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On the 100th anniversary of the last log raft floated on the Upper Mississippi River, scholar and Aldo Leopold biographer Curt Meine reflects upon conservation efforts over the last century and the challenges that lay ahead.

This summer marks an obscure anniversary in the history of conservation. In August 1915 a large raft of white pine lumber was floated down the Upper Mississippi River from Hudson, Wisconsin, to Fort Madison, Iowa. For those on board and those watching from shore, it was a ceremonial occasion, an elegiac gesture. For decades, from Maine to western Ontario, white pine logs and lumber had been transported by water to downstream sawmills and rail towns. In northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan the cut crescendoed in the decades after the Civil War. At the peak of the industry in the 1880s, some 500 rafts of white pine came down the Mississippi each month.  But with the exhaustion of the “inexhaustible” pineries, there was no more big pine to float. The pine boom was over.

And so the lumbermen organized one last raft for nostalgia’s sake. The steamboat Ottumwa Belle, under Captain Walter Hunter, guided the raft around the great river’s bends.  At Albany, Illinois, it paused to take aboard 93-year-old Stephen Beck Hanks, famed riverman and cousin to Abraham Lincoln. In 1843 Hanks had guided the first raft of white pine logs downstream, from the St. Croix River pinery at Stillwater down to St. Louis. In the words of river historian Calvin Fremling, “Hanks has seen the whole thing—the beginning, the culmination, the end—all in one man’s lifetime.”

The Ottumwa Belle and lumber raft at Davenport, Iowa,  August 20, 1915   Source:  Putnam Museum, Davenport IA  http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/putnm/id/499/rec/8

The Ottumwa Belle and lumber raft at Davenport, Iowa, August 20, 1915
Source: Putnam Museum, Davenport, IA

As that final raft slipped downriver, it left in its symbolic wake a region of ruin: some 50 million acres of cutover and burned-over stump fields; soils sterilized by fire and eroded into gullies; streambeds and riverways altered by scouring and heavy sediment loads; disrupted and depleted fish and wildlife populations; a scattering of boom-and-bust work camps and abandoned lumber towns; and a legacy of concentrated wealth, political power, and corruption. The very landscape of unsustainability.

The story of the white pine was remarkable but not unique, even in its time. The lumber barons of the Midwest had their equivalents elsewhere:  yellow pine barons in the South; Douglas fir barons in the Northwest; wheat and cattle barons in the Plains; copper and iron barons in the upper Great Lakes; steel barons in the lower Great Lakes; coal barons in Appalachia and Illinois; gold and silver barons in the Rockies and California; oil barons in the newly tapped petroleum districts; and railroad barons tying them all together.

Across the continent the pattern repeated itself, varying by landscape and resource: the alienation and removal of Native American people; an advance wave of speculation and maneuvering; an onrush of hopeful opportunists; the manipulation of laws and courts; the recruitment of cheap, abundant labor; the winnowing of economic winners and losers; the consolidation of wealth into cartels; the channeling of that wealth into political power and authority; a compliant host of publicists and newspapers; the co-opting of the mechanisms of representative government.  And always the same legacy: degraded landscapes and exhausted sources of wealth; communities inflated by the booms and drained by the busts; citizens left to clean up the messes and to create more sustainable places and economies.

And, finally, always, the same question: can democracy find a way out of the crisis, right itself, reclaim some equilibrium between private wealth and commonwealth, between self-interest and the general welfare? Like the other booms, the pine boom yielded immediate prosperity, but at the price of destabilized and distorted ecosystems, social systems, and political systems. All too many of those who had reaped the quick profits had scant concern for the vitality and resilience of the forest (or prairie, or river, or range, or fishery) or the health of the democracy that provided their opportunity.  In the absence of economic self-restraint, social constraint became inevitable. In the face of crisis, there was no alternative.  Reckless economics and devastated landscapes will do that to an ideology.

White pine stump and seedlings, Vilas County, Wisconsin. (Photo by author)

White pine stump and seedlings, Vilas County, Wisconsin. (Photo by author)

Now, as the full scope of the climate crisis becomes evident, the question arises again: Can democracy respond? The story of the white pine offers some hope. As the big pine (and redwoods, and passenger pigeons, and bison) dwindled, reformers of varied political backgrounds and stripes found common cause and enacted reforms. We called it conservation. Over time the forests of the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes returned as the soils, waters, plants, and animals went about their collective work of self-renewal. That recovery continues, more than a century after the Great Cut. The region has hardly achieved sustainability. There is always some short-term economic fix, some new scheme to begin yet another round of heedless exploitation of the waters, the minerals, the forest. Yet, starting a century ago, citizens overcame political inertia in a way that made long-term positive change possible, and inaugurated the modern search for what George Perkins Marsh called “a wise economy.”

Climate disruption, though, is a crisis of a different order and magnitude. It is not local or regional in scope, but global. It is a crisis, not of a certain stage or kind of economy, but of the entire fossil-fuel-dependent meta-economy that spans the globe, that has been expanding since the dawn of the industrial age, and that actively resists envisioning alternatives to its own continued domination. The resulting concentration of wealth now flows directly toward unprecedented political power. Especially in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, that power has few institutional checks on its momentum or direction. The climate crisis and the democracy crisis are now two names for the same thing.

Just as the Ottumwa Belle’s historic journey signified change in its time, indicators of transformation mark our moment: activists gathering by the thousands to speak out against the epic exploitation of Canada’s tar sands; Pope Francis releasing his encyclical Laudato Si’, defining a moral imperative in the Catholic tradition to conserve “our common home”; international climate policy negotiators making plans to gather in Paris later this year; presidential candidates calibrating their messages and calculating their impact. All, in their way, reveal that the fate of our democracy and the future of our climate are inseparable. If there is any positive side to all this, it is that as we work to address the one, we must inevitably deal with the other.

Curt Meine is senior fellow with the Center for Humans and Nature and the Aldo Leopold Foundation, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, and associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is editor of the Library of America collection Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation (2013). This essay is a contribution to the Center for Humans and Nature’s “Questions for a Resilient Future” series, “Can democracy in crisis deal with the climate crisis?”

Sources

Blair, Walter A.  A Raft Pilot’s Log:  A History of the Great Rafting Industry on the Upper Mississippi, 1840-1915 (Cleveland:  Arthur H. Clark Company, 1930).

Fremling, Calvin R.  Immortal River:  The Upper Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Times (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).

Jones, Joseph J. “Transforming the Cutover article: The Establishment of National Forests in Northern Michigan,” Forest History Today 17 (Spring/Fall 2011): 48-55.

“Last Raft Leaves Hudson.”  Duluth Evening Herald (23 August 1915).

Marsh, George Perkins. Man and Nature or, The Earth as Modified by Human Action.  2003 edition by David Lowenthal, with a new introduction by David Lowenthal and a forward by William Cronon (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2003).

Upper Mississippi Valley Digital Image Archive.  Putnam Museum.  Davenport, Iowa.  http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/putnm

Williams, Michael.  Americans and Their Forests:  A Historical Geography (Cambridge, U.K.:  Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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Austin Cary, one of the great unsung heroes of American forestry, was born this date in 1865 in East Machias, Maine. A Yankee through and through, he found professional success in the South, eventually becoming known as the “Father of Southern Forestry.” In 1961, twenty-five years after Cary’s passing, his biographer Roy R. White wrote of him:

In contrast with his more renowned contemporaries, Austin Cary was an obscure logging engineer in the Forest Service. Yet the story of the life and work of this latter-day Johnny Appleseed has reached legendary proportions in the southern pine country. Cary, a New England Yankee, dedicated himself to the awesome task of bringing forestry and conservation to a region reluctant to accept, and ill-equipped to practice, these innovations. His success places him in the forefront of noted American foresters and his character warrants a position peculiarly his own.

What makes Cary an intriguing historical figure was his unorthodox, nonconformist approach to life and work. He hailed from an old, well-to-do family whose wealth made him financially independent. By the time he graduated at the head of his class from Bowdoin College, where he majored in science with emphasis on botany and entomology and received the A.B. degree in 1887 and the M.S. in 1890, he was already known as a “lone wolf” comfortable tramping alone in the woods. Despite his refined upbringing, he was called blunt and tactless, and that was by his friends. The “dour New Englander” struggled in several different jobs before finding his niche, in part because of his personality. He moved from industry forester in New England to college instructor (Yale Forest School, 1904-1905; Harvard, 1905-1909), and then in 1910, to logging engineer in the U.S. Forest Service.

Between 1898 and 1910, Cary kept asking for a job with the Forest Service. Chief Gifford Pinchot refused to hire him, though, perhaps because of his personality, more likely because of philosophical differences. Cary strongly believed that private forestry, and providing economic incentive to private land owners to hold land and reforest it, was the nation’s best hope for conserving America’s forests, whereas Pinchot had staked his agency’s position on the federal government dominating land management. Only after Pinchot’s dismissal in 1910 did Cary get hired by the Forest Service—by Pinchot’s replacement and Cary’s former boss at Yale, Henry Graves, who supported Cary’s position to some extent.

Carl Schenck wrote of Austin Cary, here photographed in Florida in 1932, “[He] was as good with the axe as if he were a Canadian lumberjack.” (FHS Photo Collection)

After graduation in 1890, Cary worked on a freelance basis as a land cruiser and surveyor in northern New England, publishing his research findings on tree growth, cutting methods, entomology, and the life cycles of northern Maine trees. His writings gave him some connections and influence in industry. After he traveled abroad several times, particularly to the Black Forest of Germany, to study forestry practices and returned in 1898, he found work with the Berlin Mills Company in New Hampshire as the first company forester in North America. Thus began a lifelong battle to persuade industrial forestland owners to embrace and undertake long-range planning of cutting, planting, and land use. Opposition to such ideas in the North did not deter him, nor did it in the Pacific Northwest, where the Forest Service sent him in 1910. The timber barons had millions of acres of virgin forests they could cut; they saw no incentive to log conservatively and reforest afterwards.

Cary didn’t fit in there and relations deteriorated. Given the choice of assignments in 1917, Cary choose the South, where the Forest Service had little presence and he could create his own program. “Significantly,” White tells us, “he planned an appeal to southern landowners and operators, large and small. It would be necessary, he knew, to influence a people generally hostile to strangers, notoriously averse to change, and shackled by a near-feudal economy.” The “lone wolf” found a home in the southern woods, which were (and still are) largely privately owned and at the time in need of intervention. Though his title was that of logging engineer, he operated as a roving extension forester.

When he arrived, the South’s First Forest was nearly exhausted. “Into the void of southern forestry he intended to introduce forest practices which would assure a second timber growth on the barren, smoldering land,” wrote White, where fire was widely used. The Forest Service campaigned to eliminate it from southern forests; Cary defied them because he saw the ecological role fire played, and instead encouraged landowners to experiment with what are now called prescribed burns. Somehow this direct, straight-shooting Yankee won over Southern landowners. He was not allied with one large company and they didn’t really think of him as Forest Service; they were charmed by “his disrespect for propriety and authority” and his personality. Their conservatism matched his, and he became a staunch defender of their practices and land rights. This culminated in a bitter denunciation of the New Deal–era federal land acquisition in 1935, captured in an open letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that Forest Service officials initially tried to suppress. In the end, they decided it was less painful to suffer his opposition than to silence him, and allowed the letter to be published in the Journal of Forestry. Thumbing his nose at the ultimate authority was his last significant action before he retired in 1935.

“With a new forest turning the South green once again,” he decided to “‘bang around less…live more quietly'” and retired to Maine. He died on April 28, 1936. The well-managed private forestlands in both New England and the South are just a portion of his impressive legacy.

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You can read more about Austin Cary and his legacy in Roy White’s article “Austin Cary: The Father of Southern Forestry,” where all quotes in this article are from, and by exploring the many resources we have on him listed below:

The Austin Cary Photograph Collection contains images taken by Cary between 1918 and 1924 during his early years of working in the South for the Forest Service. The photographs document forestry and turpentining practices in the pine forests of the southeastern United States. We have a finding aid and online photo gallery.

Interviews with several foresters who discuss the positive influence of Cary reside in the “Development of Forestry in the Southern United States Oral History Interview 

A 1959 oral history interview with Charles A. Cary includes discussion of his family background and his uncle Austin Cary.

Some of Cary’s acidic nature is evident in his correspondence with Carl A. Schenck in this Journal of Forest History article.

We also have two folders’ worth of materials in our U.S. Forest Service History Collection.

His papers are housed at the University of Florida.

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A parade, a pageant, and Paul Bunyan. These may not be the first three things that come to mind when you think about fire prevention, but residents of Mason County, Washington, back in 1945 had their own unique ideas. To help combat the destructive wildfires in the region — while also promoting the importance of forests to the local economy — Mason County hosted a forest festival in the spring of 1945. The festival featured a parade through downtown Shelton, a beauty pageant, a Paul Bunyan impersonator, and various other events and activities. The idea proved even more successful than imagined. This weekend Shelton hosts the 69th annual Mason County Forest Festival, which still prominently features a parade, pageant, and Paul Bunyan, just like back in 1945.

Paul Bunyan leads parade (FHS773)

Wayne Allen as Paul Bunyan leads the parade through Shelton, 1954.

The history of Shelton is closely tied with the history of logging operations in the area. In 1853, Michael T. Simmons built the first sawmill in Mason County on Mill Creek just south of present-day Shelton. Around this same time, David Shelton (the town’s namesake) staked a settlement claim on a nearby inlet off Puget Sound. As the town grew, its connections to the forest industry only strengthened. Sol G. Simpson came to the area and founded the Simpson Logging Company in the 1890s. The Simpson Company would eventually grow and expand throughout the country, but Shelton served as an important center of operations for much of the following century. The area was also notable for being the home of the Shelton Cooperative Sustained-Yield Unit, which became active in 1946 and ended in 2002.

The first Mason County Forest Festival in 1945 honored the area’s logging history by showcasing the value of timber to the community, while demonstrating the importance of safeguarding the forests against destructive fires. Fire prevention was a prominent theme, as the Mason County Forest Festival Association was at this time operated as an auxiliary of the local chapter of the Keep Washington Green Committee.

Following that first festival – in which Lois Gibler was crowned Festival Queen and Gus Anderson played the part of Paul Bunyan – the event only grew. People from the northwestern Washington region flocked to Shelton to see, in the words of an ad for the 12th annual Forest Festival, “the dramatic Forest Pageant, the thrilling parade and the exciting contests in which loggers demonstrate their skills at falling, bucking, tree topping and truck driving. For three memorable days, the communities participate in a program which you can’t afford to miss.” The idea of a forest festival quickly spread across the country along with the Keep Green program. “You have in Shelton, in my opinion, the best all-around forest festival in the United States,” read a quote from a mid-1950s article on the event. “It has been the inspiration of many forest communities throughout the U.S.”

Carving Shelton Log Sign 1953

Artist Clarence Beauchamp (right) carving Douglas fir log sign, 1953.

The ninth annual Forest Festival in 1953 was one for the ages. The monumental event celebrated the 100th anniversary of logging operations in Mason County, and a large sign carved into a piece of Douglas fir was permanently dedicated (the log sign still welcomes visitors to Shelton today). On the festival’s final day 30,000 people — about six times the regular population of the town — crowded into Shelton to watch the Paul Bunyan Parade through downtown.

The 1953 event was an early high point for the festival, but there have been many other great moments throughout the years. Continue below to see featured images from the FHS Archives documenting the long history of the Mason County Forest Festival. (more…)

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Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Steven Spielberg’s beloved film about an alien visitor who befriends a young boy; it’s also the film that gave us the catch phrase “Phone home.” As faithful readers of this blog know, we love films from the ’80s nearly as much as forest-themed films. Because “E.T.” was such a hit, naturally talk soon thereafter began about making a sequel. It’s recently come out that Spielberg’s sequel idea had evil ETs coming to Earth and capturing Elliot, then holding and torturing him for information about his friend, who is their nemesis. There was also discussion of a sequel to the novelized version of the film in which E.T. communicated with Elliot through brain wave messages.

Fortunately, a sequel never happened. And I know why. It’s because those two ideas don’t work independently. In my sequel, I combine elements of both. It’s 20 years later and Elliot, who lived near the woods where E.T. originally had landed, has grown up to become a logger. E.T. senses that Elliot’s unhappiness and loneliness is growing worse because Elliot misses E.T. but keeps trying to forget him. That time with E.T. is proving to be the highlight of his life. We see requisite scenes of Elliot in misery: his wife leaves him for an anti-logging protester, he’s about to get fired, he flips through a scrap book with clippings of The Big Adventure, he drinks too much.

So instead of brain wave messages, E.T. begins communicating with Elliot by leaving messages in the trees his human friend cuts for a living. Given that E.T. was a botanist collecting samples when his team was scared off and left him behind, it seems only natural that he communicate through this medium. The first message is delivered the day Elliot is fired. The simple reminder of Elliot’s little friend—his face on a disc cut from a log—goes unseen by Elliot and is accidentally sold to a customer who then shows it off to the local news. Elliot sees the disc on TV, but so do the government agents who had tried to capture E.T. when he first visited. They take Elliot into custody and begin interrogating and torturing him for information. E.T. comes back and helps him escape, then hijinks and chases ensue, and his wife reunites with him. Fast-forward to the end, and the agents who were holding guns as E.T. and a young Elliot and his friends flew overhead on bikes are now protesters holding axes as E.T., Elliot, and his fellow loggers roar past them in logging trucks. Roll credits.

Below are the first publicity photos from the film “E.T.: I Pine for You” (alternative titles include “E.T.: Invasive Species,” “E.T.: Friendship Rings,” “E.T.: A Tree-mendous Friendship,” or “E.T.: Woodsy Pal”.) Okay, maybe the photos are really from page 64 of the June 1983 American Forests magazine. And maybe it’s Ora Best of Eunice, Louisiana, holding a camphor-tree log. But who’s to say this wasn’t E.T.’s way of communicating with Elliot?

Ora Best holding ET tree

Ora Best holding a message for Elliot

ET the extra-terrestrial tree

E.T.: The Extra-Tree-restrial?

 

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“Recent experiments conducted in the woods of the Great Upper Lumber Company of Scandinavia have demonstrated the permanency of the Aerologger for use in the lumbering operations of this and other planets.”

So read the opening sentence of a 1913 article found in the publication Steam Machinery, in which author S. MacHenry described a double-plane airship capable of logging an entire forest in one flight. While meant as a humorous piece, in reality MacHenry wasn’t too far off the mark. Within the next fifty years, the use of balloons and helicopters in aerial yarding operations would become a reality.

Images of these aerial yarding techniques are featured in a new photo gallery added to our website today. The historical photos presented in the gallery document the use of balloons and helicopters in logging operations, primarily during the 1960s and 1970s.

The use of balloons, in particular, has an interesting history when it comes to log-moving technology. Balloon logging was first seen in the U.S. in 1964, when the Bohemia Lumber Company of Oregon began using a helium-filled balloon in logging operations. Company vice-president Faye Stewart was inspired in part by the use of logging balloons in Sweden, and brought the practice to the U.S. The perceived advantages of using balloons were both economic and environmental. Lifting the logs could help limit soil erosion, as logs would not be skidded along the ground. Logs also suffered less breakage moving through the air, and the use of balloons would theoretically lessen the need for additional forest road construction.

Stewart worked with the Goodyear Aerospace Corp. to develop a “V”-shaped balloon, and Bohemia soon formed a subsidiary company – Balloon Trans-Air Inc. – to manufacture and market the balloons. In the 1970s, Stewart would leave Bohemia and form Flying Scotsman Enterprises, his own balloon logging company. Other companies also began to market balloons, including Raven Industries in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which manufactured traditional onion-shaped balloons for use in logging operations. The U.S. Forest Service also decided to get in on the action.

In 1971 the Forest Service announced the FALCON program (Forestry, Advanced Logging, and Conservation), a research and development program for aerial logging systems. The program’s stated purpose was to “improve the ability of resource managers to predict the economic and environmental consequences associated with the use of conventional and new logging methods such as balloons, helicopters, and cable systems, singly or in combination, with the aim of providing less damaging timber harvesting methods for environmentally sensitive areas.” With its special emphasis on helicopter and balloon logging, the USFS looked to perfect aerial logging systems that would minimize environmental impact, particularly in areas of difficult access.

Below is a clip from the FHS YouTube channel featuring film footage of some of the balloon logging operations from this era:

Of course, no discussion of aerial logging operations would be complete without mention of the infamous Heli-Stat — a controversial helicopter-blimp hybrid with a tragic history. The concept of an airship combining four helicopters with a large blimp was first patented by aviation pioneer Frank Piasecki in 1961. In many ways, Piasecki’s design could be viewed as the natural extension of MacHenry’s satirical 1913 aerologger. Except that Piasecki’s was actually real. After nearly twenty years of struggling to find funding for development of the craft, the Forest Service proved an enthusiastic supporter.

Helistat

Artist rendering of the Piasecki Heli-Stat.

As fantastical as the design seemed on paper, the Forest Service saw the Heli-Stat as a way to log remote, roadless regions of the Pacific Northwest. Capable of lifting 25 tons of timber and carrying loads up to five miles, the Heli-Stat was viewed as the next evolutionary step after the logging helicopter. George Leonard, then the USFS timber management chief, stated that “it appears to offer an opportunity to remove logs from areas where it is economically or environmentally unwise to put roads.” The agency approached Oregon congressman Robert B. Duncan with the idea and in 1979 he managed to get three million dollars earmarked for development of the Heli-Stat.

Piasecki began assembling the craft almost immediately at the naval air engineering center in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Using four Korean War-era helicopters and an old salvaged Navy blimp, Piasecki’s long-planned airship finally began to take shape.

Things didn’t go quite according to plan, though. The Forest Service stated that the agency would recoup any investment in timber sales from the lumber accessed with the new craft, but construction continued to go over budget. A GAO report in November 1982 estimated that the net cost of the Heli-Stat had already increased from 6.7 million to almost 32 million dollars. Critics asked if the agency was funding a balloon or a boondoggle. Journalists today would probably call it a “balloondoggle.”

Construction fell behind schedule and various technical problems plagued the development process. Navy, NASA, and Federal Aviation Administration officials all criticized the project during construction, stating that “poor quality workmanship practices have been used to build the interconnecting structure.” One Navy engineer, Louis Berman, criticized Piasecki’s use of “slide-rule engineering in an age when everyone else is using computers. You just don’t design aircraft that way.”

The criticisms proved to be well-founded. In a test run of the massive airship on July 1, 1986, the Heli-Stat failed in dramatic and spectacular fashion. On the same Lakehurst airfield where the Hindenburg crashed in 1937, the Heli-Stat rose thirty feet off the ground before the right rear helicopter broke loose and the entire craft collapsed into a burning heap. One of the five crew members was killed. It was a tragic ending to a controversial chapter in the development of log transportation technology.

Additional information:

Visit the new photo gallery:

And for additional topics, browse our previously posted subject galleries, or search the FHS Image Database.

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The 25th anniversary of the iconic film franchise Back to the Future and the Blu-ray release of the trilogy on October 26 got us thinking about what forestry and logging were supposed to look like today as predicted by the best minds of the mid-20th century.

Some of those same minds had predicted that we would all be driving flying cars or have individual jetpacks to get to work. I don’t know about you but I’m still relying on the internal-combustion engine to get around. And that’s the problem with committing predictions of the future to paper. When organizations like the Forest History Society hold on to those documents, it’s easy to look back at them and assess how close to (or far from) the mark the writer was.

Logger of the future

So let’s look at two sets of predictions. The image above isn’t a storyboard of a scene from Back to the Future. It’s a sketch of a forester treating a tree in 1975. Well, that was the prediction in 1955. For their film, People, Products and Progress: 1975, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked several organizations in 1955 to make future predictions about transportation, home life, and the workplace. To furnish a sequence on the lumber industry they called upon the National Lumber Manufacturers Association for help. The NLMA might have called their segment “Better Living through Chemicals.” They predicted foresters would use radioactive materials, hormones, and “other stimulating substances” to do things like pre-season the wood, make it fire resistant, and even change the color of the wood while the tree is still growing. Maybe they didn’t get all of that correct, but maybe what hasn’t come to pass still could through a combination of chemical injections and genetic modification.

The NLMA’s description of the sawmill of the future is fairly accurate in terms of using scanning equipment to assess the best way to cut a log. And although we aren’t yet cutting lumber with lasers it seems only a matter of time. They got the part right about helicopter logging, but using an ordinary helicopter isn’t as exciting to contemplate as using this contraption, a strange marriage of 19th– and 20th-century technologies.

Helistat

This combination of multiple helicopters and blimp seemed like a good idea at the time. Alas, one of its flight tests failed in spectacular and tragic fashion and the program ended in 1986.

In 1980 the American Forest Foundation made a stab at predicting what the industry would look like in both 2010 and 2020. In 1980, to generate interest in National Forest Products Week, they issued what appears to be a press release that described working in 2010. For a separate project they produced a poster that made predictions about 2020. You’ll want to read the poster and the press release to see the subtle differences between the two in describing the future.

Some of it has already come to pass, like the use of handheld computers in the field and computers to aid in harvesting timber. The discussion of the “paperless society” in the press release is one worth revisiting in light of the internet and technology’s impact on how we read. (Are you reading this on your phone or a Kindle?) Interestingly, the artist wasn’t much of a visionary. You can clearly see the influence of Star Wars on the artist’s rendition of a logger. He looks like Luke Skywalker in his X-Wing fighter pilot uniform wielding a light saber—or is that a logging saber?

logging of the future

It’s interesting to note the emphasis on transportation in these various visions. More than a century ago Biltmore Estate forester Carl Schenck declared that “forestry was a problem of transportation” and that “good roads are needed to practice forestry!” Talk about back to the future! The vision of hovercraft lifting logs out of hard-to-access areas brings to mind the closing line from Back to the Future, when Doc Brown tells Marty, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” If Doc were a forester, he might instead proclaim: “Roads? Where we’re logging, we don’t need roads.”

Will lasers be used to cleanly cut timber? Will robots load lumber onto hovercraft that haul lumber? Will trees be genetically engineered to produce different grains and colors? What are your predictions for the future of forests, wood utilization, and forest management? Leave them in the Comments area and we’ll come back in 25 or 30 years and see if you were right.

 

“Back to the Future” of logging and timber management

The 25th anniversary Blu-ray release of the film franchise Back to the Future got us thinking about what forestry and logging were supposed to look like now from the perspective of the mid 20th-century. Weren’t we all supposed to be driving flying cars or have individual jetpacks to get us to work? At least that’s what was predicted in the 1960s. And that’s the problem with committing predictions of the future to paper. When organizations like the Forest History Society hold on to those documents, it’s easy to look back at them and assess how close to (or far from) the mark the writer was.

So let’s look at two sets of predictions. The image above (or below) isn’t of a spaceman or of Doc Brown from the film. He’s a logger in 1975. Well, that was the prediction in 1955. For their film, People, Products and Progress: 1975, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had asked several organizations to make predictions about transportation, home life, and the workplace. To furnish a sequence on the lumber industry they called on the National Lumber Manufacturers Association for help. The NLMA might have called their segment “Better Living through Chemicals.” They predicted foresters would use radioactive materials, hormones, and “other stimulating substances” to do things like pre-season the wood, make it fire resistant, and even change the color of the wood while the tree is still growing. So maybe they didn’t get all of that correct, but maybe what hasn’t come to pass could still through a combination of chemical injections and genetic modification. [link to book?]

The description of the sawmill of the future is fairly accurate in terms of using scanning equipment to assess the best way to cut a log. And although we aren’t yet cutting lumber with lasers it seems only a matter of time. They got the part right about helicopter logging, but using an ordinary helicopter isn’t as exciting as using this contraption, a strange marriage of 19th– and 20th-century technologies. It failed its one flight test in spectacular and tragic fashion.

In 1980 the American Forest Foundation made a stab at predicting what the industry would look like in 2010. Some of it has already come to pass, like the use of handheld computers in the field and computers to aid in harvesting timber. You can clearly see the influence of Star Wars on the artist’s rendition of a logger. He looks like Luke Skywalker in his X-Wing fighter pilot uniform wielding a light saber—or is that a logging saber?

It’s interesting to note the emphasis on transportation in these various visions. Biltmore Estate forester Carl Schenck declared more than a century ago that “forestry was a problem of transportation” and that “good roads are needed to practice forestry!” The vision of hovercraft lifting logs out of hard-to-access areas brings to mind a line from Back to the Future, when Doc Brown tells Marty, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” If Doc were a forestry professor, he might instead proclaim: “Roads? Where we’re logging, we don’t need roads.”

What are your predictions for the future of forests, wood utilization, and forest management? Will lasers be used to cleanly cut timber? Will hovercraft be used to haul lumber?

 

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On September 10, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. This month, the Forest History Society is publishing a history of the region, Tongass Timber: A History of Logging and Timber Utilization in Southeast Alaska, by James Mackovjak (you may remember Jim from his cross-country bike trip documented on this blog). Tongass Timber, now available in our online store, traces the history of the decades-long attempts by commercial interests and the U.S. Forest Service to develop the region’s forests, examining their motivations and resulting impacts. This historical background reveals the forces that influence present choices about forest management in Southeast Alaska.

The Tongass National Forest originated with the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, which Roosevelt established in 1902 under the old forest reserve system. The Alexander’s creation was controversial because Alaskans feared that the forest would no longer be available for development, a general misconception about the purpose of the forest reserves. Forester Gifford Pinchot sought to assure the territorial governor, John Brady, that the opposite was the case, declaring at the time: “[T]he permanent success of the industries of Alaska can best be secured through the establishment of forest reserves.” It was the first of many controversies over economic policy and the Tongass.

Five years later, the Tongass National Forest was created on the recommendation of forest supervisor W. A. Langille and F. E. Olmsted, the forest inspector sent out from Washington, D.C. As Jim Mackovjak notes, Olmsted’s was “the first detailed examination of Southeast Alaska’s forests by a professionally trained forester.” The announcement of Tongass’s establishment in Forestry and Irrigation, the predecessor to the American Forests magazine, is here. If you want a history of the agency in Alaska, check out Lawrence Rakestraw’s A History of the United States Forest Service in Alaska. It is, however, nearly thirty years old.

Langille is regarded by many as the father of forestry in Alaska. A skilled outdoorsman and mountaineer who deeply impressed Pinchot when they met in 1896 in Oregon, Pinchot hired him first as a forest expert and eventually as forest supervisor of the Alexander. Langille projected what a colleague termed an “abrupt, outspoken and occasionally mildly terrifying manner.” You can learn more about this fascinating man from this article.

But that’s not all! For you, our dedicated blog readers, we have an exclusive excerpt from Tongass Timber, which gives the history of the establishment of the Tongass, including the origins of its name and how Alaska went from being designated as District 8 to becoming Region 10 on the National Forest System map. You’ll also find maps showing how the Tongass grew from 2 million to 16 million acres.

We’d like to thank the following for making Tongass Timber possible through their generous funding: the Kendall Foundation, Mike Blackwell, the SB Foundation, the Alaska Historical Society, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Lynn W. Day Endowment for Forest History Publications.

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