Ivan Doig Walked These Halls: FIA's Portland, Oregon Roots
The United States Forest Service was barely three years old when it sent Thornton Munger west in September of 1908 to investigate the encroachment on...
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Editor’s Note: Ivan Doig Walked These Halls is the first in a series of essays profiling the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program’s four regional offices: Portland, Oregon, St. Paul, Minnesota, Knoxville, Tennessee and Ogden, Utah. Our essays are summations of interviews we conducted with Forest Service scientists representing an impressive array of disciplines: wildfires, insects and diseases, climate change and its impacts on carbon sequestration, forest growth simulation models, forest surveys, remote sensing technologies and forest land use changes and forest owner management objectives. Our series will include some amazing interactive maps including this one.
The United States Forest Service was barely three years old when it sent Thornton Munger west in September of 1908 to investigate the encroachment on lodgepole pine in ponderosa pine forests in central Oregon.
Munger would celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday in a makeshift Forest Service camp somewhere between Bend and Rosland, a remote outpost near La Pine. The train ride west from Washington, D.C. to Portland lasted three days, and it took an entire night for his stagecoach to reach Prineville, still 70 miles north of his final destination.
The Forest Service’s earliest rangers, tough men who wore sidearms and rode horses, had only begun surveying the presidentially-designated Forest Reserves when they were formally transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service was formed and Gifford Pinchot was named its first Chief, all on the same day – February 1, 1905.
The Forest Service hired Munger as a Forest Assistant in July of 1908 for the princely sum of $1,000 a year. He was fresh out of Yale University’s School of Forestry. Three summers earlier, while still a Yale undergraduate, his boyhood fascination with forests and wildlife led him to enroll in a short course in forestry at Milford, Pennsylvania. His decision to abandon his interests in literature and writing changed his life and would subsequently have a significant influence on the scope of early Forest Service research in the Pacific Northwest.
The Milford program was located on a sprawling estate owned by Pinchot’s father, James, and frequented by Pinchot, a French National School of Forestry graduate whose personal magnetism greatly influenced Munger’s decision to become a forester.
Munger had more or less expected to be sent west as part of a boundary survey crew, but he was instead assigned to Raphael Zon, a brilliant Pinchot protégé who Pinchot had picked to be the first director of the newly-minted Division of Silvics.
Zon must have been impressed by the potential he saw in Munger, because he dispatched him to Oregon in September, despite the fact that Munger had never before seen a lodgepole or ponderosa. Zon, 34, and a native of Simbirsk, in the Russian Empire, had been a member of the New York State College of Forestry’s first Cornell University graduating class. At Cornell, he studied under Bernard Fernow, a Prussian-trained forester who had directed the Division of Forestry before Pinchot took over in 1898. Fernow went immediately to Cornell, where he became the new forestry school’s first dean in the fall of 1898.
Only weeks earlier, Carl Schrenck, a German-trained forester, had launched the first forestry field training program in North America on George W. Vanderbilt’s 120,000-acre estate at Asheville, North Carolina.
Schrenck, who had studied with Sir Dietrich Brands at Germany’s University of Glessen, was only the third professionally trained forester on American shores. The first two were Fernow and Pinchot. Schrenck replaced Pinchot at Vanderbilt when Pinchot replaced Fernow at the Division of Forestry and Fernow went on to Ithaca, New York and Cornell University.
Fernow also founded the Society of American Foresters Journal of Forestry in 1902 two years after Pinchot founded SAF at his home in Washington, D.C. The following year – amid controversy at Cornell – Fernow left for Penn State, where he taught forestry for four years before becoming the founding dean of the University of Toronto forestry school, the first such school in Canada.
In a 1967 interview, Munger expressed some amazement at the quality of education he’d received at Yale. Indeed, forestry was in its infancy in the U.S. when he graduated in 1908. Although the Forest Service was then only three years old, Pinchot had already put his indelible imprint on its future. But the methodical Fernow, who lacked Pinchot’s drive and vision, made the Chief’s job much easier by organizing its research arm during his years at the helm of the old Division of Forestry.
“I think that it was rather remarkable that we got such a good course when the profession was so new and the professors so new and there was a dearth of texts and experience to go by,” Munger told Amelia Fry in a 1967 interview at his home in Portland. He had only been 15 years old when Pinchot took over the Division of Forestry and Fernow had begun to work his organizational magic at Cornell.
Ms. Fry had journeyed from the University of California at Berkeley to interview the then 84-year-old Munger for the Forest History Society because he had been an eye witness to much of the Forest Service’s history, including Pinchot’s 1910 firing for insubordination by newly elected President William Howard Taft, an ill-advised decision that disgusted Pinchot loyalists, including Munger.
Munger told Fry he had expected to return to the Forest Service’s Washington office after he completed his two-month lodgepole encroachment study in central Oregon, but Zon had instead sent him to Portland. Pinchot was reorganizing the agency from top to bottom. There would be six western districts, each a small replica of the Washington office.
One of these replicas, District 6, based in Portland, would be responsible for all management activity in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Zon wanted Munger to head its Silvics Section, a one-man research department that filled his days, nights and weekends until he was named Director of the Pacific Northwest Forest Experiment Station in 1924.
That same year, Congress ratified the Clarke-McNary Act, which – among other things - put the Forest Service in the firefighting business along side a handful of privately-funded firefighting cooperatives that had been organized by George S. Long, the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company’s resourceful general manager, following the 1902 Yacolt Burn.
Some 60 people died in the 239,000-acre southwest Washington conflagration and Weyerhaeuser lost several billion feet of virgin timber that it had purchased a scant two years earlier from railroad magnate James J. Hill. Short of the Louisiana Purchase, the $5.4 million, 900,000-acre western Washington transaction was then the largest land transfer in American history.
Charles McNary was 28 years old when Yacolt burned. He’d grown up on his grandfather’s farm near Salem, Oregon, studied law, economics, science and history at Stanford University [1896 to 1898], served as Dean of the Willamette Law School [1908-1913], then secured an appointment to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1913. At 39, he was the youngest jurist on the court. He was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1917, following the death Henry Lane, then won election to the Senate in November 1918.
Although he was well-regarded across the political spectrum, McNary, a Republican, was a progressive at heart. He supported of President Franklin Roosevelt’s plans for publicly financed and owned hydroelectric development of the Columbia River as well as Roosevelt-inspired New Deal regulations aimed at refloating America’s Depression-wracked economy.
But it was McNary’s friendship with fellow Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, who was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that got him appointed Chairman of the Senate’s Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands Committee and the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee.
Given McNary’s political roots in farming and forestry, his Senate assignments made sense, but it was his considerable debating skill that brought McNary to Lodge’s attention and secured his favorable place in the U.S. Senate’s inner circle.
By 1924, McNary had hit his stride. He combined his constituent interests in expanding the National Forest System, reforestation of cutover timberland and fire protection, co-sponsoring the landmark Clarke-McNary Act. Years later, the pious Bill Greeley, the third Chief of the Forest Service, admitted that he had closeted himself in the Senate cloakroom so that he could pass favorable questions to supportive Senators during floor debate.
Four years later, McNary secured passage of the McNary-McSweeney Act, which put the Forest Service more deeply into the forestry research business than it had been during it first 23 years, replicating the research process that Bernard Fernow had developed during his years as director of the old Bureau of Forestry.
But Munger would soon discover that recalcitrant western lumbermen were “very unsympathetic” to the Forest Service’s research interests. They had not forgotten that Pinchot had favored federal regulation of private timberlands in the west. On the other hand, Greeley had favored “cooperation” with the west’s hard-bitten lumbermen, and now Greeley was Chief of the Forest Service, so Munger was at least treated with the respect he was due.
Soon after Munger’s 1924 promotion to Director of the Pacific Northwest Research Station he called his small staff together and told them they had “no time for research for research’s sake.” He thus directed their attention to “the important timber belts, where extensive lumbering operations lie and where there are great areas whose future may be either devastation or reforestation. The selection of research projects will depend on their economic importance.” PNW’s emphasis on timber-related research would not change much over the next 40 years.
As station director, it was Munger’s job to advocate for the economic benefits of private investments in new forestry methods whenever the opportunity rose.
“Under proper management, man can produce more wood per acre than Nature has in her wild stands,” Munger repeatedly told skeptical lumbermen. Although time and research results would prove him correct, there were no early takers amongst undercapitalized lumbermen who were financed by eastern syndicates that charged usurious interest rates, necessitating the “cut out and get out” business model that prevailed in the Pacific Northwest until the 1940s.
“We got a respectful hearing, but not much follow-up application,” Munger said of his countless initial presentations to members of the Western Forestry and Conservation Association and the Pacific Logging Congress.
Significant landowner interest in Forest Service research did not develop until after World War II. The post-war homebuilding boom, a robust federal timber sale program and land consolidation drove landowner investments in research that Munger and his colleagues had pioneered: forest growth and yield, seed tree genetics, aerial seeding and fertilization, brush control in new plantations -, reforestation and techniques for early wildfire control.
Although the Forest Service had opened its first experimental station at Fort Valley, Arizona in 1908, meaningful congressional interest in funding forest research did not materialize until Dr. Yrjo Livessalo, leader of the first Finnish national forest inventory, paid a sales call in the Oval Office in 1928. It was the opening McNary had sought. President Coolidge signed the Act on May 22, 1928. Coolidge’s interest in Finnish forestry’s more progressive approach seems to have been driven by Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, an ardent supporter of legislation positioned at the intersection of science and business efficiency.
McNary-McSweeney directed the Forest Service “to make and keep current a comprehensive survey of the present and prospective requirements for timber and other forest products in the United States, and of timber supplies, including a determination of the present and potential productivity of forests land therein, and of such other facts as may be necessary in the determination of ways and means to balance the timber budget of the United States.”
The resulting “Forest Survey” program, now known as the “Forest Inventory and Analysis Program” [FIA] is one of the oldest research programs in the Department of Agriculture. It’s initial focus on timber inventories and management was driven by a perennial public worry that the nation would run out of harvestable timber if something wasn’t done to encourage lumbermen to invest in scientific forestry.
By 1932, Thornton Munger’s survey teams had completed their first inventory of timber resources west of the Oregon and Washington Cascades. Hundreds of survey plots – some still monitored today – were laid out so that forest growth, mortality and harvest could be tracked through time on public and private lands. The oldest of these plots – in southwest Washington’s Wind River Valley - were surveyed by Munger not long after Raphael Zon sent him to Portland in 1908.
The Wind River Experiment station was established in 1913 – with Munger at its helm - two years before formal establishment of the Forest Service’s Branch of Research. At that time, the PNW station had but eight employees and they were housed in a four-room office in downtown Portland.
By 1938, Munger had grown tired of the public rigors associated with being the director of the renamed Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station. He returned to what he called “real research” in July of 1938 and stayed there until he retired in 1946. He died in Portland in August of 1975, the year after McNary-McSweeney was folded into the present-day Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act [RPA]
Although RPA has been updated several times over the last 45 years, it remains the primary mechanism for funding and directing every Forest Service research program, including the Forest Inventory and Analysis program. These updates are best seen as reflections of our society’s long-standing and paramount interest in protecting, conserving and managing the nation’s public and private-owned forest resources – the latest being societal worries about the impacts that our changing climate is having on forests and forestry.
The depth and breadth of FIA’s jaw-dropping capacity is best illustrated by the interactive map that appears here. There are four such maps, one for each FIA region – Pacific Northwest, Intermountain, Northeast and Southeast - plus a composite map that includes all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Thanks to increasingly sophisticated technologies that rely on high resolution satellite imagery, drones, computer models, and LIDAR, a survey method that uses lasers to map the physical features of non-metallic objects, including trees, we now have data sets that that can be used to answer forest-related questions raised by any of the 3,007 counties, 64 parishes and 19 boroughs in the United States - unimaginable in Munger’s time.
Munger would be astonished to learn that the PNW station he founded more than a century ago now includes 11 labs and research centers in Alaska, Oregon and Washington and 12 research forests.
In this first of four special reports, we interview researchers with FIA housed at the PNW station in Portland:
Demetrios Gatziolis, a dynamic and outspoken PhD forester who specializes in leading edge remote sensing surveying methods.
Jeremy Fried, a brilliant PhD forester who helped develop BioSum, a software program that allows land managers and loggers to preview forest thinning sequences based on a variety of management objectives including forest resilience, carbon sequestration, fuel treatment longevity, revenue and habitat management objectives.
Glenn Christiansen, a forester and jack-of-all-trades whose fingerprints can be found on an impressive array of research papers, many associated with carbon sequestration, current forest conditions and biomass utilization.
Andy Gray, a PhD forest ecologist who terms himself “the FIA geezer” in the Portland shop. Gray’s current work centers on using FIA data to reconstruct changes in carbon loading in forests through time, and the effects of active management and environmental change on forest composition.
Sharon Stanton, a PhD biologist and FIA Program Manager for the Pacific Northwest. Ms. Stanton oversees the work of more than 100 scientists and technicians, and who is also responsible for growing IFA’s Pacific Northwest client base – a major reason why we so readily embraced this project.
While exploring the hallways of the historic and stately Gus J. Solomon United States Courthouse – headquarters for the PNW station – we visited briefly with two young professionals whose personas and enthusiasm suggest that the Forest Service’s future is in very good hands. Katie Rigsby and Summer Dunn are both biological scientists.
Ms. Rigsby, a Boise, Idaho native, runs four FIA field survey crews in Washington. Last summer  they re-inventoried 480 plots – an impressive achievement given yet another disruptive wildfire season.
Firefighting costs consume about half the Forest Service’s entire annual budget, leaving Ms. Rigsby to figure out how to get her work done with fewer people and less money. Even so, she is surprisingly upbeat about her work and the role she hopes to play in recruiting Millennials and Gen Z members to the Forest Service.
Summer Dunn, another high-spirited young woman, oversees FIA data collection in Oregon, Washington and California. She sees herself as the interface between FIA’s stakeholders – the group’s growing customer base – and field survey crews that work in the three states. FIA manages six major research portfolios, all of them linked to the recently ratified Farm Bill.
“But there is a seventh portfolio,” she explains. “It’s community outreach. Explaining to the public who we are, what we do and how we can be of assistance to anyone with a question about trees, fish, wildlife, water, soils, carbon, recreation – you name your question and we’ll find an answer.”
Know this as your starting point: FIA data sets – readily available on the World Wide Web - can be used to answer the most commonly asked questions about our nation’s forests:
How much forestland is there in America? Are we gaining or losing forestland? Where are our nation’s forests located? Who owns these forests? What plant and animal species are found in our forests? Are we gaining or losing species? How are America’s forests changing? What might our forests be like 50 years from now? How do forests around the nation compare to one another? What about carbon content – biomass – in live and dead trees? How is our carbon budget impacted by wildfire? At what rates are our forests growing, dying and being harvested?
A final note: To grasp the sweep and grandeur of the PNW Station’s history, Google Amazon Books and invest $15 on a used copy of Ivan Doig’s “Early Forestry Research: A History of the Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station.” It was published in 1976, two years before Doig’s autobiographical memoir, This House of Sky, was published.
Doig wrote several essays chronicling the early history of the Forest Service’s imprint on forests and forestry in the Pacific Northwest, but this one is the best summary because it draws mainly from an earlier and more extensive volume written by Robert W. Cowlin, who took over the region’s Forest Survey in 1938, and became PNW Station Director in 1951.
I marvel at the whole notion that Ivan Doig - easily one of finest writers in American history - walked the same hallways at Gus Solomon that we walked, nudging at the nuances of the same story that we’re exploring, but he did. Here’s hoping Doig’s shadow in our story will help you understand that the rich history of forestry in the Pacific Northwest is inextricably tied to the presence and influence of the U.S. Forest Service.
Onward we go,