TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Timothy Egan has written a new book about a forest fire in 1910 that's also a book about a culture war of that time. Egan's book, "The Big Burn," tells the dramatic story of the largest forest fire in American history. It consumed three million acres in two days, burning through eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana, creating panicked evacuations.
The fire started just five years after President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Forest Reserves and the National Forest Service. In 1910, with Roosevelt out of office and with President Taft being indifferent to the public lands, many members of Congress were hoping to zero-out the Forest Service budget. Among the conservationist opponents were the railroad and the timber industries.
While telling the story of the fire, Egan's book tells the political story of how the fire paradoxically saved the National Forest and changed fire policy.
Timothy is also the author of a National Book Award-winning book about the Dust Bowl called "The Worst Hard Time," and he's a columnist for the New York Times.
Timothy Egan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to tell the story of the fire, "The Big Burn"? What's the largest story it tells?
Mr. TIMOTHY EGAN (Columnist, New York Times; Author, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America"): You know, we had fires a few weeks east of Los Angeles, when smoke drifted over the L.A. Basin, and they were pretty good-sized fires, but they were 100,000 acres. This fire was three million acres. So that's an area the size of Connecticut burning in a weekend. Those fires burned for 10 days. This fire was 36 hours.
So a day and a half, three million acres, 2,000 degrees, one of these crown fires where the thing goes from treetop to treetop and sucks all the oxygen out of every cave, a sort of monster that takes on a life of its own. But then it -you know, as a natural disaster, I think that's cool because, I mean, I guess I'm sort of drawn to natural disasters, but it had such - it has such amazing resonance. It's with us still in so many ways, both in the wrong lesson that was learned from it and it becoming the creation myth that saved public land.
GROSS: What do you know about how this massive fire got started?
Mr. EGAN: Well, it was a very dry summer, and it stopped raining and snowing and sending anything down from the sky starting in April of 1910. So by the time June came around - which is pretty early in the northern Rockies, it's usually pretty cold there still - they already had some spot fires, their little, lightning-caused fires. And by August, it just had the feel of death on the land, and everyone knew something was going to happen because there were all these little fires, these little lightning-caused fires, and it just blew up.
A hurricane-force wind is 70 miles an hour or more. That's what caused this thing to blow up. This freak weather system came out of eastern Washington, it's called a palouser, and it just lifted up all these smaller fires, and it took everything to the sky, and the thing just blew up.
So it was a freak convergence of a very dry summer and lightening, which caused all these smaller fires, and then this wind just lifting the thing up.
GROSS: And there were little towns that had to be evacuated, and you tell some pretty vivid stories. This fire broke out in the public lands just as Teddy Roosevelt's National Forest Program was in jeopardy of getting zeroed-out by Congress. So just give us a summary of, like, why Roosevelt created the National Forest Program in the first place.
Mr. EGAN: Yes, absolutely. And the Forest Service was five years old when this fire happened. It happened in 1910. Roosevelt left office in 1909. His chief forester and top aide, Gifford Pinchot, was fired by Roosevelt's successor, William Taft, in 1910.
So at the start of 1910, you have an orphan agency. It's lost its founder. It's lost the person who - you know, he was named Gifford Pinchot and they were called Little Gifford Pinchots, or Little GPs. They came out of Yale, and they were just infused of this idealistic image of the great crusade, this idea of conservation which Roosevelt and Pinchot had bequeathed to the world.
So they leave this agency orphaned, and this Congress just starts picking and plucking it to death. It's death by 1,000 blows. It was never popular to being with. It was a radical idea, and then it was not popular in the West, either.
These young forest rangers would go out West, and they would find brothels and saloons. And I don't know if you've seen the television series "Deadwood"…
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GROSS: That's what it seemed like, reading your book.
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Mr. EGAN: That's what it was. You know, it was - the one town of Taft, Montana, named for the aforementioned 350-pound president, had three prostitutes for every man and a higher murder rate than New York City. And so one of these rangers came out and he said - he was just horrified. He gets out of Yale and he shows up in the Lolo National Forest in Montana. He wires back to Missoula and he says: Two undesirable prostitutes setting up business on National Forest land. What should I do? And some smartass gets a hold of it and wires back: Find two desirable ones.
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Mr. EGAN: And so, you know, that's what they were dealing with. So they're hated by the people that are supposed to - you know, this Roosevelt idea of the little guy owning land. They don't give a rip about it, and then the Congress is killing them. They're just defunding this thing. These Gilded Age powers, it's last sort of clash of the Gilded Age powers, and so they're - they want this land for themselves. They're used to getting it for free. They're used to having their way with it.
GROSS: And wait, wait, and by the they, who do you mean here? It's like, what, the railroads, the timber industry. Who else, like, wants the land?
Mr. EGAN: The railroads were given more than 35 million acres for free, an area about the size of New England. You've also got the Rockefeller family, which is building the biggest and most expensive transcontinental railroad in history, right through the heart of the Bitterroot Mountains, right where the fire takes place. That's why all those people were living in those brothel-ridden saloon towns is because they've just put this railroad together.
And then you have the Guggenheims and E.H. Harriman and James J. Jill and the Weyerhaeusers, families that are largely known to us today probably only for their philanthropies, but then they were at the peak of their Gilded Age power, and they wanted this land because they were used to getting it for free.
Roosevelt took it out of the general public domain and put it in the protectorate of the Forest Service - not the parks. That's different and much smaller. The Forest Service was to be the people's land. The people were going to use it.
So they leave office - just to get back to your question - 1910. It's a long, dry summer. The forest rangers are reviled and hated, the agency itself is nearly defunded. They're making, you know, they're pittance wages, they've lost their founder, and then the fire happens, and it has this - you know, it becomes their creation myth. It has this dramatic effect of saving the agency and making heroes and martyrs of the people out there.
GROSS: It saved the agency how?
Mr. EGAN: Well, the forest rangers themselves were called sissies and Teddy's Green Rangers, and the fire happens, and it's the first time the United States has tried to fight a wildfire. They organized an army of 10,000 people, largely immigrants, some African-American Buffalo Soldiers, convicts, jails are opened up, people are let out of the jails. This huge army of people are sent to the West to fight this - then it's an emerging fire. It hasn't blown up yet. It's 1,000 little, small fires.
And they're made heroes. The press portrays them as heroic, as noble men - not the immigrants who died, but the rangers who fought this thing, who didn't have a clue what they were doing, by the way, and lost. You know, you can't say, you know, man versus nature, man wins. The fire kicked their rears. They lost, but it made them heroic. And it was covered all over the U.S. The New York Times had several page one stories. The European press covered it.
So suddenly, public sentiment shifted, and you saw a dramatic effect in Congress, where they refunded the agency, they doubled its budget, and they created this bill that had been lingering since Roosevelt's day to create national forests in the East.
You would not have national forests in the Adirondacks and Virginia and Pennsylvania and New England without this fire.
GROSS: And there were little towns that had to be evacuated, and you tell some pretty vivid stories about what the evacuations were like and the panic that ensued.
Mr. EGAN: You know, I kept thinking - I hate to say this because it's kind of a stereotype, but I kept thinking of the evacuation scenes from the movie "Titanic," which we've all seen, because they had a Victorian gentleman's, like, women and children first, no men, but the men shoved the women and children off the trains. And they had to have these Buffalo Soldiers at gunpoint, with their fixed bayonets, order the men off the train.
There was a last train out of Wallace, Idaho. You knew if you didn't get on that train, you were going to die. You were going to burn to death. A fellow came up to me not long ago. I was doing a reading on this book in Oregon, and he said my grandmother got on that train, and she talked about it for the rest of her life, how she got on that last train out of town. If you didn't get on that train, you weren't going to live.
And then once they got on these trains, they would get to these trestles over the valleys, and the trestles were burning. So they'd go hide in a cave. They'd back the train into one of these caves that were bored through the Bitterroot Mountains, and once in the cave, the fire would find them because it was in search of oxygen. It was a beast. It was a force of its own.
So, the - I'll tell you a back story real quickly, though. The Buffalo Soldiers, who were African-American soldiers who had always sort of done the dirty work of the United States Army and segregated only by - they had white commanding officers. They had put down Indian uprisings. They had put down labor wars in this place five years earlier, when the labor unions went on basically a revolutionary spree and killed the governor, and there were strikes everywhere.
They show up, and they're supposed to save this town, and they're greeted by the kind of racism that was typical of the day. They called them - the papers called them dusky doughboys, and they would have stories about how they were strangely quiet. We would think they would be singing at night. So all these sort of racial stereotypes were in it, but none of the folks who lived there thought these people could fight a fire. But the Buffalo Soldiers saved at least one town, the town of Avery, Idaho, and were instrumental in saving another, the town of Wallace.
GROSS: So once the fire spread, and it was covering millions of acres, how were people recruited to fight the fires?
Mr. EGAN: Well, they'd done the recruiting in advance because there were all these little fires, and they wanted to get - they knew, you know, the towns, or big towns, were going to start to be in danger, towns like Spokane and Missoula and possibly even Denver.
So they were concerned, there were all these telegrams back to Taft, who was vacationing on a, as they said, in his yachting costume, was another term they used. Taft was a poor - he was so - I mean, he was so criticized because of his weight and everything else. But Taft would get these telegrams saying, you know, we're going to lose the town if you don't get people out here.
So he sent the Army, and he recruited. So they found all these immigrants, people who were willing to fight fire for $.25 an hour, which is what they'd pay them. So they had 10,000 people in place when the blow-up happened, and they were scattered all over the woods with shovels doing a little bit of, you know, here-and-there work, trying to stop these tiny fires, and then the blow-up happens, and it's just - all hell breaks loose.
GROSS: You know, in the 21st century, it's hard enough to fight the wildfires in California. What was the state of forest-fire fighting in 1910, when this fire broke out?
Mr. EGAN: They had no clue what they were up against. They had no formal firefighting training, no manuals to consult. They're - all these men are in place, and they're wearing, you know, khaki pants and wide-brimmed, floppy hats and terrible shoes and no socks, and they're hungry. Every one of them, you see the pictures of them, they look really skinny, like war veterans. They're eating these giant pots of potatoes and beans which are stirred up in the fire camps, and they're mostly the - I traced, you know, two Italian immigrants back to their home in Italy.
It was the peak of Italian immigration in the United States. So there's a lot of Italian immigrants in there. And when they died, the papers didn't even call them by name. They would say, you know, Joe Smith died and Hiram Johnson and two Italians. So, you know, they weren't even given their proper name.
But so they're in place, and they just have a shovel. That's all it is. They're just out there trying to dig a fire line, trying to scrape away a little bit of dirt so that when the fire comes up upon them, it won't advance anymore.
And so there was just - you know, I hate to use this term, but they just became fuel. And they just - and when they found their bodies later, most of them were not even recognizable as human forms. They were just these black, encrusted, you know, burnt carbon, basically.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Timothy Egan, and he's been writing about the American West for years for the New York Times. His new book is called "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about the fire and its consequences. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Timothy Egan. He's been writing about the American West for the New York Times for years. He has a column in the Times now. He's the author of a book about the Dust Bowl, called "The Worst Hard Time." Now he has a book called "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America."
This is a three-million-acre fire that burned in 1910 across the West, and it's the fire that Egan says helped save the National Forest Service from being zeroed-out by Congress.
Some of the main characters in your story were really broken by this fire, and one of them is Gifford Pinchot, who was the founding director of the National Forest Service, and why was he a broken man after the fire?
Mr. EGAN: Well, Pinchot, by the way, is just a fascinating guy. I mean, he lived form 1864, when the Civil War still raged, till 1946, when World War II was over, was not only Roosevelt's top advisor - he was the Rahm Emanuel to Roosevelt's Barack Obama - but later became a two-term governor of Pennsylvania and an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. It was his idea to come up with the Civilian Conservation Corps. But he was a son of privilege, a strange guy. His grandfather had clear-cut much of the state of Pennsylvania, was a deforester.
GROSS: By clear-cut, you mean he cut down the trees.
Mr. EGAN: Right, he cut down all the trees. That's how they got rich. So Pinchot is this - comes from this hugely wealthy family. One of his homes was called Grey Towers in - overlooking the Delaware, and there were 63 turrets and 23 fireplaces in this castle that was one of Pinchot's three homes.
He goes to Yale. He's a Skull and Bones. He's, you know, this child of privilege. And he had this - this is Roosevelt's term - "peculiar intimacy," was the quote, with Teddy Roosevelt. They met at a young age. They used to wrestle and box, strip down to their skivvies, well, kind of a D.H. Lawrence sort of thing. But Roosevelt had this wrestling mat installed in the governor's office - the governor's mansion in Albany, and when Pinchot would come up to see him, he'd unroll the mat, and they'd go at it. And Pinchot in his memoir described how one of the highlights of his life was boxing with Roosevelt and knocking him on his butt.
So Roosevelt becomes president, Pinchot's his top aide, and together they try to do something audacious. They do create the idea of conservation. Now, John Muir's the third character in this, but he's off stroking his beard and making wonderful statements and living in his vineyard north of San Francisco.
You can see I'm tweaking Muir quite a bit here, because he always gets nothing but positive press. But Pinchot and Roosevelt are doing the heavy lifting of creating the lasting conservation movement that we have: national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges.
And so, you know, when the fire happens, Pinchot realized that like all people who can see public policy moments, they need their creative myth setting. They need their launch point. He could see that this would be the fire that would save the agency.
So he immediately went on the attack, he and Roosevelt. Roosevelt was touring the West, reviving his popularity. He would soon run as a Bull Moose third-party candidate against his successor, Taft. And they used this fire as the rallying cry to save conservation.
So Pinchot, though he was heartbroken by what had happened, quickly realized that this thing could be the thing that launches - that saves conservation.
GROSS: So what did he do to use the fire to save conservation?
Mr. EGAN: He wrote a million op-ed pieces. There were page one stories everywhere, saying - you know, Pinchot was as prominent as any public official that you can think of today. One of the things I talk about was how they formed conservation. They used to go for these long walks in Rock Creek Park, or they would - Roosevelt and Pinchot would skinny-dip in the Potomac. And I was thinking, you know, what it would be like if, God forbid, you know, Karl Rove and Bush were skinny-dipping together in the Potomac while thinking of ways to deregulate the banks even more?
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Mr. EGAN: You know, so - and the Secret Service would hold their clothes while they would swim naked in the Potomac on a cold November day. And, you know, it was a like a triathlon whenever you went out with Roosevelt. And so, you know, they - the way they used this fire was to use their connections. They gave speeches, they wrote op-eds. Roosevelt had huge crowds because he'd been away for a year.
He was the most popular American in the world. The Vatican greeted him - huge crowds greeted him all over Europe and Africa, everywhere he went. So he comes home after being away for a year, and he's mobbed. He's mobbed. And Pinchot wrote most of his speeches. Pinchot was his voice.
GROSS: So, you know, in talking about how Pinchot tried to use the fire to save the endangered National Forest Service, you write a little bit about what he was up against. For example, one senator, a senator from Idaho - from one of the towns that burned, Wallace, Idaho - Weldon Heyburn. He called this fire God's will. He said it was the will of an angry God, enraged by the Forest Service. Was that a widely held view?
Mr. EGAN: I think it was. I actually think there were a lot of people, when he said that - if you read the newspaper reaction to that, at least in the West, a lot of people said the man speaks truth. They thought that God was sweeping away these trees, which had been - were being protected by this Forest Service, sweeping away to make room for settlers. And so, yeah.
I mean, but this Senator Heyburn was always after Roosevelt, as were most of Western senators. They just couldn't stand the Forest Service. They were against, you know, Progressive Era thoughts like clean meat inspection and minimum wage and child labor laws. But more than anything else, more than anything else, they were against the idea of national forests.
So when the fire came along, they saw it as something that would work to their advantage, you know, the final nail in the coffin. But, in fact, public sentiment was with the Forest Service, made heroes of them.
GROSS: I'm wondering if there was something of a little culture war going on back in 1910, at the time of this fire.
Mr. EGAN: There wasn't a little cultural war, Terry. There was a big cultural war. These people could not have been more out of place there, these Yale-trained foresters in the "Deadwood" United States of the West. And also, you know, they thought these two plutocrats, these two men of privilege, Roosevelt and Pinchot, were trying to foist something radical on them, even though they said they were doing it for the little guy. And that's what - you know, so you had this - the idea that the national forests were for the little guy, a populous, progressive thing versus everyone else, meaning a lot of people trying to make a buck off the place and then bigger people trying to say, you know, how dare you try to do this. We'd always gotten the land for free. I mean, the railroads got their 35 million acres.
The speaker of the House, Joe Cannon, said not $.01 for scenery. So there was a huge culture war going on. And one more thing on this, and I'll be quiet, is that there - the cleave in the Republican Party that happened largely at the time of this fire, with Roosevelt then running as a Bull Moose progressive, set the stage for the Republican Party for the next hundred years.
It then was the so-called - and this is not my term, it's their term - progressive party, the party that was progressive on race, on conservation. The Democrats were considered the racists, and they fought conservation.
When Roosevelt left and took this wing with him, it set the stage for the party that would be Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater, George Bush. All of that was set by Roosevelt breaking, taking that progressive side with him.
GROSS: Timothy Egan will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Timothy Egan, author of the new book "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America." It's about the biggest forest fire in American history that burned through parts of three Western states in 1910. That fire paradoxically saved the national forest reserves, which had been created by Roosevelt just five years earlier. Before the fire, many members of Congress were preparing to zero out the Forest Service budget.
There were lessons learned from this huge fire. But the question is different people learn different and contradictory lessons.
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Mr. EGAN: Yes. Exactly.
GROSS: Let's talk about some of the contradictory lessons that came out of this.
Mr. EGAN: Well, yes. That's why this fire is with us still. It's not just a great tale. It's a story that's embedded into all these agencies. Now, the Forest Service was set up, as I mentioned, as this progressive era, you know -Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt trained idealistic young men that were - they were mostly all men. But after the fire, the Forest Service became the fire service and to this day, more than half of their budget is spent fighting wildfires.
And that wasn't the original intent. They weren't set up to put out what is essentially part of nature. And so, after the fire - about 10 years afterward -they started something called the ten o'clock rule, which was that if a fire happened on your watch, on a given day, it must be put out by ten o'clock the next day or you had to suffer reprimand and severe consequences. So Norman Maclean, the great Montana writer who wrote "A River Runs Through It" and also a meditation on fire called "Young Men and Fire," talked about how this had horrible consequences. He said every young ranger had 1910 on the brain for most of 20th century. So they dedicated themselves - the fire did save America in saving the Forest Service, but there after, their mission changed.
Their mission was to put out fires. And to this day, when you see these, you know, the fire-industrial complex, giant planes dropping retardants on mountains east of Los Angeles and in the - around Colorado and huge armies of yellow-shirted firefighters going up there with bulldozers and all of that, that's still a direct consequence of this fire - of the Forest Service design to put it out. Why?
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. What's wrong with that?
Mr. EGAN: I don't think anything's wrong or right with it, but I'll tell you what causes trouble is that by resisting nature - fire is a force of nature -you allow all this fuel to build up, and the public land agency is finally...
GROSS: Fuel, being dry wood, dead trees.
Mr. EGAN: Right. Dead trees, standing timber that nature needs to burn. There are many species of trees in the West that won't regenerate without fire. Lodgepole pine - the cones won't open. They can't have sex. They can't carry on without fire. They need fire to reproduce. So - and Pinchot knew this, but he sort of hid that from a lot people.
So by trying to put out every fire, they put nature - they put it in a little box and then some of the bigger fires we had, starting in 1988 with the Yellowstone fire, continuing to this day in some of the fires that happened in Arizona a few years ago, which were catastrophic, are a result of trying to put out every fire and then having all this standing timber lying around that once a fire comes along, boom, it just takes - it just becomes catastrophic.
And this is not even my contention and my contention is on other things, but this is universally recognized. So now you have something called the let-burn policy, where they are letting fire - this dates to the Yellowstone fire of 1988 - where they're letting fire back into the woods, but only here and there.
The problem is that so many people have moved. Something like 20 million people now live within a few miles a national forest and they want - when they see fire, they're terrified. And they call their congressmen and their congressmen calls the regional forest supervisor and they say how come you're not putting this fire out? And he says, well, it's in an area we have to let it burn. They say, well, it's also in an area where, you know, 20 of my constituents live and they not only vote but they contribute. So there's a political - there's political pressure there and that's what - when you see some of these big firefighting campaigns, a lot of it is because of politics. It's somebody saying, you know, any honest firefighter will tell you somewhat ruefully, that they end up fighting to save people's summer homes.
GROSS: Since your new book has so much to do with the National Forest Service, I'm wondering if you've thought about, and I'm sure you have, what America would look like had there not been a National Forest Service created by Teddy Roosevelt in the early part of the 20th century.
Mr. EGAN: Consider this: Roosevelt basically bequeathed us with an area about the size France that every American owns. That's out birthright as an American citizen to own a piece of that. The parks were less than 10 percent of that. They get all the attention because of so-called - I hate to use this term, but people keep using it - eco-porn. You know, those glorious shots in HD of Yosemite or Grand Tetons. But the true nature of public land is something different. It's a more rumpled area. It's a river that seldom gets visited. It's a ridgeline, you know, up in the clouds in far northeast Montana. It's a prairie grass in Nebraska. It's not the stuff that gets, you know, all the nature photographs and that's what we own.
Now had Roosevelt not set aside this - and he did it by executive order. There were, you know, Congress changed the laws later, but he largely did it by executive order. I mean he famously said when he created the first wildlife refuge, he asked his attorney general, he said is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island - this is in Florida - a federal bird reserve? And his attorney general told him there was no such law. And Roosevelt said, very well, then I do so declare it. And that's how the National Wildlife Refuge System was started.
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Mr. EGAN: And when they created the National Forest, I mean, they brought in these maps and put them on the floor of the White House and Roosevelt was just, you know, glorying in this, all this land and drawing banners. He said oh, have you put the Flathead Valley in there yet? I was up there once and I saw a beautiful stand of timber and these elk up in the valley. Have you put that valley in this national forest?
So imagine had we not had him. That's one of these great what-ifs of history. What would the land that was left over from Louisiana Purchase - that's what this was. This wasn't private land. This was public-domain land left over from stuff we got from Napoleon back in 1803 - or was the Louisiana Purchase in 1801? Someone will correct me on that.
But this is public-domain land and had we not set it aside and put it into a professionally managed group, it would've been sold off, as it was at the time, to periodic groups and we would not have - I mean, I grew up in eastern Washington state with a large family. We didn't have any money. We didn't a summer home. We didn't summer anywhere. I never even heard that term as verb until later - my New York Times colleagues, who some of them summered in France.
And so, but we had public land, and we would go camping in the Bitterroot Mountains, where this fire happened. I saw this stuff as a little kid. I saw some of the standing dead timber. We would camp on the St. Joe River with glorious place full of cutthroat - and wildlife. And my mother always told me: We are rich because we have this. And I was - it was ingrained into me as a little kid that I was wealthy because I owned a piece of this land. So what if had not been set aside?
I mean you'd have this - I lived in Italy for a while and, you know, they have a couple of national parks, but largely the nice land is owned by somebody. It's fenced off. England is the same situation. If you want to go hunt, or fish, or hike, you usually have to ask the lord of the manor or get permission to hike through his place. So, you know, it's extraordinary to think how different we would've been without this endowment.
GROSS: Timothy Egan, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. EGAN: Terry, thanks for having me.
GROSS: Timothy Egan is the author of the new book "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America." He's also a columnist for The New York Times.
Coming up, a memoir about studying Islam with an ardor bordering on obsession, then, becoming a reformist. We talk with Ali Eteraz about his book "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan." This is FRESH AIR.