Archive for June, 2011

On this date in 1915, what is believed to be the world’s first forest patrol flight was made at Trout Lake, Wisconsin. Aviation pioneer and wealthy Chicago sportsman Logan “Jack” Vilas made the initial flight in order to demonstrate the viability of using aircraft in fire prevention. Wisconsin’s Chief Forester Edward Griffith hired him but Vilas refused pay, saying that he wanted only a salary of “many thanks.” Vilas flew almost daily in July and August as a flying fire warden over the forests of Wisconsin. His 1929 memoir, My Life To My Children, tells this story and many other adventures of this colorful character. It had fallen out of copyright before Mary J. Schueller edited and self-published it in 2007.

In 1913, at around age 32, Vilas decided he wanted to become a pilot. Till then he had been a racing car enthusiast. He set his sights on a flying boat and traveled from the Midwest to Hammondsport, New York, to see Glenn Curtiss and purchase a plane for $7,000 ($157,000 in today’s money). While waiting for it to be built, he took flying lessons at Curtiss’s flight school and earned Hydroplane Pilot License No. 6 from the American Aero Society. He had his plane shipped to Chicago by rail. Six weeks later, and with only a few hours of flight time under his belt, he became the first person to attempt and complete a 63-mile flight across Lake Michigan. He did so with no compass or flight instruments.

Curtiss Flying Boat

Jack Vilas's Curtiss Flying Boat

In 1915 Vilas shipped his flying boat to northern Wisconsin, where he had a summer home, to conduct an experiment. On June 29, 1915, he “took Chief Forester Edward Griffith for a ride to demonstrate how easy it was to spot forest fires by air.” Impressed, Griffith had the Wisconsin Conservation Commission appoint Vilas as a flying fire warden, the first in the world. Vilas flew his surveillance missions from the forestry headquarters at Trout Lake in Boulder Junction. (A historical marker was placed at that spot in 1955.) News of Vilas’s work quickly spread; American Forestry magazine had an article about it in their September 1915 issue. The use of aerial detection to spot and report forest fires—dubbed the “Wisconsin Plan”—soon became a vital tool in fighting wildfires in many forested countries.

By 1917, the Wisconsin Plan had been adopted throughout the United States and was beginning to spread around the globe. The U.S. Forest Service joined with the Army Air Service in 1919 to introduce aerial fire patrols over national forests. The first missions were in California. According to Radio for the Fireline, the rumor that each plane was equipped with a telescope and machine gun proved a powerful deterrant to arson—the number of fires on the Cleveland National Forest decreased for awhile (p. 15). But personnel shortages compounded by shrinking War Department budgets cast doubt over the Air Service’s involvement at the beginning of each of the next six fire seasons. Among some foresters, reviews of the tool were mixed. Not as many fires were first spotted by the air patrols as hoped, and the lack of wireless radios for communication between pilot and ground crew slowed the fire reporting process down significantly. And yet after one season the Forest Service declared it a “huge success” (Radio, p. 16).

In 1925, Secretary of War John Weeks (yes, that John Weeks) ended the program, telling the Forest Service it was time to turn patrols over to commercial operations. Having already purchased some planes, though, the Forest Service conducted their own patrols for two more years before contracting out the operation as Weeks had recommended in what is surely one of the first incidents of government outsourcing. (See Maurer’s Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939, 131-138, for more on this.)

Vilas Flying Boat (WHS)

Jack Vilas (seated) in the Curtiss hydroplane he used to spot forest fires, 1915 (photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

So break out your silk scarves and goggles to celebrate those daring young men in their flying machines. Watch as they take wing over our national forests in this photo gallery. For you armchair travelers, you can read about Wisconsin’s historical marker effort in our old journal here.


Forest patrol planes flying in close formation, Olympic National Forest, Washington, 1921. (FHS3730)

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In her article, “Fire Alarm: Historians, and Thorstein Veblen, to the Rescue,” Patricia Limerick asked why is it that, when a wildfire breaks out, no one calls a historian? After all, she writes, “what is needed are the ‘skills, talents, and approaches’ of historians and the long perspective that history offers.” Here at PBB HQ, we’re not waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, we’re responding to the news of a new fire having started Sunday in near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and threatening the nuclear lab there with some historical perspective. Sure, we could have responded a few weeks ago when we learned that Arizona is going “up in flames.” But since we’re going to Albuquerque in August to give a presentation on the American Tree Farm System, the Los Alamos fire kind of caught our attention.

The FHS research staff is standing by to answer your fire history questions. (R9_418647)

So we thought it might be helpful to point others interested in the history of fire in the Southwest to our online resources and thus bring historical context to the fires there. (For the latest on any fire currently burning, visit the U.S. Forest Service’s “Active Fire Map” website and click on a link to learn the status of an active fire.)

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On June 12, 1941, the nation’s first Tree Farm was dedicated. The 120,000-acre Clemons Tree Farm in Washington, owned by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, received that designation with great fanfare—Washington Governor Arthur Langlie and other dignitaries were on hand for the ceremony. From that one property in the Pacific Northwest has grown a movement that now is international in scale. As the American Tree Farm System® (ATFS) celebrates its 70th anniversary, there are more than 88,000 private landowners sustainably managing 26 million acres.


Prior to 1940, most commercial-grade timber came from industry-owned lands. While fire was a concern on all forest lands, the Weyerhaeuser Company took an active interest in changing public attitude about fire prevention because of fire’s impact on the company’s holdings. Heavy use by hunters, fishermen, berry pickers, and vacationers posed a fire hazard to reforestation efforts on their tract in Grays Harbor County and elsewhere. By the summer of 1941, Weyerhaeuser had built an infrastructure of lookout towers, telephone lines, and roads to make fighting fires easier. Then to impress upon the locals the need for preventing fires, the company invited the public to tour the forest they now called a Tree Farm. It was leadership by example, something the ATFS has been doing ever since.

Clemons Tree Farm map

Clemons Tree Farm map, 1940 (click to enlarge)

The Weyerhaeuser company came up with the term “tree farm” because, it was argued, “everyone knew that a farm was for growing repeated crops of agricultural products” and what they were doing was growing repeated tree crops. The plan for unveiling the Tree Farm concept included naming the farm for an area figure—pioneer logger Charles H. Clemons—and holding a public dedication ceremony. About 500 people packed the Montesano Theatre for the ceremonies. In his address, Governor Langlie told the throng, “The Clemons Tree Farm may form the experimental basis that may mean a great deal to the entire state. It may set the pace for millions of acres of such lands throughout the state.” Little did he know that it would set the pace for millions of acres throughout the nation as the American Tree Farm System.

You can learn more about the history of the ATFS from this 70th anniversary article in the organization’s magazine, Tree Farmer. This 1949 article from Agricultural History provides an excellent examination of the founding and early struggles of the organization. And you can learn more about our archival holdings and follow a link to historical photos of the ATFS from this blog post by FHS archivist intern Shaun Trujillo.


In June of 1951, another crowd gathered in in Montesano, Washington, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Clemons Tree Farm. A plaque was unveiled commemorating the 1941 founding, and in attendance were William B. Greeley, Wilson Compton, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr., and Mrs. Charles H. Clemons. At the time of the ceremony, over 4 million Douglas-fir seedlings had been planted on Clemons Tree Farm land. By the end of the tenth anniversary year, the American Tree Farm System had already spread to 33 states.


From left: Wilson Compton, Mrs. Clemons, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr., and W.B. Greeley commemorate the 10th anniversary of Clemons Tree Farm.

By the time of the 25th anniversary in 1966, every state other than Alaska and Hawaii had officially joined the American Tree Farm System. Promotional “Silver Anniversary Dollars” were produced to commemorate the occasion.

Tree Farm dollar

Tree Farm Silver Anniversary Dollar.

The 40th anniversary of the American Tree Farm System was held in North Carolina on June 12, 1981. Participating in the festivities was actor and celebrity tree farmer Andy Griffith. Every state now featured a tree farm, with Alaska and Hawaii having joined the ATFS in 1974 and 1975, respectively. By the end of 1981, more than 40,000 tree farms managed a total land area exceeding 80 million acres.

Tree Farm System 40th Anniversary

From left: North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, George H. Weyerhaeuser, Andy Griffith, and T.O. Perry at ATFS 40th anniversary.

The Tree Farm System began the 1990s with more than 70,000 tree farmers managing some 93 million acres. The 50th anniversary in 1991 (“50 Years of Growing Trees . . . And More Than Trees”) featured a new round of commemorative promotional items, such as trucker hats.

Tree Farm 50th Hat

Tree Farm System 50th Anniversary hat

The 60th anniversary also marked a full 25 years of the Outstanding Tree Farmer Award. This award, begun in 1976, honored tree farmers who have shown an outstanding commitment to sustainable forest management.

Tree Farm 60th anniversary logo

Clemons Tree Farm sign

Simple signs like this marked the entrances to the first tree farm. Today the familiar green and white diamond logo identify properties in the American Tree Farm System and their purpose: sustainable management of forests for wood, water, recreation, and wildlife.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, AFTS decided to focus exclusively on family forest owners—who, notably, own more forest land in America than industry owners. New certification standards focus on the needs of woodland owners managing smaller woodlands. ATFS now provides tools and on-the-ground support to 88,000 family forest owners sustainably managing 26 million acres. The program is still going strong as it moves towards its eighth decade. In August, the 2011 Tree Farmer Convention will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. FHS Historian Jamie Lewis and Archivist Eben Lehman will be on hand to make a presentation about the history of ATFS and the ATFS records housed by the Forest History Society and to exhibit our publications.

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