Archive for May, 2010

Thirty years ago today, Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and left an altered landscape as well as a mess of historical documents in its wake.  The deadliest volcanic event in U.S. history flattened 200 square miles of forest on the surrounding private and public lands.  Its impact on forest management is still reverberating across the pages of history and forestry textbooks to this day.

Photo taken on May 18, 1980, of Mount St. Helens at about 3:30 pm. Jim Hughes took this from about 20 air miles away. (U.S. Forest Service)

FHS has a plethora of documents and historical photos of the still-active volcano in different parts of our archive and library.  In addition to numerous journals and magazines in our library with articles on the topic, the federal government (in particular the Forest Service) generated documents and reports on what happened before, during, and after the event. We also have coverage of the ensuing debate over what it should do with its share of the land — whether the timber should be salvaged and the forest replanted or if it should be left alone and studied.  Many of these items, along with oral history interviews with agency personnel, can be found in our U.S. Forest Service History Collection, which is searchable through our database.  After much debate, which can be followed via our documents, the area became a natural laboratory and a 110,000-acre national monument with two visitors centers (we even have information on those!).

Don’t want to read through all of that stuff?  You can learn more about the impact of the eruption on the Forest Service’s land management practices in the film “The Greatest Good” and from a DVD extra, as well as the companion book The Forest Service and The Greatest Good.  We also have several photos in the FHS collection like the one seen here of Mount St. Helens before it exploded.

Mount St. Helens, taken sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, probably from Spirit Lake. (FHS Photo Collection)

The Weyerhaeuser Company, which owned quite a bit of land adjacent to the volcano also affected by the eruption, had to make similar decisions about what to do with its timberland. You can find two articles that touch on the company’s response to the eruption here and here, with “before” and “after” photos on page 26 of the second article.

In light of current debates about whether the Forest Service land under study should be turned over to the National Park Service and reopened for recreation, it may be useful to revisit the history of Mount St. Helens and the legacy of the eruption thirty years ago today.

Mount St. Helens, as seen from Portland, Oregon. Taken in March 2010. (Courtesy of James G. Lewis)

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My Google news home page has a “Forest Service” section, which captures any article that has that phrase in it. Usually the article is about the U.S. Forest Service but it will also grab items about state or other national forest services too. Consequently, nearly every day there is a news item about fire somewhere in the world. Sometimes it’s about a wildfire currently burning or the aftermath of one; other times it’s about the progress of a prescribed burn or a notification that one is about to be getting underway. It makes fire seem ever-present.

With all that news about fire, one might ask if America has a fire problem. In his new book, America’s Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice, Stephen Pyne says that America doesn’t have a fire problem — it has many fire problems. How this came to pass is examined in this newly revised and updated version of his classic work on the subject.

The policy of fire exclusion through most of the 20th century seemed successful at first but eventually led to larger, more intense, and damaging fires. By the mid-1970s, federal agencies had pulled back from the fire suppression model and embraced a mix of fire practices, including forms of prescribed burning and let-burn policies. The 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park placed fire issues (also discussed in a recent issue of Forest History Today) before the public in unprecedented ways, advertising the ecological significance of free-burning fire and the dilemmas of trying to manage it. Further complicating the fire scene is an increasing population, a growing wildland-urban interface, drought, invasive species, global climate change, and an incomplete institutional arrangement for managing the variety of fires that exist.

In this latest Issues Series book, Steve Pyne — the world’s foremost fire historian — reviews the historical context of American fire issues and policies that can inform the current and future debate. The resulting analysis shows why it is imperative that the nation review its policies toward wildland fires and finds ways to live with them more intelligently. Want to know more? Buy the book — don’t wait for the movie!

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On August 20-21, 1910, fires driven by gale-force winds consumed 3 million acres, several towns, and at least 85 lives in the Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  Known as “The Big Blowup,” no other event in U.S. Forest Service history has had a greater impact on the agency.  Heroes were made, legends were born, and the agency was changed forever.

The Forest History Society is marking the centennial of the 1910 fires with a website dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of that seminal event.  Many documents being made available are hard-to-find articles written by the men who lived through the fire and were deeply affected by it.  Men like Ed Pulaski, Bill Greeley, “Gus” Silcox, Elers Koch, and E.T. Allen, to name a few.

A sampling of images from the FHS collection relating to the Big Blowup. Images include newspaper clippings, photos of the fire-ravaged land, and of Ed Pulaski.

Drawing from the extensive holdings of the Forest History Society, our crack staff has created a new section of our U.S. Forest Service History webpages about the history and legacy of the 1910 Fires.  (You’ll also find a revised version of the Mann Gulch page, which we’ve blogged about here and here, under the Famous Fires section.)  On the Big Blowup page you will find an overview essay of the event and numerous items such as:

  • a firsthand account of the ordeal by Ed Pulaski and others
  • historical documents, photographs, and maps
  • PDFs of books and essays that place the event in historical context
  • reflections on the fire’s impact on land management and fire policy
  • an original essay by fire historian Stephen Pyne, author of Year of the Fires
  • a bibliography of books and articles about the Big Blowup

You can find all of our outstanding resources on the Big Blowup at: www.foresthistory.org/1910fires.htm.

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