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In this article-length guest blog post, retired U.S. Forest Service research forester Stephen F. Arno discusses why fire management is impeded today and says we need to look at the history of fire policy in tandem with the development of the science of disturbance ecology to gain a better understanding of the issue. 

Numerous books and commentaries have described the century-long evolution of forest fire policy in the United States. However, rarely have these accounts focused on one of the seminal factors that provoked a transformation in policy and fire-control practices—namely, expanding knowledge of fire ecology.

Soon after its inception in the early 1900s the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy that can be described as “fire exclusion,” based on the view that forest fires were unnecessary and a menace.[1] In the late 1970s, however, the agency was compelled by facts on the ground to begin transitioning to managing fire as an inherent component of the forest.[2] This new direction, “fire management,” is based on realization that fire is inevitable and can be either destructive or beneficial depending largely on how fires and forest fuels are managed. Despite the obvious logic of fire management it continues to be very difficult to implement on a significant scale. To understand why fire management is impeded and perhaps gain insight for advancing its application, we need to look at the history of fire policy in tandem with the development of the science of disturbance ecology. It is also important to review changing forest conditions and values at risk to wildfire. Certain aspects of the situation today make it more difficult to live with fire in the forest than was the case a century ago.

Forest homes burned in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, AZ. Such a scene is increasing in frequency. (Photo by Humphrey’s Type 1 USDA/USDI Southwest Region Incident Management Team)

Forest homes burned in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, AZ. This is an increasingly common scene. (Photo by Humphrey’s Type 1 USDA/USDI Southwest Region Incident Management Team)

This story begins with the emergence of the profession of forestry in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The first professional foresters in the United States were educated in humid regions of Europe, where concepts of forestry developed primarily to establish tree plantations on land that had been denuded by agrarian people seeking firewood and building material and clearing forestland for grazing.[3] Native forests in these regions had largely disappeared long before, and fire in the forest was considered an undesirable, damaging agent. In retrospect, the European model of forestry didn’t apply very well to the vast areas of North American forest consisting of native species that had been maintained for millenniums by periodic fires. For instance, much of the Southeast and a great deal of the inland West supported forests of fire-resistant pines with open, grassy understories, perpetuated by frequent low-intensity fires.

From the outset, American foresters had to confront damaging wildfires, often caused by abandoned campfires, sparks from railroads, and people clearing land. Arguments for “light burning” to tend the forest were first made in print during the 1880s, before there were forest reserves or an agency to care for them.[4] Timber owners in northern California liked setting low-intensity fires under ideal conditions as a means of controlling accumulation of fuel. Stockmen liked to burn in order to stimulate growth of forage plants. Settlers used fire for land clearing and farming. Romanticists favored it for maintaining an age-old Indian way of caring for the land.

Fire historian Stephen Pyne concludes that there was no presumptive reason why American forestry should have rigorously fought against all forms of burning in the forest.[5] What the new government foresters like Gifford Pinchot and William Greeley refused to accept was that frontier laissez-faire burning practices could be allowed to coexist with systematic fire protection, which increasingly became the forester’s mission. But foresters saw light burning as a political threat, and they refused entreaties from advocates of burning to develop procedures for applying fire as a forestry practice.[6] Ironically, promoters of light burning were in a sense recognizing that it is important to account for natural processes in managing native forests, a concept termed “ecosystem management” when it was finally endorsed by the chief of the Forest Service in 1992.[7]

The “light burning” controversy ramped up considerably in 1910. President William Howard Taft, who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, appointed Richard Ballinger as Secretary of the Interior. Soon Ballinger was accused of virtually giving away federal coal reserves to his industrialist friends by Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, who publicly denounced Ballinger for corruption. Unable to control Pinchot, President Taft fired him in January of 1910, an action that sparked a national controversy since Pinchot was highly respected as a leader of the conservation movement. The fact that Pinchot’s nemesis, Ballinger, supported light burning—stating “we may find it necessary to revert to the old Indian method of burning over the forests annually at a seasonable period”—certainly didn’t help that cause gain favor with foresters. By unhappy coincidence, in August 1910, the same month that “the Big Burn” consumed 3 million forested acres in the Northern Rockies, Sunset magazine published an article by timberland owner George Hoxie calling for a government program to conduct light burning throughout California forests.[8] (The fact that the Big Burn occurred primarily in wetter forest types more susceptible to stand-replacing fire than most California forests was not generally recognized nor understood, in large part because there was little understanding of forest ecology at the time.) After the Big Burn, Forest Service leaders claimed they could’ve stopped the disaster if they’d had enough men and money. That mindset took hold of the agency and echoes down through to today in some corridors.

Pulaski tunnel

Pulaski tunnel, September 1910. The Big Burn made a folk hero of ranger Ed Pulaski when he forced his men to take refuge from the fire in an old mine shaft. The fire also convinced agency leaders that more men and money could’ve prevented the disaster.

In October 1910, Pinchot’s successor Henry Graves visited T. B. Walker’s extensive timberlands in northeastern California.[9] Graves viewed tracts of ponderosa pine-mixed conifer forest that Walker’s crew had methodically “underburned” (a low-intensity surface fire under the trees) after the first fall rains in order to reduce hazardous fuel and brush. Graves didn’t deny the effectiveness of the treatment, but felt it was bad to kill seedlings and saplings. More than that, he didn’t like the idea of condoning use of fire in the forest. It didn’t help that one of Walker’s light burns had escaped earlier in the year and raced across 33,000 acres before submitting to control. Then, like now, deliberate burning in the forest was not risk free; however, light burning was aimed at reducing the greater hazard of severe wildfires.

Continue Reading »

Last Friday we received word that Bill Hagenstein, a giant in the forest industry and the history of American forestry, had died. The following biography is adapted from the files of the World Forestry Center, which he helped to establish in Portland, Oregon. While it does a fine job of summarizing his life and career, it doesn’t begin to capture what a character Bill was. He never varnished the truth and was known for his direct, if profanity-laced, take on forestry and life, both of which are evident in his two oral history interviews with FHS and his colorful memoir Cork & Suspenders: Memoir of an Early Forester. As you’ll see he may very well have been the last living link we had to the first generation of American foresters. 

One of the most important American and Northwestern foresters in the twentieth century, William D. “Bill” Hagenstein was a key advocate for sound national and regional forestry policies that protected forests and ensured their continuing productivity. In addition to participating in the creation of the nationwide Tree Farm Program and pioneering other sustainable forestry practices, Bill provided expert testimony to the Oregon and Washington legislatures and the Congress for more than 30 years.

Bill Hagenstein, in an undated photo from the FHS Photo Collection

Bill Hagenstein, in an undated photo from the FHS Photo Collection

A fourth generation Northwesterner, Bill was born in Seattle on March 8, 1915. When Bill was eleven, his father, Charles William Hagenstein, passed away and his upbringing was left to his mother, Janet May Hagenstein (née Finigan). Bill began working in the woods at age 12. Already six feet tall and 170 pounds, Bill was able to pass for 18, the minimum age required for logging by state law. Throughout his teens, Bill worked every summer in logging camps and by the time he was 19 he held his first foreman’s job.

As the Great Depression set in, Bill traveled the country on freight cars between jobs in logging camps. In the early 1930s, he worked on several major forest fires in Idaho. These experiences educated him about the devastation that forest fires can cause without efforts to prevent and control them.

In the fall of 1934, Bill returned to his mother’s house in Seattle after spending the summer on the disastrous Pete King fire on Idaho’s Selway National Forest. He had been out of high school for four years and his mother encouraged him to enroll in the University of Washington, just four miles away from where he was born. At enrollment, a woman at the registrar’s office rattled off an alphabetical list of possible majors. When she got to “f” Bill stopped her and selected forestry.

Bill received his Bachelor of Science in Forestry in 1938. He had spent the summers working for the U.S. Forest Service and the Seattle Water Department. That year forestry employment was hard to come by, but Bill worked several jobs. First he was a fire warden for the City of Seattle on its Cedar River Watershed. Then he worked as a forest entomologist for the U.S. Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine in northern California. Bill spent 1939 as a logging superintendent and engineer for the Eagle Logging Company in Skagit County, Washington. In 1940 he spent a few months as a foreman in a CCC Camp on the Snoqualmie National Forest.

Spurred by his desire to see another part of the country—especially another major timber-producing area—Bill enrolled as a scholarship student in Duke University’s School of Forestry, from which he received the Master of Forestry degree in 1941. The West Coast Lumbermen’s Association (WCLA) immediately employed him as Forester for Western Washington.

On January 20, 1942, Bill participated in the historic founding of the American Tree Farm System. Thirteen men, including prominent Northwest lumbermen and foresters, met in the old Portland Hotel and certified the country’s first tree farms. Bill was secretary of the meeting and signed its minutes. Tree farms were certified when their owners pledged to dedicate their lands permanently to growing, protecting, and harvesting trees for permanent production. Bill considered his part in this program, which spread quickly throughout the United States, to be one of the crowning achievements of his life.

Bill Hagenstein (third from right) considered his involvement in the founding of the American Tree Farm System "the crowning achievement of his career."

Bill Hagenstein (third from right) considered his involvement in the founding of the American Tree Farm System “one of the crowning achievements of his life.”

Col. William B. Greeley, then Secretary-Manager of WCLA, and former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was also present at the founding of the Tree Farm System. Colonel Greeley was Bill’s closest professional colleague and mentor for fifteen years. (Ed: Bill always spoke reverently and respectfully of “the Colonel” and maintained a friendship with the Greeley family the rest of his life.)

In 1943, World War II took Bill to the South and Central Pacific. He served as Chief Engineer of military lumbering in those theaters of war. Though often overlooked, timber was critical to the war effort. Lumber was needed for tent framing and decking, docks and wharves, bridges, hospitals, and dunnage for loading supply ships. In 1945, as the war was winding down, Bill was sent to Costa Rica to help establish a cinchona (quinine) plantation to grow the bark needed for producing the drug used to treat malaria.

After the war, Bill returned to WCLA, which moved its headquarters in 1946 from Seattle to Portland. In 1947, after a change in Washington law, Bill qualified as a Professional Engineer in Logging Engineering. Upon his move to Oregon he was similarly licensed in that state. Bill became the organization’s Chief Forester in 1948. In 1949 WCLA created a new organization that focused entirely on forestry and called it the Industrial Forestry Association (IFA). Bill was named manager and later, when the organization officially incorporated, was elected Executive Vice President. Bill held that position until his retirement in 1980.

At IFA’s peak, Bill had approximately 300 people working with him, including a professional forestry staff of 20. IFA’s mission was to develop a permanent timber supply in the Douglas-fir region as basic support for the Northwest economy. In addition to certifying tree farms in the Douglas-fir region, IFA operated four nonprofit nurseries, which grew trees for member companies. By 1980 the IFA nurseries had grown 500 million trees, which reforested one million acres on tree farms in western Washington and Oregon. In 1954 IFA started the first regional program of tree improvement to apply the principles of genetics to the growing of timber. This is now standard practice by industry and government.

Among IFA’s most important tasks was professional expression of the needs of forestry to the public and every level of government. Over a 35-year period, Bill provided expert testimony to agencies and Congress on about 250 occasions. One of IFA’s strengths was its credibility on all aspects of Northwest forestry. Eventually, Bill and IFA became the principal national voice for the Douglas-fir industry.

Bill joined the Society of American Foresters in 1938 and served this professional society in many ways, including seven years as associate editor of the Journal of Forestry, ten years on its Governing Council, and four years as President from 1966 to 1969. He was elected a Fellow in 1963 and was awarded the Society’s Gifford Pinchot medal in 1987.

He served as a regional leader in times of crisis. As chairman of the Timber Disaster Committee of the Northwest Forest Pest Action Council, he led the salvage efforts to clean up the mess created by the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 that blew down 17 billion board feet of timber in five hours. This effort greatly minimized the proliferation of pests and forest fires that could have seriously damaged the region’s economy.

Bill was active in the forest fire prevention campaigns of the Keep Washington Green and Keep Oregon Green Associations from their inception in the early 1940s. He served the Washington association as an Advisory Trustee from 1957 to 1995 and the Oregon association as Trustee from 1957 on and as President in 1972–73.

A tireless promoter of forestry, Bill wrote more than 500 published pieces in a variety of media. He coauthored with Wackerman and Mitchell the textbook, Harvesting Timber Crops, widely used by forestry schools throughout the world. He delivered a speech every 10 working days for 35 years. In addition to appearing before professional and civic groups, Bill delivered lectures at universities in California, North Carolina, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Bill was a member of numerous professional associations and received many awards and honors.

From a Portland hilltop, Bill witnessed the burning of the city’s magnificent Forestry Building in 1964, a massive wood structure that had been a cornerstone of the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905. In response to the absence left by this fire, Mayor Terry Schrunk appointed Bill and ten others as founders and builders of the Western Forestry Center, now the World Forestry Center.

Bill’s varied career brought him in touch with many forestry luminaries. In 1940, when he was attending his first annual meeting of the Society of American Foresters in Washington, DC, Bill met and had lunch with Gifford Pinchot, America’s first forester and one of seven founders of the Society in 1900. Bill met five of the other founders at subsequent annual meetings.

Bill retired from IFA in 1980. With no interest in retirement, he incorporated W. D. Hagenstein and Associates and continued working as a consulting forester for many more years. As his résumé shows, he was active in several organizations, including serving on the Forest History Society’s Board of Directors from 2001 to 2004, and the recipient of numerous achievement awards.

For more than 70 years, Bill made the woods his profession and his passion. He once said that dendrology—the study of trees—was his hobby. Bill was also a devoted husband.  His wife of nearly 40 years, Ruth Helen Hagenstein (née Johnson) passed away in 1979. Bill married Jean Kraemer Edson in 1980. She passed away in 2000.

Bill devoted both his professional and personal life to promoting forestry as the foundation of the Northwest economy because of the unique renewability of trees. He always emphasized that we must take good care of our forests and, in doing so, they will take good care of us. For Bill Hagenstein this responsibility meant cherishing our forests by using their bounty wisely and renewing them promptly by the practice of forestry.

What began as a millionaire’s dream, a genius’s vision, and a forester’s labor is now being captured in a Forest History Society documentary film. This spring the Forest History Society joined forces with Bonesteel Films to produce First in Forestry, a documentary film about Carl Alwin Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School. Principal photography for the interviews and re-creation footage began in earnest last month, and yours truly was there to witness the excitement and action, consult a bit, and try to look like I know what I am doing.

For those not familiar with our story, George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is where the first large-scale forest management effort was carried out in the United States under the direction of Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck. Schenck also established the first school of forestry in North America. Several of the nearly 400 men who graduated from his school went on to become leaders in American forestry in the first half of the 20th century. Much of the land they worked and learned on is now preserved as the Pisgah National Forest. The story of Carl Schenck and his work at the Biltmore is the focus of the film.

cradle overlook

The view from the Blue Ridge Parkway towards where the Biltmore Forest School spent the summer months. George Vanderbilt owned much of what is visible from there. (Jamie Lewis)

Director Paul Bonesteel strongly believes that including re-creation footage will draw in today’s audiences, and we couldn’t agree more. He used this technique with great success in two other films that have aired on PBS, The Mystery of George Masa and The Day Carl Sandburg Died.

Critical to that success is finding the right actors to portray historical figures, in this case, finding forester Carl Schenck (not Finding Forrester).

"Dr. Schenck" keeps a close eye on "his boys" during a break in filming while Paul checks the playback.

“Dr. Schenck” keeps a close eye on “his boys” during a break in filming while director Paul Bonesteel checks the playback. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

Here's an example of pretending I know what I'm doing: showing Paul and "Dr. Schenck" the proper height to hold a Biltmore stick. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

Here’s an example of acting like I know what I’m doing: showing Paul (left) and “Dr. Schenck” (right) the proper height to hold a Biltmore stick. The rumors reported on Entertainment Tonight about my having punched out Paul over creative differences are incorrect. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

Paul gives “Dr. Schenck” direction for his next scene. The rumor reported in the press in 1909 that Dr. Schenck punched out estate manager C.D. Beadle is, sadly, true. (Courtesy of Bonesteel films)

We are fortunate to have the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service and the Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site in making the filming possible. We’re using locations found throughout the Pisgah National Forest and at the Cradle of Forestry.

No shoot is too difficult for the Bonesteel team to capture. They even set up a camera in a cold mountain stream to get just the right shot. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

No shot is too difficult for the Bonesteel team to capture. They even set up a camera in a cold mountain stream to get just the right angle. No animals or camera crew were hurt in the taking of this photograph. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

As you might imagine, it takes a number of talented people behind the scenes to make the action in front of the camera look good and convincing. The folks at Bonesteel Films are top-notch and really pleasant to work with. Early calls and long days don’t dampen spirits. Not even a relentless rain storm stopped our filming interviews one day. We just moved to a new location. Fortunately, when it was time for shooting re-creation footage in the forest we had good weather.

Part of the crew watching and making sure everything runs smoothly. We needed people for wardrobe and makeup, wrangling horses, and coordinating the two cameras.

We needed people for wardrobe and makeup, wrangling horses, checking the script, and coordinating the two cameras. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

One of the things that excites us about working with Bonesteel Films is Paul’s skill in mixing traditional documentary film-making style (historical photographs and interviews with historians) with re-creation footage that works like a historical photograph brought to life. But without good interviews, the film could suffer. So we brought in one of the best at on-screen interviews, Char Miller. You may know him from such films as The Greatest Good and The Wilderness Idea.

Pinchot biographer Char Miller will be one of the featured interviews. Here Char (right) takes a break from being interviewed to pose with yours truly and Paul. Rumors reported on Entertainment Tonight that I got in a fight with Char and Paul over sartorial differences are not true. (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

Not all of the film will be “talking heads” and re-creation footage. This is not just a story of the people, but the story of the place. The Pisgah region and the Southern Appalachians are one of the most beautiful places in the world in my opinion. You can’t ask for a better backdrop for filming. It’s why so many Hollywood films are made there, too.

The area around Asheville, NC, is known as "The Land of the Sky" and with good reason. Here's the view from the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Jamie Lewis)

The area around Asheville is known as “The Land of the Sky” and with good reason. Here’s the view from the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Jamie Lewis)

For a few months now, whenever he gets a chance, Paul has been shooting footage that will capture and convey that beauty. He has plenty of experience doing so because of his film about George Masa and commercial work for the Biltmore Estate.

Paul works both on the micro and macro levels when it comes to capturing nature on film.

Paul works both on the micro and macro levels when it comes to capturing nature on film.  (Courtesy of Bonesteel Films)

One of the things you often hear about with actors and film sets is how groupies sneak on to the set to watch filming. I’m hear to tell you it’s true. We’re going to beef up security for the next round of filming. We can’t allow set crashers who then peddle gossip to the tabloids.

We eventually had security remove this interloper from the set. We think he's the source of the rumors in the press.

We eventually had security remove this interloper from the set. We think he’s the source of the rumors in the press of fisticuffs and tantrums. (Jamie Lewis)

If you’ve read this far, thank you! If you want to be a part of forest history, we’re still fundraising for the film. Please visit our film page to learn how you can contribute, and stay tuned for more news on the film.

Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 15, in which we examine Joe Beaver.

Joe BeaverBefore there was a Smokey Bear or a Woodsy Owl, the U.S. Forest Service had another animal preaching the messages of forest conservation and fire prevention: Joe Beaver. Joe (an actual beaver, not the 8-time world champion cowboy) was the creation of legendary cartoonist Ed Nofziger, who worked for the Forest Service during World War II before moving on to the large animation studios of his day. The story of Joe Beaver’s creation is intertwined with Nofziger’s divergent career path into the world of forestry.

Ed Nofziger was born in 1913 and raised in California, graduating with an art degree from UCLA in 1936. His work as a cartoonist soon took him to New York, where he became a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post and other publications. The outbreak of World War II altered his career path, though, bringing him renown he might otherwise have never attained.

As a member of the pacifist Church of the Brethren, Nofziger was a conscientious objector during the war. When conscripted in 1943 he was assigned to the Forest Service as an alternative to military duty. Nofziger was first sent to a Forest Service station in Cooperstown, New York. Despite having no previous forestry experience (other than being the son of a West Coast lumberman), he took to the work and soon put his own unique skills to good use. Nofziger came up with the idea for Joe Beaver as a way to combine humor with a message of forest conservation.

The Joe Beaver cartoon first appeared in The Otsego Forest Cooperator, a publication of the Otsego Forest Products Cooperative Association in Cooperstown. The character was successfully received, and the Forest Service decided to promote the cartoon on a national level. In 1945 Nofziger was transferred to the USFS office in Philadelphia as Joe Beaver’s audience continued to grow. The Forest Service distributed the comic to lumber and trade journals and other publications throughout the country.

Joe Beaver cartoon

Dr. Hardy L. Shirley, the director of the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station for whom Nofziger worked in Philadelphia, described Joe Beaver as “a practical woodsman who is part philosopher, part forester and part hard-headed business man.”

Besides speaking, though, Joe Beaver didn’t take on other human characteristics like similar animal characters. Joe never wore clothes or a hard hat, for example (a la Benny Beaver and others). He was presented as a regular beaver living in the forest, dedicated to spreading the message of conservation.

Nofziger and the Joe Beaver character continued to get more publicity as the cartoon spread nationwide. The overseas service edition of Life magazine in August 1945 featured Joe Beaver cartoons in the “Speaking of Pictures” section. Life had this to say about Joe: “His toothy grin is not that of a clown; it comes, rather, from the bustling good spirits of someone trying to get a job done and done well. Joe is smart, practical and has the native pride of a skilled craftsman. Despite the sarcastic spoofing of his slow-witted beaver pals, Lumberman Joe feels a deep sense of responsibility and concern for their welfare, their sometimes crude work methods and, above all, for America’s forests.”

Feature articles on Nofziger and Joe also appeared in the New York Herald Tribune (September 9, 1945) and the Long Island Star-Journal (January 10, 1946), the latter of which declared: “A man who never studied a stump of forestry in his life, Nofziger is making the experts in timber conservation all over the country sit up and take notice–and all with the air of one who feels he hasn’t done enough.”

Despite this success, Nofziger never received any extra income for the Joe Beaver character, who was officially owned by the Forest Service. This didn’t bother him. “Joe is trying to do a service for the people of this country and better forestry,” Nofziger stated in an interview. “He does not contribute to my family income. He is a public service. He is given away free.”

While with the Forest Service, Nofziger also completed the short book Two Trees, created from hand-carved linoleum prints. This story of two trees named Ashton and Elmer provided a message to children of the importance of proper forest management.

Two Trees

Nofziger kept turning out Joe Beaver cartoons through the end of the 1940s. His career aspirations eventually led him back to California. He moved on from the Forest Service and into full time animation, working for UPA studios drawing “Mister Magoo” cartoons and later for Hanna-Barbera where he drew “Ruff and Ready” and other characters. (While at Hanna-Barbera he may have been involved with the Sniff and Snuff characters, but we don’t have confirmation of that.)

Nofziger passed away on October 16, 2000. In his obituary published in the Los Angeles Times, fellow artist Roger Armstrong praised him as one of “the finest cartoonist of animals in the last half-century.”

Joe Beaver comic

Continue after the jump below for a small selection of classic Joe Beaver cartoons. Continue Reading »

The following book review by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis appears in the Scientists’ Nightstand section of the July-August 2014 issue of American Scientist.

ARMING MOTHER NATURE: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Jacob Darwin Hamblin. 320 pp. Oxford University Press, 2013. $29.95.arming mother nature cover

In May 1960 scientists and military officers at NATO headquarters came to a conclusion about the massive earthquake that had just stunned Chile: One nation’s natural disaster is another’s military opportunity. The earthquake, still the most powerful ever recorded, triggered mudslides, floods, tsunamis, even a volcanic eruption, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It sent 35-foot waves racing across the ocean at 450 miles per hour before smashing into Japan, Australia, and the Philippines. Nonetheless, says Jacob Darwin Hamblin in his book Arming Mother Nature, from their vantage point in Paris NATO leaders saw the seismic event “as a shining example of what Americans might soon implement against the Soviet Union.” If they could determine where to place a hydrogen bomb in the Earth’s crust, scientists thought they might be able to replicate what happened in the Pacific and cripple the Soviet state, all while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability.

NATO used the term environmental warfare for this new strategy—that is, harnessing nature’s physical forces and biological pathways to wage a global war. After opening his book with the unsettling Chile anecdote, Hamblin, who teaches the history of science and technology at Oregon State University, lays out a fascinating and often disturbing history of American efforts to enlist Mother Nature in the war against Communism. Under the guise of national security, he says, “military and civilian scientific work proceeded together.” Triggering earthquakes with subterranean explosions, controlling the weather with hydrogen bombs, introducing pathogens via air-dropped contaminated bird feathers—no scheme was too outlandish to contemplate. The government even conducted experiments on American civilian and military populations as well as on America’s enemies. In the context of war, anything could be morally justified.

The desire to control and manipulate nature on a massive scale—and the belief that doing so was viable—had emerged earlier, during World War II. American military leaders took note of how fires caused by incendiary bombs Allied forces had dropped on Japanese and German urban centers consumed city after city. Washington strategists contemplated using biochemical weapons on Japanese rice fields to deprive both civilians and soldiers of the primary staple of their diet. Ultimately they wanted to manipulate nature on the atomic level. Fearful that the Germans were developing an atomic bomb, the United States raced to develop one first. For the next half-century the desire to outpace the enemy in weapons development drove military doctrine and much scientific research. Says Hamblin, “Scientific growth after World War II owes its greatest debt to the U.S. armed services, which paid the lion’s share of the bill.”

Yet these atomic-era mushroom clouds came with a kind of silver lining for environmentalists. In time, the tireless search for vulnerabilities to exploit expanded and deepened our scientific understanding of nature. By the late 1950s, public questions arose about the human impact on the environment, leading eventually to predictions of environmental catastrophe. The data used by those in the international environmental movement came directly from military-funded research. Moreover, global climate change would not have been detected during the latter years of the 20th century without scientific projects funded by the U.S. Defense Department.

Arming Mother Nature is divided into three thematic sections that are loosely chronological. The first, “Pathways of Nature,” covers the brief period following World War II when the Americans were the only ones with nuclear arms but possessed so few that the military wanted other, less costly weapons of mass destruction (a phrase government officials tried to avoid using publicly then) to stem the rising tide of Communism. The military believed it required flexibility in how it might respond to the threat. Before the Soviets’ emergence as a nuclear power, a flexible response meant using biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. (As we’ll see, in the 1960s “flexible response” would take on a whole different meaning.) In addition to researching biological and radiological warfare, scientists strove to learn more about how disease becomes epidemic. Some initial experiments focused on crop destruction rather than on infecting crops with disease: Anti-livestock and anti-crop weapons seemed the most logical and cost-effective approach. Other researchers debated which pathogens to mass-produce and the best ways to spread them.

“Forces of Nature,” the second section, covers the first decade of the thermonuclear era. Research and policy as well as military strategy shifted with the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949. The blast triggered more questions: Could the United States wage and win a nuclear war? If not, how could the West defeat the Soviets and their allies? Manipulating nature became a major focus of strategic thinking, and the military dollars followed. Opinions within the nuclear research community were divided over the most effective use of a bomb: dropping a nuclear device directly on a city or introducing floods and wildfires by targeting dams and forests. Meanwhile, research into developing bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons had led some scientists to study nuclear fallout and its effects. As researchers learned more, their thinking turned increasingly toward using geophysical forces, such as oceans and winds, militarily. It was within this context that American defensive planners perceived opportunity in the aftermath of the 1960 Chile earthquake.

The third section, “Gatekeepers of Nature,” picks up around the time President Kennedy issued the military doctrine of Flexible Response, calling for a diversified nuclear arsenal as well as the use of small, specialized combat units such as the Army’s Special Forces. Many Americans believed, as Kennedy did, that science and technology could help win wars abroad while also solving problems such as hunger and disease at home. “Scientists,” Hamblin says, “were not merely asked to do research or to develop technology but to plan global strategy. That encouraged civilian scientists to think of the whole Earth as the playing field.” They used computers and game theory to develop models predicting the outcome of countless scenarios. Hamblin observes, “Military planning and environmental prediction were rarely far removed from each other, as they asked the same questions, drew from the same data, and often involved the same scientists.”

It is not surprising, then, that Americans learned of the environmental damage caused by nuclear testing and chemical spraying from scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, and Rachel Carson, who consulted military researchers’ data in their own work. At the time few realized that environmental scientists often drew on data and reports generated from projects funded by the Defense Department. In writings aimed at the general public, environmentalists discussed the planet’s future in catastrophic terms. That books like Carson’s Silent Spring and Erlich’s The Population Bomb became bestsellers reflected Americans’ growing concern over the environment in the 1960s.

The Vietnam War proved a turning point in the history of catastrophic environmentalism. In his chapter on the war, Hamblin examines how and why military and civilian scientists openly used Vietnam as a vast “playing field” for all manner of biochemical weapon research. Even the U.S. Forest Service got involved, loaning fire researchers to the Department of Defense, where they experimented with spraying defoliants and dropping incendiary bombs intended to consume swaths of jungle in massive forest fires. But soon the war abroad fueled widespread protest back home, and antiwar activism paved the way for environmental activism. By 1969 the environmental movement had grown powerful enough that American policy makers and diplomats needed to act if they were to maintain control of what was now a global issue. President Nixon pushed through robust environmental legislation and attempted to promote environmental issues through NATO, keeping the United States in a leadership position. Discussing ecological issues with the Soviets provided additional points of engagement besides nuclear disarmament and helped open a path for negotiating nonproliferation and arms-limitation treaties in the 1970s.

Although the relationship between scientists and military leaders transformed yet again in the face of new environmental challenges in the 1980s—the droughts in Africa, the global AIDS epidemic, and the scientific debate over climate change—and after the end of the Cold War, the connection that has existed between them since World War II remains today. Indeed, soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, American policy makers, scientists, and defense experts began discussing how terrorists might use forest fires as a weapon on American soil and ways to defend against it.

As a strategy, environmental warfare went global decades ago, and now the temptation to arm Mother Nature may always be with us. Arming Mother Nature reminds us that we do so at our peril.

Click here to read the original review on the American Scientist website.

Before I left to join the Thoreau-Wabanaki Journey on May 26, I had planned to write a blog post that would tie together the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods with George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. The pièce de résistance would be posting it in time for National Get Outdoors Day on June 14. (As if those weren’t enough signs from Above about what to write, Mark Harvey’s new book on Howard Zahniser, architect of the Wilderness Act, arrived in the office today. It opens with a quote from Thoreau’s “Chesuncook,” the second essay in The Maine Woods.) After all, paddling through wilderness in northern Maine would offer the perfect opportunity for bringing these themes together in one essay.

But when friends ask me to tell them about the canoe trip down the Penobscot River, I find I’m at a loss for words. They are stunned by this. Usually when I start talking of history or recent travels they remind me at some point that they have a plane to catch next week or it’s time to schedule a root canal. But my trip leaves me unable to really describe what I saw and did. And that, perhaps, was the point of the trip. It was for the experience of being in wilderness, not to document it through writing or photographs. Though I tried to do that, I found my enjoyment increased greatly once I stopped trying to interpret or capture it for others or even for myself. To intellectualize or deconstruct wilderness is to miss the point of being there. The reason for being there was to be there—to be present in the moment, to experience it, with all my senses. Thoreau told me why I was there when he wrote in his journal, “The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of money, but the amount of development we get out of it.” It took a day or so for me to come to this realization. I was initially so focused on documenting the trip that I was limiting my experience. Everything changed with this epiphany.

So, perhaps the question I should answer is, what did I experience?

Quiet. In the wilderness there’s a level of quiet that cannot be found anywhere else but there. We had a couple of days where we heard no mechanical sounds—no cars, no airplanes, no cell phones. No hum of a refrigerator or air conditioner. The quiet would be broken by sounds I now desperately miss: the murmur of rapids or of conversation coming from another boat or tent, the excited shout when someone spotted an eagle soaring above or a muskrat swimming about us, the cursing of the cold in the morning or the mosquitoes in the evening. Yet even the negatives became positives. Is there any greater sound on a cold morning than hearing “Coffee’s ready” or after swatting away bugs while setting up the tent than “Dinner’s ready!”? After returning to what we came to call “uncivilization” and getting in a car, I couldn’t stand to have the radio on and preferred having the window down so I could just hear the wind. (Perhaps “window” should be spelled “wind-oh!” to truly reflect that delightful feeling of hearing the wind rushing by.) We had long stretches on the river where I’d only hear the sound of paddles entering and exiting the water. But, oh, the quiet! I cannot find it in Uncivilization. This is why we have the Wilderness Act, to provide a place to escape to, to protect Civilization from the Uncivilized.

An emptiness that filled my soul. It felt like there were probably fewer people living in northern Maine now than when Thoreau traveled through there some 160 years ago. The area seems devoid of people. When talking with a native Mainer afterward, I described the region as a “big empty.” He immediately understood this as the great compliment I meant it as. So often we hear people say they want to “get away from it all,” when in fact they mean they want to go to a place that is not their home or office. Usually this means to some other building—be it a vacation house or hotel or resort. Whereas in the middle of nowhere, in the Big Empty, I truly was away from it all. Being “inside” meant being in a tent and the “bathroom” had some of the best views imaginable. We spent three nights on islands that only three weeks before had been under water. Initially intending to post to social media during the trip, I quickly realized this was impossible and put my cell phone away, shoving it to the bottom of my bag. I hoped we wouldn’t have connectivity until the last day. It was a little depressing that we had it before then.

Being on the river led me to not only embrace but to understand Thoreau’s exhortation in Walden: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” Time on the water brought about that simplicity; my “affairs” were reduced to three—eat, drink, paddle. Eat everything offered to me whether I like it or not, drink as much water and coffee as possible to stay hydrated, and paddle hard and straight to get where we needed to go. Granted, we were well provisioned, so unlike Thoreau I didn’t worry about getting by on hard bread or the modern equivalent, dehydrated foods, or having to forage. (However, one night we supplemented dinner with ground nuts harvested from around the campsite. Quite the tasty luxury!)

But, simplicity! Why worry about inclement weather or being in wet clothes? These are things I couldn’t control, so why fret or grouse about them? As HDT said of traveling in Maine, “You soon come to disregard rain on such excursions.” One of the most relaxing afternoons was spent sitting under the forest canopy during a thunderstorm that drove us off the river. (Sit and listen to a thunderstorm and tell me it’s not relaxing.) We often quoted Thoreau from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “Cold and damp? Are they not as rich experience as warmth and dryness?” The simpler things became, the happier I became. Emptying my mind of worry filled my soul.

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Thoreau is right: Cold and damp is as rich an experience as warm and dry.

The Hudson River landscape painters were right. I came away from the trip understanding that some Hudson River School painters captured reality in their works. Sanford Gifford, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and others make great use of light to draw the viewer’s focus to a particular point in a painting. But until now I’d thought what they depicted on canvas could never have occurred in nature, that they were exaggerating the contrasts between light and darks places. I was disabused of this on my first morning in camp.

The view that proved my suppositions all wrong. Though that's not Mount Katahdin in the background, the effect is the same as in Church's painting.

The view that proved my suppositions all wrong. Though that’s not Mount Katahdin in the background, the effect is the same as in Church’s painting.

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“Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp” by Frederick Church (1895) (Wikimedia Commons; painting is at the Portland Museum of Art)

And I experienced humbleness. It’s good to be reminded that you can learn a whole lot by opening your eyes, ears, and mind. Like a good way to predict the weather is to actually look at the sky! Whoa. I know, right? Who thinks of that nowadays, what with instant weather apps on their phone? But sure enough, after we spotted a cloud formation called a “mare’s tail,” we had rain within 24 hours, just as the old local saying said we would. Or that the smallest of obstacles—like a single rock in the river lurking just below the surface—can upend a boat. Or that experts are considered experts for a reason. I experienced this time and again with our lead guide, who ensured that 52 people made it through the trip without injury, as well as with the two professors who served as Thoreau experts and with the members of the Penobscot Indian Nation who shared their intimate knowledge of the area and their history with us. I remain in awe of all of them, and stand humbled before them, as I do the landscape they love and shared with the rest of us.

Roger Underwood has kindly shared with us some research he’s recently done on the history of colonial forestry. It comes from his recent book Foresters of the Raj–Stories from Indian and Australian Forests, an anthology of stories dealing with the evolution of forestry in India during the latter half of the 19th century, and the development of models and systems that were ultimately exported all over the English-speaking world, including Australia and the United States (Yorkgum Publishing, 2013).

As part of a project looking at the history of “colonial forestry”(1) I have been studying forest and land management in India during the period from about 1860 to 1920. The subject is of interest because the forest conservation policies and management practices developed in India at that time later became a template for early forest policies and practices in Australia (where I have worked nearly all of my life as a forester), New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States of America.

An unexpected outcome of this research was to find that 19th- and early 20th-century Indian foresters were also deeply concerned about Indian wildlife, and that in their published writings on this issue can be discerned some of the earliest concepts of professional wildlife management.

The outcome was unexpected because a notable aspect of forestry in India in the 19th century was the widespread love of hunting wild animals, or shikar, amongst officers of the Indian Forest Service. Sometimes this was done in the line of duty, a forester being called out to dispatch a rogue elephant or a man-eating tiger. But hunting was also regarded by many forest officers (especially those who had transferred from the Army into the Forest Service) as a sport, a contest between man and beast.

Furthermore, hunting was part of the culture of the rich and powerful who dominated India during the time of the British Raj, including the Indian aristocracy and the British gentlemen who sat at the top of the Indian Civil Service (James, 1997).

Indeed, shikar was officially encouraged. In his obituary for Harry Hill, the recently departed but much admired Inspector-General of the Indian Forest Department, former Inspector-General Dietrich Brandis described Hill as not just a fine forester, but a “great sportsman,” by which he meant a great hunter. Brandis then went on to say:

A forester, more than anyone else, must use his eyes and must be able, on the spot, to draw conclusions from what he has observed. The training of a sportsman is an excellent help in his work. It makes life in the forest delightful to him, it induces him not only to visit forests but to live in them. He becomes much [more] familiar with the development of [the forest] than a man who is not a sportsman (Brandis, 1903).

The notion of hunting as a sport goes back centuries, possibly as far back as to times when people no longer had to hunt solely for food. And while the “sport” is based partly on a hereditary (perhaps genetic) competitive urge to kill or be killed, there is another element, as Brandis observed: the hunt takes the hunter into the forest and the countryside, where the beauty and challenges of nature can also be enjoyed, and where there is time and opportunity to reflect on wider problems and issues.

Sir Dietrich Brandis is considered the father of forestry in India and was extremely influential in forestry matters in the United States.

Sir Dietrich Brandis is considered the father of forestry in India and, as a mentor to Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck, was also extremely influential in forestry matters in the United States.

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