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On October 17, 1916, the Pisgah National Forest was the first national forest established under the Weeks Act of 1911. Written by FHS historian Jamie Lewis, this post was originally published in the online version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on October 14, 2016, and in print on October 16 to mark the centennial.

“When people walk around this forest … at every step of the way, they’re encountering nature, some of which has been regenerated by the initiatives of those generations they know not—they know nothing about. And I think that that’s ultimately the greatest gift: that you’ve given to them beautiful, working landscapes and you don’t know where they came from.”

Historian Char Miller closes our new documentary film, America’s First Forest, by acknowledging those who labored to create the Pisgah National Forest, which celebrates its centennial on October 17. We chose that quote because it simultaneously summed up the Pisgah’s history and looked to its future by implicitly asking who would carry on the work of the early generations in managing this national forest.

Miller is right. The Pisgah is a gift from many people—some whose names are familiar but many whose names are not. Most have heard of George Vanderbilt, or his Biltmore Estate. His greatest gift, however, was not to himself but to the nation. He hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Biltmore’s grounds. Creator of New York’s Central Park and other urban green spaces, Olmsted saw in this project opportunity to give back to the nation, and through Vanderbilt a way to do so. In 1890, Vanderbilt needed a forester. America needed forestry. Olmsted advised hiring a professional forester who would demonstrate to America that one could cut trees and preserve the forest at the same time.

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, who then crafted the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the United States. Pinchot later gave back to the country in his own way: in 1905, he established the U.S. Forest Service, providing the nation with an institution to manage its national forests and grasslands. But before leaving Vanderbilt’s employ in 1895, Pinchot did two things: he facilitated Vanderbilt’s purchase of an additional 100,000 acres, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest, and he recommended hiring German forester Carl Schenck to implement his management plan.

Schenck’s “experimental” practices not only restored the forest but also improved its wildlife and fish habitat. This turned Pisgah Forest into a revenue source as well as a playground for its owner: a sustainably managed forest can provide all those things and more.

In 1898 Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School—the country’s first forestry school—to educate men wanting to become forest managers or owners. Many of the nearly 400 graduates also served in the Forest Service. The impact of Schenck’s gift is still seen on public and private forests today. Thankfully Congress preserved the school grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site.

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (FHS356)

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Photo taken in 1901 at Lookingglass Rock. (FHS356)

These men are not the only ones to thank for the Pisgah National Forest. In 1899 Asheville physician Chase Ambler mobilized citizens to protect the region’s scenery and climate. Pressured by conservation groups from the South and New England, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, which empowered the federal government to purchase private land for the Forest Service to manage. This legislative gift pleased not only preservationists like Ambler by protecting scenery and recreation areas, but also conservationists because the land remained available for logging and other extractive activities.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold Pisgah Forest for a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” the conservation legacy of her husband, and as a “contribution” to the American people. Pisgah Forest became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest, the first established under the Weeks Act, and Biltmore Forest School graduate Verne Rhoades became its first supervisor, in 1916.

But that is the past. The future of the Pisgah National Forest (and its neighbor the Nantahala) is being written now. The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a forest management plan to guide how it manages the forests for the next dozen or so years. At public meetings, the Forest Service has been hearing from citizens and groups like the Pisgah Conservancy to help it craft the forest’s future. Like Carl Schenck and Vern Rhoades before them, Pisgah’s current managers face great uncertainties, only now in the form of forest pests and disease, climate change, and a place so attractive that its visitors are “loving it to death.” Those who cherish the Pisgah for its “beautiful, working landscapes” can honor those who gave us that gift by continuing to sustainably manage it. That can ultimately be our greatest gift to future generations.

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo -- negative number 185843)

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo — negative number 185843)

 

BFernowIf you find yourself in New York’s Adirondack Park, be sure to add a walk through Fernow Forest to the Forest History Bucket List of things to do while there. It’s a nice place to spend an hour or so stretching your legs and learning about Bernhard Fernow, an important yet underappreciated figure in North American forest history, while looking at a sample of his work in New York.

Make no mistake: visiting either forest in the United States named for Bernhard Fernow is worthwhile. In West Virginia is the Fernow Experimental Forest on the Monongahela National Forest, operated by the U.S. Forest Service. This 4,300-acre forest offers mountain biking trails and other recreational activities. I’ve not been there yet, but it’s on my bucket list. The one in the Adirondacks is under the control of the state’s department of natural resources.

It’s fitting that Fernow has two forests named for him. As chief of the U.S. Division, predecessor to the U.S. Forest Service, of Forestry he placed the small bureau firmly on scientific footing, writing scores of reports and conducting and coordinating research. Such efforts during his twelve years with the division (1886–1898) make him one of the founding fathers of American forest research, something he rarely receives recognition for. He is better known as the father of professional forestry education in North America. A long-time advocate for forestry education in the America, in 1898, he left the Division of Forestry to establish the New York State College of Forestry at Cornell University. It was the first professional forestry school in the United States (meaning, the first school to offer a college degree). After the school shut down in 1903 (see below), he taught at Yale’s forestry school and elsewhere for a few years. In 1907, he founded the forestry program at Pennsylvania State College’s main campus, teaching there in the spring of 1907 before heading to the University of Toronto and establishing Canada’s first forestry school, where he stayed until his retirement in 1920. The Fernow Forest in West Virginia is a nod to his research leadership; the one in the Adirondacks is one to his work in forestry education.

Fernow located Cornell’s experimental forest on 30,000 acres in the heart of the Adirondack State Park, a decision that would contribute to the demise of the school just five years after it opened. He clearcut the hardwood forest and ordered the planting of the commercially valuable species of white pine and Norway spruce as part of his effort to demonstrate that good forest management could pay. The school sold the lumber to the Brooklyn Cooperage Company, which had set up a mill on the site. Unfortunately, the operation was near several wealthy landowners who didn’t care for the noise and smoke coming from the school’s woods and petitioned the governor to shut down the school. He complied by eliminating funding for the school in 1903, effectively killing it.

Don't blink or you'll miss the sign.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss the sign.

But walking the Fernow Forest Trail in the Adirondacks can help a visitor understand what he was trying to accomplish. It was no small goal he had in mind, trying to teach his students the fundamentals of forestry and demonstrate to an indifferent country that forest management could turn a profit and produce a steady supply of lumber.

Located on a 68-acre tract that was once part of the school forest, the trail is a under a mile long, a well-groomed dirt path that’s fairly level and easily navigated. Much like Fernow the historic figure, it’s easy to overlook the trail along the road. Marked by an underwhelming sign, with parking in a pullout on the shoulder of NY 3, you have to pay attention when looking for it or you’ll go right by it. Unlike the Carl Schenck Redwood Grove in California, which is a good distance from the road, you never quite get away from the sound of cars in Fernow Forest.

Also unlike Schenck Grove, which celebrates the man and his ebullient spirit, Fernow’s trail is like him—all business, with an emphasis on education. This trail not only informs you about Fernow and the school, but also how and why he was managing the land, what has occurred on the land since the school’s demise, and a bit about the geological history of the land. The forest is no longer actively managed except for trail maintenance done by students from nearby Paul Smith’s College (also worth visiting). With that background, let’s get going.

When you start the walk, be sure to sign in at the trailhead so the state knows how many people use it. Borrow a laminated trail map, which interprets the different stops along the trail.

2-trailhead

Be sure to peruse the sign-in sheets to see where others visited from. Someone from France had visited not long before I did.

20160417_152610_Richtone(HDR)

Click on the image to read the pamphlet.

At stop #1, you learn that you’ve been walking through a northern hardwood forest and are about to transition to the softwoods of the Fernow Forest (which begins at stop #2). It consists largely of Norway spruce and eastern white pines (indicated with signs at stops 4 and 5, respectively) planted at Fernow’s direction in rows. Most rows are still visible, running perpendicular to the trail.

4-Stop2

Stop #3 commemorates the man himself with a tablet attached to a massive boulder.

6a-tablet

The tablet reads: “This Forest Plantation and Trail Dedicated to BERNHARD E. FERNOW 1851 – 1923.” It includes this quote from Fernow: “I have been unusually lucky to see the results of my work. I have been a plowman who hardly expected to see the crop greening, yet fate has been good to me in letting me catch at least a glimpse of the ripening harvest.”

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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 18, in which we examine Rusty Scrapiron.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Keep Oregon Green, a statewide fire prevention program formed in May 1941 by Oregon Governor Charles Sprague and 250 state leaders who sought to replicate a similar program started in Washington the previous year. The purpose of Keep Oregon Green was to get the general public to embrace forest fire prevention, and in the decades that followed a massive publicity effort blanketed the state. One key component of the Keep Green campaign was the artwork found on posters, illustrations in various publications, and other promotional items. In Oregon, the artist behind much of this was Hugh Hayes.

Keep Oregon Green cartoon by Hugh Hayes

A 1949 Keep Oregon Green cartoon by Hugh Hayes.

Hugh John Hayes Jr. dedicated his life’s work to Oregon’s forests. He worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps in eastern Oregon after high school, and then as a draftsman with the Oregon State Board of Forestry in Salem. Following service with the U.S. Army during World War II he worked for the Oregon State Department of Forestry from 1945 until his retirement in 1976. Throughout his long career Hayes drew countless illustrations, cartoons, maps, posters, architectural plans, field guides, and much more.

Hugh Hayes cartoon 1948

Hugh Hayes cartoon for The Forest Log from January 1948.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Hayes provided regular illustrations for The Forest Log, a monthly publication of the Oregon State Board of Forestry. Most of his illustrations for The Forest Log had a Keep Oregon Green tie-in or other general fire prevention message. In the May 1950 issue he debuted a new character: “Rusty Scrapiron.” Rusty made his entrance to the world in the final panel of Hayes’s May 1950 strip, literally being pulled into the frame by a reckless smoker who had unknowingly started a forest fire.

Rusty Scrapiron May 1950

Final panel of Rusty Scrapiron debut comic, May 1950 (click image to view full strip).

Rusty Scrapiron was a ranger and fire warden who battled careless hunters and other nuisances in defense of Oregon’s woods. Rusty’s adventures and humorous hijinks usually carried some sort of fire prevention message (even in a strip where he becomes a substitute baseball announcer, he is seen putting up a Keep Oregon Green sign in the first frame). Often he would be seen heroically battling wildfires, though with a touch of humor. At least one strip, however, dispensed with jokes altogether just to carry a fire warning about power saws.

Rusty’s character traits also seemed to deviate from strip to strip. While he usually outsmarted troublemakers, occasionally he was portrayed as dimwitted (like once mistaking his own pipe smoke for a fire). He also seemed to be somewhat short-tempered: strips sometimes ended in violence with Rusty knocking out careless smokers or pummeling men who dare denigrate his profession. Through it all though, Rusty’s heart was always in the right place as he adamantly and unapologetically defended Oregon’s forests.

Rusty Scrapiron

The strip appeared monthly for nearly two years in The Forest Log, ending its run in March 1952 for unknown reasons. But Hayes’s work continued. He still provided periodic illustrations for The Forest Log and his influence over fire prevention efforts in the state endured for decades. Hayes is probably best known for the Keep Oregon Green place mat he created in 1959. This detailed, illustrated map documenting the history and culture of Oregon was widely distributed for use in restaurants throughout the state. Following his initial “retirement” in 1976, Hayes continued to do contract work for the Department of Forestry through 1993, including an illustration for the department’s 75th anniversary featured on the cover of Forest Log in 1986 (the inside cover included a photo of Hayes at work and a brief look back at his career).

Hayes passed away in 2013 at the age of 98, but his legacy lives on with the still active Keep Oregon Green organization. His Rusty Scrapiron creation – like other forgotten forestry characters – lives on here at the Forest History Society. Below are some of our favorite Rusty Scrapiron classic comic strips.

Rusty Scrapiron September 1950

Rusty Scrapiron strip, September 1950 (click image to enlarge)

Rusty Scrapiron Nov 1950

Rusty Scrapiron strip, November 1950 (click image to enlarge)

Rusty Scrapiron Jan 1951

Rusty Scrapiron strip, January 1951 (click image to enlarge)

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As the president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation from 1995 to 2016, Alaric Sample worked closely with the U.S. Forest Service leadership, including Jack Ward Thomas, who served as chief from 1993 to 1996. He offers his reflections on Chief Thomas’ leadership style. 

JWT_portrait

Jack Thomas’ formal chief’s portrait. A political appointee, he admitted he was uncomfortable in his role as chief.

As a veteran of many campfires, Jack Ward Thomas knew how to spin a good yarn. One story that he loved to tell involved an Army helicopter sent to transport him from a wildfire incident command center to an airport and back to Washington. As a young lieutenant scurried under the helicopter’s still-rotating blades to escort Jack, with his white hair whipping wildly in the prop wash, Jack noticed the four stars on the aircraft’s door. It had not taken long for the Army to ascertain the equivalent rank of the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

“I see you brought the general’s chopper for me,” shouted Jack over the roar of the engines. “No, sir,” replied the lieutenant, “that’s your copter, sir.” Sensing an opening, the lieutenant asked, “Sir, permission to speak candidly, sir?” Bemused, Jack immediately answered, “Sure, son, what’s on your mind?” At sharp attention and with a crisp salute, the lieutenant stated, “Sir, you need a haircut, sir.”

Jack Ward Thomas never asked to be chief of the Forest Service. He didn’t seek the position, and he accepted it only reluctantly when it was offered. His wife Margaret was terminally ill with cancer at the time and he felt that his place was at home with her in La Grande, Oregon. It was only after her urging that he agreed, and he assumed the job after Margaret’s passing.

Jack was essentially drafted into the job by Vice President Al Gore following the 1993 Northwest Forest Summit. Jack had led a team of scientists and forest managers in the development of a range of planning options to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl, with each option carrying a different probability of the species’ long-term viability. Facing questioning by the president of the United States, the vice president, and several members of President Clinton’s cabinet, Jack was just Jack. His responses to their carefully crafted questions were short, direct, and candid to the point of being blunt.

The politicos were smitten. “Why isn’t this guy chief of the Forest Service?” Gore asked. In a matter of a few weeks, Jack was on his way to Washington to serve as the 13th chief.

Being chief didn’t change Jack’s frank and direct style. To the employees of the Forest Service his basic policy admonition was “Tell the truth, and obey the law.” In the dozens of congressional hearings for which he was called to testify, he had little patience for politicians’ grandstanding, posturing, and theatrical attacks on the integrity of the men and women of the U.S. Forest Service—and he wasn’t shy about showing it. He bruised more than a few egos on the Hill, but it earned him the loyalty and admiration of the thousands of Forest Service scientists and land managers that he so capably and honestly represented.

So it was all the more poignant when toward the end of his tenure as chief in 1996, Jack stepped to the podium at one of the infamous 6 AM “Chief’s Breakfast” gatherings at the Society of American Foresters annual meeting, and opened with the words, “I’m here to apologize to all of you, because I’ve failed you.” In that large and crowded room, one could have heard a pin drop. “I know very well why I was brought in as chief,” he continued, “and since I had never managed more than a 20-person research team before, I knew it wasn’t because of my administrative skills.”

Jack felt he had been tapped at a critical juncture in the history of the Forest Service to be a visionary leader, to be someone who could effectuate a transformation of the agency and help restore its century-old reputation as the nation’s leading forest conservation organization. But in 1995, Congress had enacted a “timber salvage rider” to make salvage sales on the national forests immune from legal or administrative challenge. The rider was attached to an important and time-sensitive appropriations bill, and President Clinton felt compelled to sign it. Thus began a period of what many in the environmental community characterized as “logging without laws.” It was suspected that more than a few old timber sales that had been halted under the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, or the Endangered Species Act were being repackaged as salvage sales and pushed ahead.

As a result, Jack observed, “every citizens group in the country had [Council of Environmental Quality director] Katy McGinty’s phone number on their speed dial.” Jack felt he had been expected to focus on the “blue sky,” the long-term, big-picture vision for the future of the national forests and the Forest Service. Instead he found himself summoned to the White House almost daily to personally review and approve or disapprove lists of individual salvage sales proposed under the terms of the timber salvage rider. And now, at the end of his term as chief, he felt he had never had the chance to articulate the inspiring vision that would carry this proud and capable agency into a successful future.

Presently the U.S. Forest Service is reviewing, evaluating, and revising the Northwest Forest Plan that Jack and the other members of the “Gang of Four” (and hundreds of agency staff) developed two decades ago. The changes taking place are a validation of the “adaptive management” approach they pioneered—taking actions, monitoring and evaluating the results, and then readjusting plans based on knowledge gained and “lessons learned.” The Forest Service and its multitude of stakeholders are gradually relinquishing their hold on old assumptions that forest ecosystems are stable and predictable, and embracing new models that acknowledge the variability of these ecosystems in response to human actions. Jack demonstrated that it was possible to provide strong and moral leadership, while still having the good sense to modify one’s prior views and adapt to new knowledge. His personal ethic became an organizational standard, and that will remain his legacy.

Jack served as chief of the Forest Service during three of the most tumultuous years in an agency whose century-long history is full of drama. As Jack mused near the end of his tenure, “Someone had to be the 13th chief, so I guess it was me.” In spite of his misgivings, Jack’s three years as chief were in fact a turning point for the agency. His unwavering commitment to ethical leadership was an inspiration to all who served under him or had the privilege of working with him. There are many young leaders in the Forest Service and beyond who benefit unknowingly from the high standard of professional integrity that Jack Ward Thomas demonstrated, even those who never had the privilege of reveling in one of Jack’s yarns around the campfire. 

JWT_packing_solo

Jack Thomas on Shadow, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, August 1996. He’d been going there for years with his friend Bill Brown while living in La Grande. After becoming chief, trips there provided escape from the pressures of the office.

 

The northern spotted owl: the bird that changed American forest history, and the life of Jack Ward Thomas. (Photo by Tom Iraci, US Forest Service)

The northern spotted owl: the bird that changed American forest history, and the life of Jack Ward Thomas. (Photo by Tom Iraci, US Forest Service)

Al Sample is a president emeritus of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. You can learn more about Thomas on the Forest History Society’s U.S. Forest Service History website or by visiting Jack’s own website. You can read about Jack’s time as chief in his own words in The Journals of a Forest Service Chief.

Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1994-1996. (FHS Photo)

Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1993-1996. (FHS Photo)

On May 26, 2016, Jack Ward Thomas lost his battle with cancer. Thomas started his U.S. Forest Service career as research wildlife biologist in 1966 and ended it in 1996 after serving for three years as Chief. Historian Char Miller offers this remembrance.

Jack Ward Thomas, the 13th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, didn’t suffer fools gladly. That he managed to overlook my foolishness at Newark Airport is something of a minor miracle.

We were to have rendezvoused at that crazy-busy airport so that I could drive him to a symposium held at Grey Towers NHS, Gifford Pinchot’s former home in Milford, PA. This was shortly after President Bill Clinton had tapped Jack in 1993 to be the chief, and because the new chief had no interest in having law enforcement ferry him from place to place, someone on Jack’s staff had the bright idea that I’d make a fit chauffeur.

The driving part was simple; the connecting, not so much. We arrived at different terminals, at different times, and my ill-fated strategy was to pick up the rental car first and then meet Jack at the departures level. How I thought this was going to happen—I didn’t carry a cellphone, and knew enough to know that you couldn’t park in front of the terminal—is beyond me. As it was, it took me more than hour to break through the circling chaos of cars, taxis, and buses and locate a New Jersey State Police officer willing to let me illegally double park, despite his doubts: he had never heard of the Forest Service, let alone its chief, a consequence, perhaps, of the Garden State not having a national forest. In any event, I raced inside, found Jack, apologized profusely, and endured—well, let’s call it a sharp-edged, if bemused, stare.

Then we started to talk, a conversation that lasted for more than twenty years and only ended on May 26, with Jack’s death at age 81.

During that initial car ride, I mostly asked lots of questions; after our awkward introduction, how much more foolish did I wish to appear? Thankfully, Jack liked to talk, and he was by turns funny, insightful, and blunt. What I was most interested in was how and why he had been selected as chief. The president’s choice had been controversial inside the agency and beyond the Beltway, and I was curious about the transition. Not that I put it so directly, instead tiptoeing up to the issue: Jack was having none of that, asked me what I wanted to know, and over the next hour laid out who said what to whom and why. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, he had been keeping a detailed diary, an astonishing record that several years later he asked me to evaluate for its potential for publication. There, in rough form, was the basis for his incisive discussion that afternoon of the policy goals and political maneuverings that led to his becoming chief.

Once published, The Journals of a Forest Service Chief (2004) became the indispensable, insider’s guide to environmental politics in the Clinton Administration. Even more significantly, and why I continue to assign it in my U.S. public lands class, the book exposes the enduring tensions between the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, much as Harold Ickes’ Secret Diaries (1953) did for the Roosevelt and Truman years. My students are as stunned by Jack’s revelations about DC power dynamics as they are moved by his emotional responses to such traumas as the deadly 1994 South Canyon fire in which 14 firefighters lost their lives. One moment stands out: while Jack talked to the grieving fire crew boss, and assured him that he “was not alone in this thing,” the firefighter “put his face in my chest, and when my arms encircled him, he began to sob uncontrollably, and so did I.” Jack wore his heart on his sleeve.

He was loyal to the core, too, as I discovered in 1995 after publishing a column urging the directors of federal land-management agencies to “come out swinging” in response to mounting right-wing attacks on them, some verbal, some violent. Within days, I received a lengthy, handwritten rebuttal from Jack: he understood my frustration but took umbrage at my suggestion that he and his colleagues were silent, that they did not have their employees’ backs. In taut prose, he outlined how wrong I was. Point taken.

His other writing was just as tight, just as pointed. That comes through loud and clear as you leaf through the three-volume set of his prose that the Boone & Crockett Club published in 2015: one contains Jack’s memoir-like reflections on his life and activism, another his experiences riding in the “high lonesome,” and the third is filled with hunting yarns from around the world. In print, he comes across as he did in the flesh: keen and curious, well and deeply read, self-assured. Jack did not tie himself, or his sentences, in knots.

Like this declarative insight, which he borrowed from botanist Frank Egler: “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we know, they are more complex than we can know.” That our knowledge will always be partial, incomplete, did not mean, as Jack stressed in speech after speech, that it was a mistake to expand our understanding of nature’s infinite variations. As a wildlife biologist he had spent a lifetime studying the impenetrable, and had loved every minute of it. Neither did he think that we should hesitate to revise our policies as new data emerged about the environment’s complexity; his tenure as chief was spent in good measure pressing the concept of ecosystem management into the Forest Service’s stewardship practices.

What Jack insisted on was that we not kid ourselves about our capacities. “Of all people,” he once argued, “scientists should be acutely aware that we know so little and that there is no final truth.” To believe otherwise was just plain foolish.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Chief Thomas. In the background, from left to right, are Brian Burke, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture, Richard Bacon, Deputy Regional Forester of Region 1, and Dave Garber, forest supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest. The photo was taken in August 1996 in Yellowstone National Park.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Chief Thomas during a photo op in August 1996 in Yellowstone National Park. In the background, from left to right, are Brian Burke, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture; Richard Bacon, Deputy Regional Forester of Region 1; and Dave Garber, forest supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest.

 

In this undated photo, Jack shows his playful side by hiding behind a sauguaro cactus.

In this undated photo from his time as chief, Jack shows his playful side by hiding behind a sauguaro cactus.

 

Thomas with Jim Lyons, Undersecretary of Agriculture, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August 1996. On occasion Jack brought along political leaders and others on his backcountry trips to show them the importance of wilderness.

Thomas with Jim Lyons, Undersecretary of Agriculture, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August 1996. On occasion Jack brought along political leaders and others on his backcountry trips to show them the importance of wilderness and “do a little politicking.”

***

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands. He wrote the foreword to Jack Ward Thomas’ Forks in the Trail (2015) and discussed his career in Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013). You can learn more about Thomas on the Forest History Society’s U.S. Forest Service History website or by visiting Jack’s own website. You can read Chief Tom Tidwell’s reflections about Thomas’s impact on the Forest Service in this article by columnist Rick Landers of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review.

In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:

Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.

The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and surface of the lake.

That report may sound like the Fort McMurray fire that’s forced the evacuation of tens of thousands in Alberta. But it is not. It’s from the Edmonton Bulletin, dated May 21, 1919. The article was recounting the wildfire that burned over the village of Lac La Biche about 200 km (120 miles) northeast of Edmonton. In time, historians labeled it the Great Fire of 1919, and later still forget that it even happened. It’s rather remarkable that a fire that burned about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) and transformed a region’s landscape and culture could be forgotten, but it was. (If people can forget a forest, then forgetting a fire seems plausible.)

Fortunately, historians Peter J. Murphy, Cordy Tymstra, and Merle Massie document the Great Fire and its impact and legacy—and why it faded from memory—in “The Great Fire of 1919: People and A Shared Firestorm in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada,” available in the most recent issue of Forest History TodayThe Great Fire is not the largest on record. That honor belongs to The Chinchaga Firestorm, the largest wildfire ever documented in North America. But what sets it apart from others is the fire’s lasting impact on the landscape and soil, fire policy, and ownership of public lands—impacts the “The Great Fire of 1919” details.

The parallels between the Great Fire and Fort McMurray fire are striking: dry conditions “that desiccated the surrounding region and created a tinder-dry powder keg”; it was not one fire but a complex of many fires; the source of the fire is unknown; and that residents of one village—in 1919, it was Lac La Biche; today it’s Fort McMurray—managed to get out of harm’s way. But in 1919, not all were so lucky. In one instance, a group of 23 Cree were camping at Sekip Lake when the fire overran them in a matter of minutes. Eleven died, including a father who’s quick action saved his wife and children, though “the 12 survivors ‘bore the marks of their burns for life.'” Massie explained in a blog post written during last year’s fire season how the family might have been caught unaware of the approaching fire: “A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals.”

The boreal forest is a fire-based ecological regime, explains Massie in her book Forest Prairie Edge. “When a dry season hits, the boreal forest contains a magnitude of flammable timber and debris, peat and moss, shrubs and grasses…. In general, fire hazard is highest in jack pine stands, intermediate in spruce or fir stands, and low in hardwood (primarily trembling aspen) stands, except in a dry spring, when forest floor debris is particularly flammable.” According to Stephen Pyne in Awful Splendour, his history of fire in Canada, “The boreal region is home to Canada’s largest fires, its greatest fire problems, and its most distinctive fire regimes, the ones that define Canada as a fire nation…. Over 90 percent of the country’s big fires, which account for over 97 percent of its burned area, lie within the boreal belt.” Additionally, as Peter Murphy pointed out in an email today, the Fort McMurray fire reminds us “that the boreal forest complex can support the growth of large and high-intensity fires with its continuity of flammable fuels; and that spring can be a particularly hazardous time between ‘break-up and green-up’—that period after the snow is gone, ice breaks up, and before new leaves and needles are fully formed.” Perhaps looking at the calendar and realizing it’s only the first week of May, Cordy Tymstra, the Wildfire Science Coordinator with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in Edmonton and author of The Chinchaga Firestorm offered this via email: “There is a lot of fire season remaining and a lot of fire still on the landscape around Fort McMurray.”

To read more about about the 1919 fire or other major Canadian fires, see: https://www.facebook.com/HyloVeniceCentenary/posts/257744001047212 http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-can-we-learn-from-the-worst-fires-in-canadian-history/

For your consideration! The Oscar race for 2017 is already heating up. Check out some early contenders at this year’s FHS Film Festival!

As usual the films will be shown in the Gifford Pinchot Multimedia Theater at Peeling Back the Bark World Headquarters. What will be this year’s prize-winning film? Be sure to take our poll at the bottom of the post to decide who takes home the coveted Poisson d’Avril Award given to the most outstanding film of the festival!

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I Married a Forester From Outer Space

 

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