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ntil the turn of the 20th century, timber on public lands throughout the country was virtually free for the taking, but by 1876 the eastern hardwood forests had all been logged over, and the great pine forests of the Lake States were going fast. Gradually the new concept of "resource conservation" began to take hold, especially under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt and the man he named Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot. One outcome was the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture, in 1905. After the summer of 1910, when forest fires of exceptional dimensions ravaged much of the Northern Rockies, fire suppression became a top priority of the Forest Service.
The all-out battle against both natural and man-caused fires during the past 90 years has preserved the nation's timber resource--even increased it in volume, as we have just seen. But there have been two other consequences. With the suppression of all fires, certain kinds of trees have crowded others out, altering the distribution of species. At the same time, the accumulation of fuels--dead and diseased trees, as well as dense underbrush and unrestrained growth of trees that thrive in the shade of others--have created the conditions for fires that can burn hotter and spread faster than ever, and are thus harder to control.
Attempts to "protect" these fire-dependent forests, which have been shaped by fires for thousands of years, have resulted in practically uncontrollable wild fires, as well as infestations of insects and epidemic diseases. The fire that scorched the south slope of Saddle Mountain in 1960 was small, compared with the Sleeping Child fire of 1961, north of Ross Hole, that burned 28,000 acres. Since then, wildfires in all western forests have grown larger, hotter, and more devastating. In contrast, historical studies — one looking back to about 1540 — have clearly shown that ponderosa pine forests in the Northern Rockies typically underwent small, low-intensity fires on an average of every ten years, which kept the forest floor comparatively clean.
Whatever they may have had in mind in 1806, Meriwether Lewis and his Albemarle County neighbors would be astonished at the "improvements" that actually have taken place in these "unviolated forests." No doubt they would be overwhelmed by the complexity of the biological, ecological, sociological and political issues that have accompanied the best efforts to conserve our forest resources during the past 100 years, and with which forest managers as well as the public must reckon today.
The two photographs on the following page will serve to illustrate, in a limited way, the difference between the forests the Corps of Discovery saw, and the conditions that prevail today.
--Joseph Mussulman, 1998; rev. June 2014