Like the spiny back of a prehistoric Stegosaurus, Mount Heyburn looms above the Idaho forest surrounding it. The mountain was named after a senator who didn’t want the federal government taking over his state’s wilderness, and wasn’t afraid to challenge President Theodore Roosevelt — America’s champion of conservation.
Those early efforts by the federal government to preserve the nation’s wilderness and natural resources happened during the early years of the 20th century — the days of the banking, mining, timber and railroad robber barons.
It was the time of the muckraker journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair trying to expose the elites’ greed and misuse of unbridled economic and political power.
And America was being further battered by union strife and corrupt government at all levels.
Overseas, Japan shocked the world in a war with Russia in 1904-05. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian power had defeated a European power in a major military conflict. President Roosevelt brokered the peace treaty.
Roosevelt had long had a heart for the wilderness. It was in the woods and mountains that he grew from a sickly boy to a robust soldier and American president.
Weldon B. Heyburn was a feisty Republican who didn’t mind ruffling feathers — and ruffle them he did.
Heyburn and Montana Sen. William Clark represented the mining and timber barons who wanted to control the Western wilderness and their timber reserves — fighting Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, his brilliant forester friend from Yale at every turn.
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt said. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
The public no doubt supported protection of the nation’s wilderness, but exactly who should be doing it quickly became a growing controversy from the start, and giving the job to the Federal Government didn’t rest well with the senators from Idaho and Montana and their allies — who supported the interests of the titans of industry
“Conservation increasingly became one of Roosevelt’s main concerns,” says the National Park Service. “After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments by the 1906 American Antiquities Act,” covering some 230 million acres of public land.
With Heyburn and Clark leading the opposition and rallying Congress not to provide sufficient operating funds, it was a rocky start — delaying for years Roosevelt’s dream from coming true.
Senator Heyburn was born into a Quaker family in 1852 in Pennsylvania near Chadds Ford southwest of Philadelphia, attended public schools and earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Teddy came to Wallace in the heart of Silver Valley 1903 to make a speech. Seven years later a raging fire slashed through the surrounding mountains — as well as northeast Washington and western Montana.
More than three million acres would be destroyed by America’s most devastating forest fire — called The Big Burn of 1910 — “a conflagration of biblical proportions.”
Seventy-eight people would lose their lives, but the catastrophe may have been a blessing to Roosevelt’s dream of an effective nationwide Forest Service by stirring public interest, according to Timothy Egan in his book “The Big Burn.”
Writer Egan says the tragedy of the Big Burn of 1910 helped bring public sentiment for a Forest Service on his side.
Living blocks away from where the President spoke in Wallace that day in 1903 was Weldon Heyburn, working as a lawyer for local mining interests. Just two months earlier, he was elected by the Idaho Legislature to the U.S. Senate, defeating Democrat James Hawley 50 to 17. (Senators were not elected by popular vote in those days.)
After Teddy was elected President in 1901, he and Gifford Pinchot began planning programs to protect the nation’s forests “from the copper kings, timber barons and railroad magnates who dominated the economy and controlled much of the Congress,” according to historian Egan.
By 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created, headed by Pinchot, who then had 60 million acres under his care.
In an effort to stop TR, the Senator from Idaho and his allies attached a clause to a spending bill that the President would have to sign to keep the government going, denying U.S. presidents from creating new national forests in the West without Congressional approval.
Teddy had a week to sign it.
Pinchot suggested that during that week, the President should quickly add as much public land into the national forest system as he could by executive order while he still had the authority.
On hands and knees, both men pored over maps scattered on the floor of a room in the White House.
During that week, they added 16 million acres in six states.
Heyburn and pals were furious.
Pinchot saw that fighting forest fires was essential to the new Forest Service’s mission. It would be up to his rangers to be the first line of defense.
U.S. wilderness lands are now primarily managed by four federal agencies: the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service.
Today, Utah is planning taking the Feds to court in a fight to gain control of federal lands in the state.
Idaho doesn’t officially support its neighbor.
Idaho Conservation League’s Jonathan Oppenheimer says, “Idaho’s national forests and public lands are priceless to the people of Idaho and Americans as a whole. The lands contribute to our economy and way of life, and every few years some fringe elements have trotted out a tired argument that Idaho should take over these lands.
“We feel that this latest push would put some of Idaho’s most special places at risk and could end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Multiple reports say support for Idaho to reclaim federally controlled lands in the state appears to be dying out. Many Idahoans fear state control would lead to fishing, hunting and camping lands being sold off to the highest bidders, according to the League.
Others claim that the state couldn’t handle the job anyway due to the high cost of fighting forest fires, and maintaining roads, trails and campgrounds.
Apparently, the Forest Service can’t handle it adequately either. Author Egan noted while driving through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on his way to climb Mount Hood, “found the place in tatters…Roads are closed or in disrepair. Trails are washed out. The campgrounds, those that are open, are frayed and unkempt. It looks like the forestry equivalent of a neighborhood crack house.”
Nevertheless, there is still strong support for state control. Among the supporters is Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador:
“Over time, overreach by the federal government and frivolous environmentalist-led lawsuits have made our land less accessible to the public, damaging the health of our forests and the economic vitality of Idaho.
“That’s why we need to fight against federal mismanagement of our public lands, and advance a real multiple-use agenda for public lands in Idaho, one that returns federally controlled lands to state stewardship, and truly keeps our lands open for everyone.”
In 2013, the Idaho State Legislature echoed similar sentiments, noting that it too was frustrated with the federal management of lands in Idaho “particularly (by) the National Forest System…
“The regulatory constraints, the duration of environmental due diligence, and the ever-present threat of project delays due to litigation led policy makers to a conclusion — the state can do a better job of managing National Forests.”
In 1912, while filibustering on the Senate floor against corrupt campaign practices, Weldon Brinton Heyburn collapsed of heart and kidney problems and died months later at age 60.
On the scoreboard of life, the senator from Idaho lost on the issue of managing public lands. The ebullient President and his energetic wilderness crusader from Yale won — so far.
After more than a century, the battle over who should manage America’s wilderness is still going on.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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The Big Burn Fire of 1910…
“The forests staggered, rocked, exploded and then shriveled under the holocaust. Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from 1 to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground.”
— Betty Goodwin Spencer, historian
Teddy’s man on forestry…
“Gifford Pinchot’s main contribution was his leadership in promoting scientific forestry and emphasizing the controlled, profitable use of forests and other natural resources so they would be of maximum benefit to mankind.”
Battling the Boss…
Senator Weldon Heyburn also challenged President Teddy Roosevelt on other ideas of the Progressive Era political movement that included the eight-hour work day and child welfare laws. TR would outlive the Idaho senator by seven years.
Praise for Heyburn…
Heyburn left a praiseworthy footprint in 1906 by introducing a bill that became the Pure Food and Drug Act, protecting the public from “snake oil” medications, and deplorable conditions in slaughterhouses exposed by muckraker journalist Upton Sinclair in his book “The Jungle,” describing unhealthy conditions for workers, unsanitary meat processing and cruel treatment of the animals. President Roosevelt signed the legislation.