The U.S. Forest Service was started by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Gifford Pinchot was the first chief. Pinchot believed that America should use its natural resources in a way that benefited the most people. This meant that Pinchot thought it was okay to use the beautiful forests of America for economic purposes that contributed to the development of the country. That being said, he felt that this could be done in a sustainable way so that future generations could use the same natural resources. His goal was to manage the forest by telling companies which trees to cut down, and precisely when to do it. Once trees were chopped down, new ones were planted.
The Forest Service did not stop there- they attempted to dominate nature itself. Pinchot viewed factors such as insects and fire as road blocks to economic advancement. Therefore, he attempted to eliminate these factors. Pinchot did not realize what a crucial role fire plays in ecosystems. To him, forest fire appeared uncontrollable, which he found terrifying. He wrote, “forest fires encourage a spirit of lawlessness and a disregard for property rights.” Therefore, the Forest Service worked to limit the amount of fires that occurred. What the Forest Service did not realize is that fire turns organic matter into nutrients, and rain returns the nutrients to the soil. This process increases the fertility of the soil, which helps plants to grow faster. Essentially, by suppressing fire, the forest service was slowing down the growth of plants. Another adverse affect of this policy is that since fires were not regularly occurring, there was an increase in the amount of fuel on the ground. Therefore, when fires did occur, they were more destructive.
Fire suppression policy became even more relevant after the Big Blowup of 1910. During the summer of 1910, forest fires raged through Idaho, Montana, and Washington. The damage was immense. It is estimated that around 3 million acres burned, and eighty five people died. This catastrophe inspired the Forest Service to initiate a movement to eliminate fire from the natural landscape. They were instrumental in passing the Weeks Act of 1911, which provided monetary incentives to states that suppressed the fires within their borders. Total fire suppression remained a policy of Forest Service until the 1970s, when scientists began to realize the ecological benefits of fire. They then instituted the “let burn” policy. Under this policy, natural fires were allowed to burn in some areas.
Today, forest fires are a real problem. There are many reasons for this. Global climate change has caused there to be an increase in temperatures and a decrease in precipitation, which has made forests more susceptible to fire. However, there is another contribution to this problem. Since the Forest Service suppressed fires for so many years, there is a plethora of dry vegetation that is fueling these fires. This is a deadly combination. To make matters worse, more and more people are now living in areas that are affected by forest fires. Currently, the Forest Service spends about half of its budget on suppressing fire annually. This is taking money away from their conservation efforts. Unfortunately, scientists are predicting that these fires will only continue to grow worse in the coming years. This is a problem that will definitely have to be addressed in the future.
For more information on the history of the United States Forest Service, visit http://www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/USFHSHome.aspx
Or read Ted Steinberg’s book Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History
For more information on recent forest fires, visit