Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 46.djvu/605

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THE LESSON OF THE FOREST FIRES.

and Minnesota, burning over three thousand miles of territory. On the 8th of October occurred the great fire which consumed a large part of Chicago. On the same night the cities of Holland and Manistee, in Michigan, were laid in ashes, and during the week succeeding came news of devastating fires in other parts of the State. The new county of Huron was almost entirely swept over, and a large part of Sanilac County. Nearly all the villages on the Lake Huron coast were destroyed, and at least five thousand inhabitants left houseless. Houses, fences, crops, timber, all were burned; and many people perished, being unable to escape the rapid march of the flames and smoke. Not less than two thousand square miles of country, wholly or partially timbered, were completely burned over in Michigan during this disastrous year. The Lower Peninsula contains forty-four thousand square miles. If we estimate about one half, or twenty thousand square miles, as timbered, it would require but ten such fires as that of 1871 to sweep the State clean.

Forest fires nearly as disastrous have occurred in other States and other years, but these will suffice for our purpose.

What is the origin of these forest fires? Are they preventable? Upon whom lies the responsibility? These questions open a large field of inquiry and involve the whole subject of our forest system, or want of system, and management good or bad of our woodlands, from the first settlement of the country. This is too large a subject to be treated as it deserves in a single paper, but even a brief consideration may make clear facts of the greatest scientific importance and serve to inculcate a lesson which can not be too strongly enforced.

The extent and magnificence of the forest growth of the United States at the beginning of our existence as a nation surpassed that of any land of equal extent on the globe. In the number of species and the size of its trees, both deciduous and evergreen, it exceeded by five times that of Europe. Such a forest spread almost unbroken from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. An equally dense forest, mostly conifers, and many of a size before unknown, occupied the Pacific slope; while between stretched an almost treeless region comprising nearly half the territory of the United States. What a treasury of wealth belonged to the new nation in its woodlands if properly husbanded! But to its first possessors these were an incumbrance, to be got rid of as speedily as possible, in order that place might be made for another source of national wealth—agriculture.

Since that early period how great has been the change! The forest area, which seemed to its first possessors so vast, and such an obstacle to civilized progress, has in a single century almost disappeared.