US Forest Service Fire policy, Then and Now

31 March 2020

Human behavior is shaped by our environment and our personal experiences.  William B. Greeley, the third chief of the US Forest Service (1920-1928), is no different (Egan 2010). Bill graduated at the top of the first forestry class at Yale in 1904 and was hand picked by Gifford Pinchot to work for the Region 1 forest supervisor that put him in charge of 41 million acres of Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  This is important to understand because Yale leaned heavily on the European model of forestry and Pinchot was also educated at Yale and in Europe as well.  European forestry fights fire aggressively. 

Greeley’s position as the Region 1 supervisor put him on the front lines during the Big Burn of 1910 turned into a firestorm that consumed 3 million acres is about 3 days (Egan 2010).  After the 1910 burn, Greeley was convinced “Satan was at work” and that all fires needed to be suppressed.  His policies and mindset led to policies such as the 10 am rule which strived to have fires extinguished by 10 am the next work day.

The other influence on Greeley was the focus of America at the time.  The nation was expanding and building.  Timber was the focus of forests at the time.  Greeley’s wrote a paper titled “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning that reflects his, and the nations, focus on quality timber with no mention of ecological processes. Bill speaks of fire scars creating rot that topples trees in wind events and also states “ many fine logs” are hollowed out with rot that reduces harvest volumes. 

Today, the Forest Service is transitioning to an entirely different approach.  It embraces the “Paiute Forestry” that Greeley said would bring “total destruction” to the western pine forests.  Many of the points that Bill brings up in his paper, from an ecological stand point, are easily refuted today.  One such point Greeley makes is that fire consumes the young trees needed for nature to “make up ground” after a disturbance.  We now know many of the western forests need fire to recruit the next generation of trees.  The rot he references is essential habitat for many birds and animals.  These are all part of biodiversity and ecological function of our forests.  By embracing prescribed fire which is why Greeley was writing in protest, we can put the forest back in a historical range of variability that many of the plants have adapted and evolved to withstand. 

There will always be a need to suppress fires in the extreme fire weather conditions, but the Forest Service is now embracing fire as a forest management tool for healthy forests.  


Egan, Timothy. 2010. The Big Burn. Boston New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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4 replies on “US Forest Service Fire policy, Then and Now”

I remember reading The Big Burn that you reference you in you posting Wade. It give great, but concise background into what factors played into early forest management. European methods were at the forefront of forestry in those days. The United States was undeveloped in forest practices and lacked the information, and possibly mindset, to manage lands in new, innovative ways. Unfortunately, today we have to repent for these miscalculations and misconceptions that plagued new world forestry practices.

The ecological processes that Chief Greeley posed in his article really caught me off guard. I am truly glad that our understanding of these ecological processes that take place in the forested environments of the world are better understood. However, it makes me wonder sometimes if today we understand the forested environment any better than we did back them. Especially the processes of fire and the North American Landscape.

I appreciate you linking Greeley’s attitudes and policies back to the educational environment at Yale. I think this plays a huge role in shaping his Eurocentric approach to wildland fire and shouldn’t be skipped over. There is certainly a lag between the forestry education folks receive and the time in their career when they are in decision-making positions — so I wonder when today’s progressive and shifting firefighting paradigms will become the standard not just in local firefighting realms but also in DC.

Hi Wade! I didn’t go into much of Greeley’s past as you did. I think it’s really important that you included those facts. They paint a picture as to why Greeley thought of fire as he did. As we navigate the ecological world, there’s a lot of value in recognizing where you get your education from and how that might differ from people earning a similar degree from somewhere else. Pinchot and Greeley thought the same because they went to the same school, do you think things might have turned out differently if there had been other perspectives included from people in charge?

Hello Wade,
As we have seen in this and several other classes, European forestry practices have a heavy influence on the early days of forest management in the US, both regarding fire and overall. However, I don’t think any of them have ever addressed why this discrepancy existed nor whether this is still the case. So I did a little looking and found this brief video by the European Forest Institute. It is an interesting glimpse at their side of the issue.
I like that you mention the need for historical context when considering the early forester’s views of Piute forestry. To add on to that, I think it would also be good to note that native burning practices were not intended to aid in timber production. Burning practices had ritual significance, and were usually done to increase available food sources. On the other hand, sustainable timber production was the top priority of the early Forest Service. It is easy to see how this might have further influenced policy makers to dismiss burning, since its historical objectives had nothing to do with their own.

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