National Forest Foundation

From Balopticons to iPhones: Picturing and Pitching National Forests

Your National Forests Magazine

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Published in Winter/Spring 2015 Issue
By Ray. A. Foote
The hundred-year-old glass slides were luminous and surprisingly heavy. It was easy to lose track of time that September afternoon as I pored over pictures in the K.D. Swan Collection at the University of Montana Library. The slides and large negatives brought to life vivid moments from the earliest years of our National Forests: a ranger in high leather boots and a necktie; a river chock-a-block full of logs; a laughing Yakima woman whose face almost leapt off the glass.

A Nascent Idea, Poorly Understood

Born into a vacuum of public understanding and appreciation for its mission, the U.S. Forest Service had to move quickly and decisively to cultivate awareness and support in order to succeed. Fortunately, Gifford Pinchot, the agency’s first Chief Forester, intuitively understood the most potent way to sell an idea was through powerful imagery. In fact, during his five years with the fledgling agency, Pinchot traveled widely giving “lantern slide shows,” which illustrated not only the beauty of wild lands, but the enormous damage caused by unbridled harvesting.

Pinchot’s visual advocacy was important to the passage of the seminal 1911 Weeks Act which greatly expanded National Forests in the East. The Act provided funding for the purchase of more than five million acres of forests.

Pinchot’s adroitness in telling a story with pictures predated his service as Chief. As the private forester for the massive Biltmore estate in western North Carolina, he concocted a grand display for the 1893 Chicago Exhibition, including enormous panel prints of the Biltmore Forest so guests could “walk into” the woods he managed. It was a strategy he applied to the much larger woods—the early National Forests—he introduced to an entire nation in 1905.

Pinchot was determined to illustrate for policymakers and others that a more intentional forestry approach of active management could achieve simultaneous benefits of sustainable timber production and ecological conservation.

Pomona College historian Char Miller has noted that “Gifford Pinchot thought that the camera was the most important instrument that the Forest Service had at its disposal, not the ‘pulaski,’ the great instrument they used to fight fire.” Miller has also written about how Pinchot brought cumbersome photographic equipment on a pivotal 1897 trip west at the request of Secretary of Interior Cornelius Bliss. Charged with evaluating and reporting back on “forest reserves,” the controversial precursors to the National Forests, Pinchot was determined to illustrate for policymakers and others that a more intentional forestry approach of active management could achieve simultaneous benefits of sustainable timber production and ecological conservation.

Pinchot’s unrestrained views on deforestation fill his posthumous autobiography, Breaking New Ground. He wrote: “the common word for our forests was ‘inexhaustible.’ To waste timber was a virtue and not a crime. There would always be plenty of timber…The lumbermen… regarded forest devastation as normal and second growth as a delusion of fools…And as for sustained yield, no such idea had ever entered their heads.”

Eight years after his 1897 expedition west, Pinchot was tapped by President Theodore Roosevelt to lead the new U.S. Forest Service, a position he held until 1910.

An Amateur’s Growing Vision

The year after Pinchot left the agency’s topmost position, a young graduate from Harvard Forestry School, Kenneth Dupee Swan, entered the same agency at the very bottom. Hired as a forest assistant in Missoula, Montana, “K.D.” left his eastern roots and embraced the western wilderness. Swan was immediately fascinated by the West’s open spaces, rugged terrain, pioneering spirit, and promise of what was possible from a natural resources perspective. According to his daughter, Helen Swan Bolle: “…he was totally enchanted by being out west and doing something primary in the Forest Service.” (From The World of K.D. Swan: Early 20th Century Photographer and Conservationist, a 2009 documentary by Marcia Hogan & Libby Langston. Copyright Digital Magic Video.)

His interest in photography grew quickly, with his early work consisting of Forest Service personnel doing mundane tasks, locals in small towns, Missoula scenes, and sensitive treatment of Native Americans on nearby National Forests. Swan was shaped by his adopted region, and he began developing an aesthetic that revealed the West’s wild places and sparse populations in a new way.

It became clear that Swan had both a deep interest in forest management and a good eye for telling stories through photography, and in time, he was given official full-time photographic responsibilities. Swan ended up serving in the Forest Service for 36 years, leaving a prodigious 300,000 images and negatives that provide an invaluable resource for forest historians today. Swan recalled in his 1968 memoir, Splendid Was The Trail, that “[I]n the late Twenties it became apparent that if the Region was to…build up a comprehensive picture record of our effort to prevent and control forest fires a photographer would have to be assigned…I was chosen as that man; the job was exciting and presented a real challenge. For many summers I stood ready to leave Missoula on a minute’s notice day or night.”

K.D. Swan in the field with poles for his film-changing tent, 1920s.

The idea of a full-time photographer struck many as odd, so Swan had to create its legitimacy. He recounted how the summer of 1929 had been extremely dry and fire-prone. One day he got a call to shoot a fire: “[W]ithin an hour I was on the road in a Model A Ford loaded with camera equipment, a bedroll, and a few emergency rations. A parting word of advice from [coworker] G.I. Porter is still remembered: ‘Don’t let them put you to work, K.D., keeping time or doing other menial jobs. Your assignment is to travel around and get pictures.’”

But there was a far larger and more profound purpose behind the recording of agency duties. Following in Pinchot’s path, Swan created a visual record of places few Americans would ever see, yet which needed their support. His photos revealed majestic open country nearly unimaginable to people in crowded Eastern cities or small farms. Like Ansel Adams’ work in the early decades of the National Park System, Swan’s images conveyed an inherent, if dimly understood, value in wild places. If the Forest Service was ever going to achieve any level of brand awareness, it had to have iconic imagery. Even his candid and informal pictures such as the ones of his family camping delivered a strong message: these places we call National Forests are special. They are part of America’s character. They matter. By showing people actively enjoying the forests, he was tapping into the rising trend of outdoor recreation that would fully blossom in the decades after World War II.

“Swan had twin audiences: he had to get buy in from the agency to institutionalize photography as a management tool, but he also was cultivating the understanding and appreciation of the general public.”

Char Miller

At the same time, Swan showed the productive uses of forest land including vivid images of logging operations. Pinchot had laid the groundwork for the public’s early understanding of how forests could be both harvested and sustained—a seeming contradiction resolved only through the novel idea of “forest management.” Swan helped translate that idea to the public. His memoir notes that his colleague Theodore Shoemaker, who ran the Office of Public Relations for the Forest Service’s Northern Region, observed: “There are people living in eastern Montana who know little or nothing of the aims of our forest conservation policy….We need to reach these people and tell them in terms they can understand just what benefits they will gain from proper management of the forests—their forests.”

It was the powerful idea inside just those two words— “their forests”—that animated Swan’s craft and drove him to share the forests’ glories and potential for sustainable use. For example, in the fall of 1926, Swan launched what he called his “Showboat” campaign to carry these messages to remote parts of the agency’s Northern Region. His government issue Model T pickup truck was loaded with a screen, a DeVry motion picture projector, and a large device for showing still images known as a “Balopticon.” The Showboat made it to 28 small towns and was seen by more than 5,000 people in what was major grassroots outreach effort for its day.

Historian Miller has noted that “Swan had twin audiences: he had to get buy in from the agency to institutionalize photography as a management tool, but he also was cultivating the understanding and appreciation of the general public.” And he reached both audiences successfully. His images became staples in Forest Service publications (many of which he also authored), and he began to achieve broader recognition through such publications as National Geographic, The New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor.

From Glass Plates to Satellites: Imaging Proliferates

The still photos by Pinchot, Swan, and many others told the Forest Service’s early stories. In subsequent decades, the scientific application of photography took off quickly. As the National Forest System grew, so did the need for data to inform decisions about increasingly complex challenges.

Photography became “imaging,” growing and evolving at the Forest Service as a tool for everything from evaluating tree cover to assessing fire risk to understanding wildlife behavior and habitat. Aerial photography, first used in forestry in 1919, offered a powerful new tool for forest managers. An unexpected but profound boost to imaging technology came from the military’s development of extensive satellite capabilities during the Cold War. At the same time, NASA accelerated development of remote sensing approaches that revolutionized how the Forest Service could gather critical information about forest conditions. By the 1980s, the availability of computing power ushered in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that remain the foundation of how we understand and manage complex public lands.

Yakima woman on Columbia National Forest (now Gifford Pinchot National Forest), 1933

Veteran Forest Service employee and National Remote Sensing Manager Everett Hinkley sums up the challenge: “For any land management agency, everything happens on the ground.” And the Forest Service has to know what those things are. For example, satellite imagery can reveal key forest health indicators about pests and disease. Because fire has always been a major threat to National Forests and today takes up nearly half the agency’s annual budget, achieving superior mapping of fire location, behavior, and intensity is critical.

Despite its power and widespread availability, satellite imaging has not fully replaced aerial reconnaissance. Today, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) provides exceptionally accurate contour mapping by scanning the ground below and creating a “point cloud.” These scans can reveal the amount of timber in a stand, can generate a bare earth elevation map, or can indicate areas of blight. Hinkley explains that today nearly 100 Forest Service professionals are dedicated specifically to developing imagery for use by thousands agency employees as well as the public, scientific organizations, and other government agencies.

Land-based photography still remains a key tool, and its importance has even been enhanced in recent decades with motion-activated camera traps which are especially useful in wildlife research, and smaller, lighter, ever more capable cameras in general. The awkward 40-pound packs that Pinchot and Swan hauled to get their shots (which they wouldn’t see for days or weeks) are a far cry from today’s extremely versatile and sophisticated devices.

Storytellers All

The story of photography for National Forests is one of gathering useful information in ways that reveal truths and trends, and it has evolved inexorably with technology and increasingly scientific approaches to forest management. Interestingly, it is the complexity of the Forest Service’s mission that demands thorough documentation and interpretation of these places. In the earliest days, it was the need to engender familiarity for lands that were remote and seen by many as mere troves of valuable resources for exploitation. As America pushed steadily westward, it was also urbanizing and industrializing; setting aside lands for all time under exotic notions of “conservation” required intentional messaging that drew its power from iconic imagery.

It worked. As Char Miller notes: “we are still indebted to and part of the legacy of K.D. Swan and Gifford Pinchot.” And, the way we tell today’s forest stories continues to evolve. Our modern day analogue to Swan’s “Showboat” is social media where we share engaging images and key facts about the promise and perils of a challenged National Forest System. It’s why the National Forest Foundation and the Forest Service have recently teamed up to create dozens of new Facebook pages, to tweet timely information, and continually to enhance our web presence.

The stories that flow from an awe inspiring landscape photograph or the challenges revealed by a technical map of a forest fire’s likely spread each point to the same need: the American public must understand the many roles their National Forests play and how forest health affects our country.

The lives of countless Americans and their communities are indeed touched by these special places. We are indebted to those who have brought “the People’s Lands” to life through the hundred-plus years of the Forest Service’s history, whether by satellite data, Balopticon devices from the back of a Model T, or the mobile device in our pocket.


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