Splendid Conservation

Because the lumbermen are wiping out all the timber and never thinking of the future. They are in such a hurry to get rich that they’ll leave their grandchildren only a desert. They cut and slash in every direction, and then fires come and the country is ruined. Our rivers depend upon the forests for water. The trees draw the rain; the leaves break it up and let it fall in mists and drippings; it seeps into the ground, and is held by the roots. If the trees are destroyed the rain rushes off on the surface and floods the rivers. The forests store up water, and they do good in other ways.

    For Zane Grey, born at the height of the cowboy age, the adage “larger-than-life” seems a perfect fit: a world-record holding fisherman, minor league baseball player and – the role for which he is best known – millionaire writer (who true to form later blew most of his fortune). Not only that but he is widely credited for launching the literary genre – the Western – writing dozens of novels, many adapted by Hollywood, taking the imagery of the American West worldwide (his novel “The Lone Star Ranger”, written in 1915, is taken to be the inspiration for the eponymous film & TV hero). He did much to popularise hunting and fishing, and became a champion of the American wilderness. Roll over Hemingway.
    A late-starter at 30, he went on to be a prolific writer and was the best-selling author of his time. “Riders of the Purple Sage” was published in 1912, immediately sold over a million copies, and established the form of the modern Western. Extraordinarily he had only visited the American West a few years earlier.
    Why was he so successful? Principally because he struck a nerve, he was authentic, he was hard working. His stories were firmly grounded in own travels and hunting trips in the West (which would strengthen his own conservationist ideals). His direct writing style was built upon the popular dime stories, and most of his stories follow a straightforward narrative plot often based cycles of captivity, seduction, pursuit and escape for the protagonists, normally strong-minded, individualistic characters, compelled to rebuild their lives in the West, from which they may or may not emerge redeemed. His adventures of those rugged people, conquerors and conquered, are played out against a rugged landscape — its beauty, wildness, fragility and immutable power — and rapid social changes such as the expansion of the frontier, the colonization of the West, industrialisation and the railroads. Grey invokes a simple code of conduct for his characters, wrote sympathetically of Native Americans, and was prescient about the transformation of the so-called wilderness. But just as cowboys were more than gunslingers, so Zane Grey has proved to be more than his caricature. A review of a recent biography (Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, by Thomas H. Pauly) is posted here.
    Remarkably one of his earliest novels “The Young Forester” (1910) has all of this (except seduction: its a story for boys). Its main protagonist goes to Arizona to work as a forest ranger. On arrival the first transformation is a prerequisite: getting kitted out with “Winchester, revolver, bolsters, ammunition, saddle, bridle, lasso, blanket” and buying a horse and pack-pony. Then the adventure can begin in earnest. Its a rippin’ yarn, with an assortment of goodies and baddies – such as the corrupt timber man – kidnappings, gunfights, and bear hunting, with plenty of good forest management advice, which would not be out of place in a modern text book, scattered throughout.

    the Government must own the forests an’ deal wisely with them. These mountain forests are great sponges to hold the water, an’ we must stop fire an’ reckless cuttin’. The first thing is to overcome the opposition of the stockmen, an’ show them where the benefit will be theirs in the long run. Next the timber must be used, but not all used up. We’ll need rangers who’re used to rustlin’ in the West an’ know Western ways. Cabins must be built, trails made, roads cut. We’ll need a head forester for every forest. This man must know all that’s on his preserve, an’ have it mapped. He must teach his rangers what he knows about trees…We’ll give [timber and wood] free to the settler an’ prospector. We’ll sell it cheap to the lumbermen–big an’ little. We’ll consider the wants of the local men first…The head forester must know his business, an’ not let his range be overstocked. The small local herders an’ sheepmen must be considered first, the big stockmen second. Both must be charged a small fee per head for grazin’ … Fire is the forest’s worst enemy. In a dry season like [this Penetier] would burn like tinder blown by a bellows. Fire would race through here faster ‘n a man could run. I’ll need special fire rangers, an’ all other rangers must be trained to fight fire, an’ then any men living in or near the forest will be paid to help. The thing to do is watch for the small fires an’ put them out.

At the end the Chief of the Forest Service declares a new policy for the Arizona national forest: “I call it splendid conservation… It considers the settler and lumberman instead of combating him.”

Thanks to Ken Rosenbaum for telling me about “The Young Forester”.


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