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Sun., Aug. 22, 2010

Progressive ideals took root

The 100-year anniversary of the big forest fires of 1910 has sparked extensive and fascinating coverage, but the event also was a central plot line in the Progressive Era of American politics. Though massive tracts of forestland were devastated, they would regenerate and be protected by the federal government.

Timothy Egan chronicled this political battle in his masterful book “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.” By saving America, Egan means the setting aside of vast lands in the West. This was highly controversial at the time and remains one of the remarkable achievements of American governance. Today, we take national parks and the U.S. Forest Service for granted.

Last summer, my family visited Yellowstone National Park. This year, it was Bryce Canyon in Utah. In previous years, it was Glacier, Crater Lake, the Olympic and Redwood national forests and the Grand Canyon. We had plenty of company from around the world.

Foreign tourists are astonished that so much acreage has been preserved for the public and shielded from private interests. If Teddy Roosevelt’s foes of 100 years ago had gotten their way, this wouldn’t have happened. This includes two towering figures of the day, U.S. Sen. William Clark of Montana and U.S. Sen. Weldon Heyburn of Idaho.

Clark, one of Montana’s Copper Kings, had vast wealth. He is one of the founders of Las Vegas, where I grew up. But his political legacy is that he tried to bribe Montana legislators to appoint him to the Senate in 1899. He wriggled out of that jam and became a senator a couple of years later. This wasn’t unusual. State legislators were willing puppets for big money interests, but Clark’s brazen bribery got wide publicity and became the impetus for the 17th Amendment, which called for the direct election of senators. Citizen initiatives and referendums also began to flourish across the West as an answer to the rampant corruption.

Heyburn was selected by an Idaho legislature that was controlled by timber and mining companies, and he spent his political career defending their interests. A national forest service was a threat to the profits that could be stripped from public lands, so he fiercely fought Roosevelt’s conservation agenda at every turn. “Not one red cent for scenery” was the rallying cry for Heyburn and congressional colleagues, and when Roosevelt left office, they starved the nascent Forest Service by cutting off funding. But Heyburn and company didn’t stop there. They also fought the eight-hour workday, child labor laws and other regulations that are commonplace today.

Today, many Idaho politicians want to repeal the 17th Amendment and return to the days when state legislators chose U.S. senators. Proponents say this would inoculate senators from public opinion and allow them to make the right decisions, not the popular ones. But in practice, the Clarks and Heyburns were able to do the bidding of narrow interests precisely because they didn’t have to worry about those pesky voters.

As the politics surrounding the Progressive Era proves, the public got it right … in a very big way. Bully for them.

Winner takeS all. The Gilded Era preceded the Progressive Era, and it was the closest the country has ever come to being a plutocracy. Thanks to legalized monopolies, a few families dominated industries and amassed enormous wealth. The names Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt are still well-known today.

James Surowiecki of the New Yorker spotlighted some startling statistics that make me wonder whether we’re heading backward in time. Between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 percent of earners in this country saw their income rise 10 percent per year (adjusted for inflation). The rest “enjoyed” an increase of 1.3 percent a year. The top 0.1 percent saw their share of national income triple, meaning they earn as much as the bottom 120 million people.

As Surowiecki concluded, “So at the same time that the rich have been pulling away from the middle class, the very rich have been pulling away from the pretty rich, and the very, very rich have been pulling away from the very rich.”

Wasn’t wealth supposed to trickle down without soaking the wealthy? If so, what is causing the logjam?

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.

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