The Combustible West: Fire Management and Forest Politics in the Early 20th Century


Bitteroot National Forest, Montana, 2000 

by Mark Hudson

Readers may have noticed, either from perusing the newspaper or having their house burn down, that wildland fires seem to have been getting worse lately.  The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which tracks the number of acres burned in wildfires every year, confirms that recent wildland fires have been getting more severe. From an annual average of just over 3 million acres over the 1990’s, the acreage burned in wildland fires jumped to over 6 million in 2001-2010.   This is higher than any decade since the NIFC started keeping track, in 1960.  So it makes some sense that many westerners, and in particular those charged with managing the west’s vast public forests and rangeland, are a bit worried about stray matches and lightning.  Where fires once crept, smoldered, and smoked, now conflagration and catastrophe seem like the norm.  

Along with bigger, hotter, faster fires that burn more acres come bigger bills delivered to Congress at the end of the fire season. As a result the people waiting for the evacuation order, or those actually fighting the fires, aren’t the only ones worried.   The US government spent $2.9 billion on fighting forest fires in 2005, and since 2000 it has been fairly commonplace for wildland fire appropriations to top $1 billion—figures which have raised the eyebrows of not a few members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office.  The question on many westerners’ minds, as they watch the ash float down over their scorched subdivisions, is how did the national forests get so explosive? 

While the numbers above tell the story of fire getting loose, the really amazing story lies not in fire’s recent escape, but in the incredible, if temporary, success of its containment beginning in the middle of the last century.  Consider that in 1900, about 30 million acres burned across the United States. The journals of early western pioneers and settlers report smoke-blackened skies for much of the summer and early fall. Forest fires were simply a part of the landscape, and from the point of view of a westerner at the turn of the 20th century, the idea of getting rid of it would have appeared utterly delusional.  And yet, between 1940 and 1955, burned acreage plummeted as machinery rolled and flew from the battlefields of Europe and Asia and into the forests, mechanizing fire fighting with surplus jeeps and airplanes.  The US Forest Service was (or appeared to be) at the head of the charge against open flame in the woods, and for awhile, it was incredibly successful. 

As a result, many have blamed the Forest Service for the unpredicted result of the policy of full suppression: forests that have become piled with fuel that would have otherwise burned in the frequent, low intensity fires that were a natural part of many forest ecosystems. Having suppressed all of those fires, when ignitions inevitably do occur, they have a lot more to feed on.  Politicians and presidents, along with logging executives, environmental campaigners and wilderness champions have all thrown blame around for this result, but the US Forest Service is seldom, if ever, far from the tips of pointing fingers.  Many of these critics contend that the Forest Service, with an overcharged zeal for conservation and a misguided hubris about its ability to control and dominate nature, chased smoke and flame from the woods with industrial efficiency, and is now reaping what it sowed.  It did so, according to this story, of its own accord.  It developed the policy of fire suppression internally, took it on as the core mission of the Forest Service, and fought to gain the authority and the resources to carry it out. Much of this is actually true: US foresters did strive to dominate nature, reducing it to a blank canvas of potential board feet of timber; the Service did promote fire as an enemy of forestry both internally, and among the public through the incredibly successful Smokey Bear campaign. Congress willingly handed over money to fight fires. But how did the Forest Service come to take on such a wildly ambitious project as eradicating fire from the forests in the first place? Can this state agency, and its partner public land management agencies, be held solely accountable for the increased combustibility of the national forests? 


The history of wildland fire management in the United States suggests not. In fact, the tale that emerges from the nation’s forest history is not one of an overly-muscular, ideologically-charged, bullying state agency that single-handedly (and foolishly, it turns out) chased fire from the forests. Rather, it is a story of a relatively weak agency of the federal government attempting—with whatever tools it could obtain—to manage an earlier crisis: a crisis of deforestation that followed in the wake of industrial logging.  

Almost from its origins, right through the 1960s, the Forest Service’s assessments of the state of US forests were relentlessly grim.  If nothing was done to constrain the behavior of private logging, they suggested, a denuded landscape would soon result, and, prior to that, the nation would face a critical shortage of timber that would cripple both industry and defense.  As early as 1910, the Forest Service was claiming that “the United States has already crossed the verge of a timber famine so severe that its blighting effects will be felt in every household in the land.  The rise in the price of lumber which marked the opening of the present century is the beginning of a vastly greater and more rapid rise which is to come.”[i]  Something had to be done to convince US timber barons to stop cutting and running, leaving ruined landscapes in their wake.  The problem, as the Forest Service’s first chief, Gifford Pinchot saw it at the time, was to make forestry (a term used in opposition to “timber mining”) profitable. The prospect of forestry taking hold in the US, he argued, all hinged upon the question: “Will it pay?”  

The state’s initial role in making this happen was to provide technical advice to private loggers.  After all, early on, the Forest Service had no forests of its own to manage.  They didn’t get any of those until 1905, when Pinchot wrestled the forest reserves away from the General Land Office.  However, astute businesspeople, who had been busily purchasing massive tracts of forested land in the west, saw another role for the state in helping them become foresters: fire protection.  Up until 1905, fire protection had been a purely private affair, consisting of patrols mobilized by timber companies.  However, it soon became evident that the extent and value of investments in timbered land required a more substantial and robust system to keep that investment from turning into smoke and ash, rather than profits. Following the historic fires of 1902, and in particular the devastating Yacolt burn in southern Washington, George Long, an employee of the Weyerhaeuser company, took the point position in a 3 year campaign to get the states of Washington and then Oregon to subsidize fire protection—campaigns eventually won by stocking the legislatures of those states with lumbermen. 

Aftermath of the Yacolt Burn, Southern Washington

Over time, beginning in 1911, the federal government—through the Forest Service—was eventually drawn into this arrangement, and by 1924 the Service, under Chief William Greeley (who went on to head up an influential timber lobbying organization), gained the authority and resources under the Clark-McNary Law to become the de facto national forest fire service. By providing fire protection, Greeley argued, the state could extract reformed lumbering practices in a quid-pro-quo arrangement with industry. 

This notion was bitterly contested by more conservation-minded elements of the US forestry community—particularly the Society of American Foresters, with a radicalized former chief Pinchot at the head of the resistance.  This fight within the forestry community—essentially a fight not over fire management policy, but over who should control the fate of US forests, and to what end—went on for almost 40 years. Writing to president Theodore Roosevelt in 1933, anticipating the diagnoses and recommendations of the latest report on the problem of “forest devastation” Pinchot laid out his view of the “fire protection for forestry” arrangement: 

“In the past,” wrote Pinchot, “the official assumption in Washington […] has been that private altruism, plus a government subsidy in the form of aid in fire protection, plus patting the lumberman on the back, would result in the general practice of forestry on private lands.  Experience has proven this assumption to be absolutely wrong. …Voluntary forestry has failed the world over.  There is no reason to assume that it will succeed in the United States,”[ii]   

Instead, Pinchot, along with the Chiefs of the Forest Service during the New Deal Era up until 1950, fought a decades-long campaign for either strict federal control over private timber companies—including in some instances not just their environmental practices, but their labor relations—or full nationalization of remaining forest land in the USA.  

They lost. Over and over again, in round after round of legislative and regulatory battles during the 1930s and 1940s, the Forest Service was denied the tools that it saw as necessary to contain the march of what it described as “forest devastation.” The organized resistance put up by the timber industry proved too strong, its lines of influence into Congress and the White House too pervasive.  Instead of regulatory authority or nationalized forests, the Forest Service was granted, time and time again, and with the full support of the timber industry, larger appropriations to put out fires. The old argument initially put forward by private timber companies and echoed by the earliest chiefs of the Forest Service, that fire was the main threat to forestry—and that its prevention was the limit of legitimate government intervention in the forest industries—won out.  The result of this dynamic between a relatively weak Forest Service and a strong and highly organized timber industry, was that the former turned increasingly away from being forest managers in service to a notion of the public good, and toward being a fire suppression agency largely in the service of private timber companies.  Having asked for the power to tell private timber companies where, how, and how much to cut, the Forest Service was instructed and funded, at the request of the timber trade associations, to just keep putting out the fires. 

This has profoundly re-shaped the landscape of the national forests. Depriving fire-adapted ecosystems of fire is like removing sunshine or rain. Fire is a key ecological process in the rejuvenation of some forest types, and its removal has, over the long run, made forests more prone to conflagration. The Forest Service has publicly recognized that the policy of full suppression that it has followed for the past hundred years or so is both ecologically and environmentally foolish.  Those on the front lines of fire management recognize that they must bring fire back into the forests, with prescribed burning and by letting some natural ignitions burn. Forest Service policy now recognizes this officially.  Nonetheless, in practice, full suppression remains the norm, and almost all fires are still hit hard and fast. Three-quarters of a century’s worth of publicly demonizing fire, grossly inadequate budgets for prescribed fire and fuels management, and real estate development on the fringes of the forests that has proceeded on the assumption of that fire can be controlled and extinguished at will, have all combined to make altering the way humans relate to fire in the west an uphill battle.  

Fire is not, Forest Service policy aside, welcomed by most people in forest-adjacent communities, who wonder why they must breathe the smoke, risk the immolation of their homes, and have their beautiful forest-views charred in order to restore a healthy forest ecosystem. However, due to the tinderbox conditions of those forests—a legacy of the full suppression policy and very likely exacerbated by the influences of climate change—whether welcomed, tolerated, or vilified, the fires will come. 


[i] Pinchot, Gifford. 1910. The Fight for Conservation. New York: Doubleday Page & Co., 120. 

[ii] Quoted in Nixon, Edgar B (ed). 1957. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Conservation: 1911-1945. Hyde Park, N.Y: General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, 130.

About the Author: 


Mark Hudson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Coordinator of the Global Political Economy Program at the University of Manitoba, Canada. His research uses a political-economic lens to explore the interaction between human societies and their natural environments, most recently examining the political economy of wildland fire in the United States. Mark Hudson is also author of the upcoming book The Slow Co-Production of Disaster: wildfire, lumbermen, and the US Forest Service (University Press of Colorado).