature seems almost science-fictional today (as I was writing the above I got an e-mail from the Audubon Society pleading with me to make a donation to help stop logging of old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, indicating that the Obama Administration is well to the right of T.R. on this issue); the tradition of Republican environmentalism that began with Teddy Roosevelt and ended with Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the other big environmental bills of 1969-70 into law and he and Ford appointed people to the Environmental Protection Agency who were genuinely concerned about protecting the environment) was definitively repudiated by Ronald Reagan, who in his 1980 campaign publicly aligned himself with the so-called “Sagebrush Rebels” who wanted all restrictions on logging and grazing Western lands removed so they could exploit them for short-term profit.

Pinchot was the founding director of the U.S. Forest Service and inspired so much loyalty in his men that they nicknamed themselves “Little G.P.’s,” and even when he was forced out of that position by Roosevelt’s far more reactionary successor, William Howard Taft, he pleaded with his people to remain and continue to fight the good fight to protect America’s natural resources against predatory development. The Big Burn is one of those documentaries that suggests a great fiction film waiting to be made from the material — not only the spectacle of the fire itself (though I suspect most of the footage of fire comes from later blazes because it looks too photographically clear to be from 1910) but the genuine heroism of Ed Pulaski, the forest ranger who set off into the wilderness with a band of men armed with nothing more than shovels and hoes to try to stop the blazes by clearing firebreaks. If nothing else, The Big Burn vividly dramatizes how difficult it is to stop a forest fire, and how much harder it was in 1910 when you couldn’t see it from the air (Pulaski and his men frequently had to walk through the wilderness just to find what parts of it were burning!) and the technology of human flight was just seven years old and hadn’t got anywhere near the ability of planes to “bomb” a fire with fire-retardant chemicals that we take for granted today. (And even with that technology it’s harder than hell to control a really big forest fire — imagine what Pulaski and Richard Greeley had to go through with nothing more than axes, shovels and hoes — indeed, the last part of the show indicates that after 1910 Pulaski continued to live in the Montana wilderness and work on new fire-fighting technology, including a device that combined an ax on one end and a hoe on the other and is still in use today and known by firefighters as a “Pulaski.”)

One of the things that fascinates about this program is that, though the firefighting technology of 1910 seems ass-backwards to us, the political debates are the same — including the intense opposition to forming the U.S. Forest Service at all by some of the same forces that want to get rid of virtually all environmental protection now, including giant corporations making money off uncontrolled environmental exploitation and the politicians who either come from the ranks of the corporate rich themselves or depend for their continuation in office on contributions from those who do. One fascinating detail mentioned in the show is that many of the forest fires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were caused by sparks from the combustion that powered steam locomotives — and the railroad owners basically told the forest rangers, “Not our problem.” There were also the same familiar plaints from the big logging industries that enforcing controls to preserve the forests would cost loggers their jobs and destroy whole regional economies, and the usual calls for zero regulation of the environment and attempts by the corporados and their handmaidens in Congress to put the Forest Service out of business by starving its budget and cutting its staff. At a time when the takeover of the U.S. government by modern-day anti-environment, anti-labor, anti-middle class, pro-corporate rich Republicans is virtually complete — they now own both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, and only the presidency stands between them and complete control — there’s a sense of tragedy in a program like this, a sense that the idea that the natural resources of the U.S. are a trust we need to use wisely and hold for our heirs is as obsolete and quaint as the one that government (i.e., we, collectively, through our tax money) has a social and moral obligation to pay for the poor, destitute and old.

Like the Ken Burns series The Roosevelts, The Big Burn comes off as much a requiem for a certain vision of social trust as anything else, even though filmmaker Ives tries at the very end of his show to drag in the later criticism of the U.S. Forest Service that by defining its mission as putting out all forest fires, they were unwittingly contributing to the problem by accumulating so much combustible material on the forest floor that when a fire ultimately broke out, it would be that much worse. “I think the fundamental dilemma with the fire suppression policy that Pinchot advocated was, in the end, it was the wrong policy for the land,” historian Chris Miller says towards the end of the program. “It might have been the right policy for the agency, but it’s the wrong policy for the environment.” Yet Timothy Egan, whose book formed part of the basis for the program, says, “By putting out every fire for a hundred years, they created indirectly, what are now some of the greatest wildfires. But imagine now, if this fire had not happened. They might have killed the Forest Service. And with it would’ve gone the idea that’s so embraced by a majority of Americans today, that we have more than 500 million acres that is all of ours, that belongs to each of us. By saving the fledgling idea of conservation, then only a few years old, this fire did save a larger part of America.” Actually I think Egan is wrong — the idea “that we have more than 500 million acres that is all of ours, that belongs to each of us” has become quite unfashionable; it may still be “embraced,” more or less, “by a majority of Americans today,” but the people who are actually being elected to public office today — and the corporate rich who are funding their campaigns — either openly or secretly regard the 1880’s, the peak years of the robber barons, as the American ideal to which we should aspire to return, in which the owners of giant corporations were free to do almost anything they wanted and the whole idea of “the public interest” didn’t exist as a political concept.