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Our Changing Forests: An 88-Year Time Lapse

Intense forest fires have been raging across the western United States this summer. So far this year, nearly 43,000 wildfires have torched almost 7 million acres of land.

As NPR Science correspondent Christopher Joyce and photographer David Gilkey report from Arizona and New Mexico this week, the forests of the American Southwest have become so overgrown that they're essentially tinderboxes just waiting for a spark.

This "tree epidemic" stems from Forest Service policy dating back to the early 1900s of aggressively fighting all forest fires. But regular, small fires clean out dead wood, grasses and low brush — and if fires are quashed, the forest just grows into fuel. And that's why we see more of these mega-conflagrations today.

In trying to tell the story of our changing forests, we turned to the U.S. Forest Service for some historical context. Buried in the back of General Technical Report No. 23 was the pay dirt: a stack of 13 series of photos, more than 88 years in the making.

The photographs document the life of the Bitterroot National Forest in west-central Montana, from 1909 to 1997, though the project is still ongoing. Every 10 to 15 years, photographers return to the same 13 spots in the forest.

Bitterroot is a managed forest — meaning that foresters periodically trim, cut and thin the land — and the photo series is meant to show how dynamic the forest is with management, says Michael Harrington, a research forester with the Missoula Fire Science Lab. Through the nine-image sets, we can see trees grow and thicken, the effects of selective logging and also how quickly the forest land rebounds.

It's important to note that the first images in each series, from 1909, are not the "original" state of the forest. The project was started when photographer W.J. Lubkin was sent from Washington, D.C., to document logging activity on the land after it was sold and selectively cut in 1906.

He captured the initial images using a 6.5-by-8.5-inch view box camera and glass plates, but "the camera points were not permanently marked because this was not part of the assignment."

But later photographers K.D. Swan and W.W. White found the locations in 1925, which were staked with bronze caps in 1938. In the Forest Service report, Swan recalled how White found the original photo points:

The quest was extremely fascinating. White had a good memory and was able to spot, in a general way, the locations we were after. Peculiar stumps and logs were a great help. Just when we might seem baffled in the search for a particular spot, something would show up to give us a key. The clue might be the bark pattern on a ponderosa pine, or perhaps a forked trunk.

The camera we were using duplicated the one used for the original pictures, and when a spot was once found it was a simple matter to adjust the outfit so that the image on the ground glass would coincide with the print we were holding. It was an exciting game, and we felt it was more fun than work.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A map showing the locations of 13 photo points in Bitterroot National Forest, where photographers have returned since 1909.
General Technical Report 23 / U.S. Forest Service
U.S. Forest Service
A map showing the locations of 13 photo points in Bitterroot National Forest, where photographers have returned since 1909.

Andrew Prince
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