By Joanna Bastian

With recent events in the valley that raise discussions about conservation and use of natural resources, combined with climate change discussions of longer, intense fire seasons, this summer seemed like the perfect time to read “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan, paired with “The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples,” by Dr. Michael Marchand et al.

“The Big Burn” covers the political atmosphere leading up to the catastrophic fires of 1910 that burned across several states in the Pacific Northwest. Egan delves into the efforts of Teddy Roosevelt to conserve America’s forests during an industrial race to claim the rich resources of the West. Roosevelt operated on two main principles: enact practices to ensure a lasting, sustainable harvest of natural resources, and preserve America’s natural treasures for the enjoyment of all Americans. Roosevelt established the National Forest Service, which did not receive public support until after the 1910 fires and the heroic efforts of the first rangers to save people and towns.

Roosevelt’s efforts to raise awareness about conservation issues was met with strong resistance by oligarchs who stood to profit from unrestrained invasion and thievery of Native American lands. Treaties were ignored as railroad and timber barons focused on immediate profits, not sustainable practices.

Photo by Joanna Bastian
A crowd gathered at the Shafer Museum in Winthrop last weekend to learn about E. Richard Hart’s new book.

In the summer of 1910, dry lightning started a handful of fires, while sparks from railcars started others. Individuals angry with Roosevelt and the newly formed Forest Service purposely set fire to clear the land — if there were no trees, the Forest Service had no trees to claim. In late August, fires started by both nature and humans merged into a colossal inferno — destroying towns and homes indiscriminately. After the fire, public opinion turned to support conservation efforts. Many public policies were enacted that are still in place today.

“The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples” goes deep to provide illustrative context describing different resource management ideas between the western world view and Native American traditions. Using water as a metaphor,  Marchand and other contributors discuss sustainable practices that allow communities to make choices that fit within the constraints of the available resources of the land. Local and regional communities and planners can benefit from a collaborative relationship rooted in the intergenerational knowledge provided by First Peoples who lived in one place for thousands of years.

Marchand is a local author and chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. I highly recommend his book. Although it is an academic publication, the numerous illustrations, real life stories and traditional metaphors make this book an engaging read. The cover art, by ledger artist Cheryl Grunlose, is beautiful enough to keep the book prominently displayed.

Next up on my reading list is E. Richard Hart’s “Lost Homeland: The Methow Tribe and the Columbia Reservation,” paired with Christine Cassano’s “When the Sun Reaches the Mountain.” Hart’s book delves into the history of the Methow people and the creation of the reservations, while Cassano’s story illustrates her life on that same reservation in the 1940s and 50s.


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