In the annals of American slow science, the U.S. Forest Service’s long-running visual documentation of managed ponderosa pine forests throughout west-central Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest is the oldest of Old Man Pine’s. It’s right up there with the ongoing Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study, only about four decades’ its superior. And as NPR reports, after a summer fraught with ravenous wildfires the time lapse, “more than 88-years in the making,” can offer invaluable historical context to “the story of our changing forests.”
The photo project is still underway. But a cut of its dynamic, almost cyclical growth-log-growth-log groove can be taken from the way back of the USFS’s General Technical Report No. 23, which includes a cache of 13 series of photos. All were taken at the same 13 spots, the various photographers returning every 10 to 15 years to survey changes (or non-changes). These sites were only marked with bronze caps in 1938, mind you, which led to what K.D. Swan, the photographer who found the unmarked vantage points in 1925, called “an exciting game [that] we felt was more fun than work.” The first round of images were taken by a fellow named W.J. Lubkin, who used a 6.5 by 8.5-inch view-box camera and attending glass plates. Later rounds were captured with an imager that “duplicated the one used for the original pictures,” Swan recalled. “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.”
Anyway, talk about dedication. Per the Report:
This publication gives an overview of structural and other ecological changes associated with forest management and fire suppression since the early 1900’s in a ponderosa pine forest, the most widespread forest type in the Western United States. Three sources of information are presented: (1) changes seen in a series of repeat photographs taken between 1909 and 1997 at 13 camera points; (2) knowledge from 19 authors who have investigated effects of recent ecosystem-based management treatments; integrated with (3) findings of forest changes related to earlier treatments and to succession.
Here’s just one of the 13 series taken from roughly the same spot – “facing nearly due West,” as the original caption notes, “from ridge northeast of Como Lake.” They’re still and quiet, yes, but brood with all the long-flux needed to give a humbling view of forest dynamics, be they natural or manmade.
Top: Photographers “looking northeast,” 1909 (Images via NPR / U.S. Forest Service)
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