Traverse City Record-Eagle

Record-Eagle 150th Anniversary

July 21, 2009

TC's Titus swayed public opinion on forests

TRAVERSE CITY -- Sometimes it takes a gripping novel to change things.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin," for example, made the world aware of the injustices of slavery. For Michigan's environmental ruin following the lumber era, that book was "Timber," written by Traverse City native son Harold Titus.

The 1922 novel wasn't the main reason Michigan's leaders decided to reforest the state's vast timber cutover lands, but it did sway public opinion in that direction at a crucial time.

Back then ugly, charred wastelands covered a third of the state, stretching through northern Michigan from the Upper Peninsula almost to Grand Rapids. Worthless for farming, they frequently caught fire and by 1920 threatened to impoverish the state.

"That book probably did more than any other single factor between 1920 and 1925 to give impetus to the conservation movement," said Ben East, a well-known 20th century Michigan outdoor writer.

"Timber" brought the heat, roar and fear of raging forest fires home to urban readers. It translated controversial debates about the need for managed state forests, wildlife refuges and a state forest-firefighting system into metaphors audiences easily understood.

The book was turned into a silent movie called "Hearts Aflame" in 1923 and was playing in Lansing at the time the Legislature voted in its first meaningful appropriation for battling forest fires.

Titus received $3,500 for the screen rights from Louis B. Mayer Productions, but had nothing to do with the film otherwise and was displeased with some of its inaccuracies.

Interestingly, Harold Titus credited P.S. Lovejoy, a University of Michigan forestry instructor, freelance writer and reforestation advocate for help with technical details in "Timber."

Lovejoy had a vision about reforestation and in 1923 went to work for the Michigan Department of Conservation as head of its new Land Economic Survey office. Over the next 20 years, he and his colleagues would create and put into practice state land-use policies. They would create a legal framework to allow reforestation, preserve forests and create game refuges and an extensive state park system.

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