Archive for December, 2008

In honor of the season, Peeling Back the Bark would like to feature a small selection of just a few of the holiday cards and greetings found in various Forest History Society archival collections.  The following selected materials represent just a fraction of the many collections available in the FHS Archives.  Below each image can be found some brief caption information and the collection name.  Click on any of the images to view a larger version.  Happy holidays!

Smokey card

Smokey Bear Christmas card, from Rudolph Wendelin Papers.


Read Full Post »

A key instrument in fighting wildfires is the National Fire Danger Rating System — used to anticipate fires ahead of time by predicting the potential danger for fire in a specific geographic area.  The Forest History Society Library and Archives staff recently processed a collection that provides a history of the Forest Service’s creation of this national system, as well as highlights the intersection of science, engineering, and nature — revealing the multidisciplinary nature of forestry.

This new archival collection spans from the 1910s to the 1970s with a small amount of material from the 1980s through the 2000s.  The earlier material originated with John J. Keetch, fire control scientist at the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station in Asheville, North Carolina.  The more recent papers belong to Dale D. Wade, collection donor and fire researcher, and concern research in prescribed or controlled burning.

While processing the collection, I discovered that the main theme among the materials is the scientific method applied to the prediction of forest fire.  Anxious to save both man hours and money, Forest Service scientists pioneered a nationwide system for predetermining where and when forest fires would occur.  Foresters were then able to use daily predictions to prepare for fire control in advance.

The creation of a national fire danger rating system really began in the 1920s with the research of Harry T. Gisborne, the first U.S. Forest Service scientist to focus on estimating the probability of forest fire occurrence before a blaze ever began.


Gisborne uses an early fire danger meter to predict forest fire activity in Kaniksu National Forest in 1937.

Gisborne engineered a simple slide rule–like device known as the Fire Danger Meter that foresters could carry with them in the field.  The meter made fire prediction easy and accessible, with consistent results.

The idea of the Fire Danger Meter spread like wildfire (groan) during the 1940s and 1950s.  Foresters and fire researchers across the U.S. created regional variations of Gisborne’s danger meter, adapted according to local weather, temperature, wind and water, soil chemistry, leaf litter, tree type—all the region-specific variables that factor into the likelihood of forest fire.  By 1954 at least eight distinct meter types were in use across the country.

Fire Danger Meter 8-W

Forest Fire Danger Meter type 8-W, created in January 1954.

At the recommendation of the Forest Service’s Washington Office, Division of Fire Research, a team of fire researchers and fire control officers from all regions of the United States began to develop a unified system in 1958, which was soon dubbed the National Fire Danger Rating System.  The research team worked toward a set of variables that could be used to predict fire danger regardless of geographic location.

John J. Keetch, whose papers make up the bulk of the National Fire Danger Rating System Collection, led this team of fire researchers and fire control officers in creating the basic structure of a four-phase fire-danger rating system.  The first phase of the rating system completed, the Spread Phase, provided indexes for predicting the relative forward spread of wildfires.  Keetch later traveled from region to region collecting feedback and criticism from those using the preliminary version of the unified rating system.

The materials in this collection provide the perspective of one fire control scientist on the process by which the unified rating system was conceived, tested, improved, and subsequently made operational in 1972.  The collection in its entirety also provides an excellent record of the evolution of fire prediction—a process at one time effectively done using rotating cardboard discs that is today done using a set of detailed computer programs.

To read a detailed inventory of the National Fire Danger Rating System collection, please visit our online finding aid — the first published with our new and improved design!

Read Full Post »

The Forest History Society has appeared twice in the news recently! Staff historian Jamie Lewis was interviewed for a story about the drop in the number of visitors to national forests on an annual basis written by Associated Press reporter Jeff Barnard. “National Forest visitors down, no one knows why” appeared in newspapers around the country and online on November 29. Barnard, the 2006 Collier Award recipient, also spoke with FHS President Steve Anderson and Librarian Cheryl Oakes for background material for his article. This is the second time Jamie has been interviewed for an article on the Forest Service; the first was to comment on the resignation of former FS chief Dale Bosworth in January 2007.

FHS and its publication, Forest History Today, are mentioned in the University of St. Thomas (MN) “Bulletin News.” Recent contributor Mark Neuzil’s article was the focus of a short piece dated December 2:

Dr. Mark Neuzil, College of Arts and Sciences (Communication and Journalism Department), is the author of an article, “The Nature of Media Coverage: Two Minnesota Fires,” published in the fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today, a publication of the Forest History Society. The article examines the media coverage of the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 and the Ham Lake Boundary Waters fire of 2007.

You can get immediate notification when the Forest History Society appears in a news article by signing up for a news alert through Google, Yahoo, or another news site.

Read Full Post »

On this day in 1874, Raphael Zon was born in Simbirsk, Russia.  From Russian radical to New World immigrant, Zon achieved national and international influence as a forest researcher.  Gifford Pinchot even proclaimed, “Mr. Zon is my old and valued friend. . . There is no higher authority in forestry in America.”

In Simbirsk, Zon studied at the classical gymnasium.  At this school, Alexander Kerensky’s father acted as director and Lenin was an older classmate.  Later, Zon pursued studies in medical and natural sciences at the University of Kazan, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in comparative embryology.

In his early life, Zon had a history of political agitation and subsequent imprisonment in his native land.  While a student, Zon engaged in political activity, especially pressing for representative government in Russia, for which he was periodically arrested.  Then briefly assigned to the international zoological station in Naples, he was investigated for helping to form the first trade union at Kazan in 1894.  With the help of future Duma leader Alexis Aladin, Zon escaped his 11-year sentence of confinement.

Inscribed: To Henry Schmitz*, May the School under your leadership grow and prosper. Raphael Zon, January 8, 1926.

Fleeing westward, Zon studied natural sciences, political economy, and philosophy at universities in Belgium and London.  In 1897, Zon arrived in New York City with a mere fifteen cents to his name.  Zon soon left his temporary job at a drugstore for Ithaca, New York, where he enrolled in the nascent New York State College of Forestry at Cornell University.  Studying under Bernhard E. Fernow and Filibert Roth, Zon earned his degree of forest engineer in 1901, becoming a member of the school’s first graduating class.

On July 1, 1901, Zon entered the U. S. Forest Service as a student assistant assigned to forest investigations.  Six years later, he was promoted to Chief of the Office of Silvics (later Forest Investigations).  Zon made a persuasive and persistent case for separating research work from forest administration, achieved in 1915 with the establishment of the Branch of Research.  Zon’s advocacy of research led to his organization of the first Federal Forest Experiment Stations and the Forest Products Laboratory.  In order to advance the war effort, Woodrow Wilson appointed Zon to the National Research Council to study forest problems during World War I.  In 1923, Zon left Washington, D.C., to accept appointment as director of the Lake States Forest Experiment Station at St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1923.  In this position, Zon served with distinction until his retirement in 1944.

Presenting the inaugural Gifford Pinchot Medal to Raphael Zon, George L. Drake lauded Zon’s role in American forestry:

Throughout his official career, Raphael Zon exercised a national influence on the development of forest research not surpassed by any other American forester.


Read Full Post »