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.
"Timber" was Titus' first contribution to the reforestation movement. His second was the creation of the "Old Warden" in a series of articles in the 1930s when he was conservation editor for "Field and Stream," James Kates noted in his 2001 book, "Planning a Wilderness: Regenerating the Great Lakes Cutover Lands."
The Old Warden's curmudgeon commentary about controversial conservation measures helped build support for "scientific" reforestation, forest management and wildlife preservation. The Old Warden in his down-to-earth ramblings urged the creation of game refuges and state forests on tax-reverted lands determined worthless for farming.
Unlike many conservation writers, Titus lived in the cutover region and "possessed a singularly keen vision of the cutover's problems and economics," Kates wrote.
"Timber" opened a door for Titus, who was appointed to the Michigan Conservation Commission in 1927 and served 20 years over two stints until his retirement as chairman in 1949.
His Lansing colleagues included P.F. Hoffmaster and Marcus Schaaf. Hoffmaster, the first state parks superintendent, built the state park system in the 1920s and '30s and headed the conservation department from 1934-51. Schaaf, state forester from 1910 to 1949, supervised Michigan's reforestation and state forestlands.
Titus devoted much of his unpaid time on the commission constructing the state's forest fire division. He often joined forest firefighters with a shovel and knapsack, Dave Dempsey observed in his book "Ruin and Recovery, Michigan's Rise as a Conservation Leader."
The author also helped transfer the Old Mission Peninsula Lighthouse and its surrounding 5.4 acres from federal to state ownership in the 1930s and then to Peninsula Township in 1948. Today the lighthouse is part of the township park at the peninsula's tip.
In 1954, Titus became the sixth recipient of the Wildlife* Society's prestigious Aldo Leopold Medal for his conservation efforts.
The award is named for the society's founder, a Wisconsin conservationist known as the father of wildlife preservation and author of "The Sand County Almanac," an environmental classic.
Very little has been written about Titus, who lived in Traverse City most of his life. He was born Feb. 20, 1888, to Josephine and Dorr Titus in an era when conservation was becoming a national topic for the first time. His father died when he was a baby.
When he was two, lumber production in Michigan peaked. Its decline was almost imperceptible at first, as loggers and sawmills shifted to hardwoods. Meanwhile, Traverse City's first boom occurred from 1880-1900, while he was growing up. It changed the face of the growing lumber town when Titus was a little boy.
Handsome new brick buildings replaced wood structures downtown. New Victorian homes went up along Sixth Street. The population almost quintupled, zooming from 1,897 to 9,407.
By 1900, Harold Titus was 12 -- old enough to remember the boom and to witness the bust that would follow. The next year, Teddy Roosevelt became the first president devoted heavily to conservation, something that must have made an impression on the Traverse City teenager. Over the next seven years, TR placed 230 million acres under public protection, and established and dedicated 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments.
Titus played football in high school and was working at the Evening Record in 1907 when he and another high school student there, Jay Smith, took off to attend the University of Michigan.
They were "excellent reporters and turned out a very high grade of work," the Record reported in a farewell story on Sept. 19, 1907.
Titus covered University of Michigan sports and campus events for the Detroit News. He left school because of a bout with tuberculosis and became a News crime and courts reporter, covering sensational trials. In 1912, he went to Colorado and worked with cowboys for several weeks. He married Beth Benedict, who would be his wife of 53 years, in 1914, and came back to his hometown.
His first three books, all westerns, were "I Conquered" (1916), "Bruce of Circle A" (1918) and "The Last Straw" (1920). He wrote 11 novels in all, and hundreds of short stories and magazine articles.
Timber was his fourth novel. The author's sense of responsibility and stewardship was awakened in 1918, shortly after he returned home from stateside service in World War I. He traveled to a favorite tract of forest along the Manistee River and saw a doe swimming frantically for her life down the river, pursued by poachers and their dogs. It appalled him and motivated him to write a series of stories that eventually became "Timber," Kates said.
Over the next six decades, Titus would see new state forests rise in the northern Michigan wastelands of his youth. Michigan's state forests now cover nearly 4 million acres, the largest dedicated state forest system in the United States. When he died on Oct. 9, 1967, northern Michigan was a vastly better place from the cutover wasteland he was born into. And Harold Titus helped make it so.
This story should have originally said that Traverse City conservationist Harold Titus received the Aldo Leopold Medal in 1954 from The Wildlife Society, not the Wilderness Society. The writer made the error. The Wildlife Society, based in Bethesda, Md., and founded in 1937, represents over 8,000 wildlife professionals, primarily in the United States and Canada.