FIA: The Gold Standard

FIA: The Gold Standard

This is the first in a series of in-depth reports exploring the history, contributions and future of FIA – the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program – easily the least known national program housed within the United States Forest Service. Yet I know of no other division within the 113-year-old forest management icon that has done more than FIA to advance the cause of science-based forestry, or to keep perennially anxious publics abreast of constantly evolving and often worrisome environmental conditions present in our nation’s forests.

I have been a user of FIA’s well-documented data sets for more than 30 years and I consider it to be the gold standard among myriad sources of information concerning our nation’s forests. In fact, most sources with which I am familiar get their information from FIA. I prefer to get my data directly from FIA because it comes without a political spin and is free of the tortured interpretations of academics whose personal values and motives render their own work suspect.

The late Con Schallau, a well-regarded PhD forest economist, introduced me to FIA data in 1988, two years after we published our first edition of Evergreen. He was then stationed at the Pacific Northwest Research Station at Corvallis, Oregon.

“You need to learn how to use this information,” he said of FIA’s voluminous data bank, which then existed only in hard copy reports that mostly gathered dust on office shelves. The more I read, the more I realized that FIA was destined to become my most quoted and trusted source of information.

Con and I became good friends in the years following our chance Corvallis visit. He served for several years on our Evergreen Foundation Board of Directors, and for years following his retirement he graciously reviewed dozens of my manuscripts for accuracy and completeness. We last spoke by phone about a year before his July 2017 death. He was a gifted forest economist, and a big reason why I remain deeply committed to FIA and the Forest Service’s research stations and their staffs.

FIA is best known for its nearly 125,000 forest inventory plots located on private and publicly-owned forestlands scattered across our nation’s 3.53 million square mile landscape, some dating from the 1930s. More than 199 characteristics are measured at each plot and more than 1.5 million trees are measured to evaluate their volume, condition and vigor.

Less known are its 4.5 million remote sensing plots and its 9.43 million aerial photographic points. 3.1 million covering forestland and another 6.3 million covering non-forest. Collecting and analyzing data from these plots and points is consistent with FIA’s congressionally mandated mission which is to “make and keep current a comprehensive inventory and analysis of the present and prospective conditions of and requirements for the renewable resources of the forests and rangeland of the United States.”

The modern-era FIA Program has been with us since 1930, but its predecessor, the old Forest Survey, had its roots in the 1897 Sundry Civil Appropriation Act, more commonly known as the Organic Act. It laid the groundwork for the designation of national forests by stipulating that, “No national forest shall be established except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of the citizens of the United States.”

This verbiage clarified a flaw in the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, which had inadvertently created vast no-use areas on public domain lands in the western United States at a time when settlers were streaming west by the thousands. Congress corrected its oversight in the June 1897 Organic Act, reaffirming President Cleveland’s February 1897 decision to carve 13 forest reserves from the West’s federal forest estate. These reserves became national forests when the Forest Service was founded in 1905.

The Organic Act also authorized the U.S. Geological Survey to map the reserves. Among the USGS surveyors was a French-trained botanist named John Bernard Leiberg. His exquisite descriptions of what he observed in western Montana, northern, Idaho, western Oregon and Washington and northern California provided settlers with reassuring narratives and back-of-the-envelope estimates of the availability for logs for cabins and posts and poles for fencing and corrals.

Leiberg and his colleagues rode the High Lonesome – a term trappers gave to the vast Rocky Mountain West – on horseback, trailing equipment-laden pack mules behind them. Their cumbersome, box-shaped cameras sat on three-legged tripods and produced 8 by 10-inch images on glass plates that took hours to process. Most of the areas they surveyed had never been mapped, so theirs were - with apologies to Lewis and Clark and Canadian cartographer, David Thompson - the first detailed descriptions written by white men. Their surprisingly well-written descriptions reveal much about the natural forces that shaped and reshaped the West’s forests: hurricane-force winds, advancing and retreating glaciers, torrential rains, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, the largest floods in known geologic history and wildfires, most small but some so large and destructive that the soil’s organic layer was melted into a waxy paste-like substance that rainwater could not penetrate.

I stumbled across Leiberg’s survey and the surveys of his colleagues in the Department of Agriculture Library at Beltville, Maryland in 1996. For an information junkie like me, it was the discovery of a lifetime. Here was the entire 1899 USGS survey in one bound volume. A librarian whose manner reminded me of my school teacher mother graciously photocopied the report for me – all 500 pages. When I asked what I owed she replied, “Our records indicate you are the first person to ever request a copy.” Then she smiled sweetly and said, “It’s on us.” I still have my copy and reference it frequently.

Blessedly, the report is now available on the Internet, so if you want to know what the West’s forests looked like in 1899, you can download the survey and accompanying narrative as a PDF in a matter of seconds. [Leiberg would be speechless.] It makes for fascinating reading, especially when you remind yourself that this report is the beginning point for all of the survey work that now falls under FIA’s purview. It is also the launch pad for the entire body of research the Forest Service’s western research stations have produced over the last 80-some years, all of it designed to increase our understanding of forests, often by first addressing nagging worries about the sustainability of forest management systems we can trace to Case No. 1, the federal government’s first timber sale, sold to the Homestake Mining Company in South Dakota’s Black Hills Forest Reserve in 1899.    

Public worries about “robber barons” exploiting America’s forests have been with us for a long time. George Perkins Marsh, a former U.S. diplomat and Vermont congressman, first gave voice to them in Man and Nature, a book length essay                                                                                                                                                        he published in 1864 decrying the aggressive hand-clearing of forestland in the Northeast, much of it done by subsistence farmers trying to scratch out a living in soils better suited to growing timber than row crops.

A good case can be made for the fact that America’s conservation movement began on the pages of Marsh’s scholarly work, but it was Gifford Pinchot, the architect and first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who in 1907 coined the phrase “timber famine” to rivet public attention of the necessity of managing the newly-minted national forests for the timber they could provide our growing nation. Otherwise, he predicted, the nation would run out of timber by 1940.

Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt were good friends and occasional Marques of Queensberry sparring partners. Both used “the coming timber famine” to good political advantage during Roosevelt’s White House years. Pinchot relied on Roosevelt to set the stage for his carefully crafted forestry agenda, and the President always delivered, sometimes in phrasing that made listeners think it was Pinchot talking – and sometimes it was. Here Roosevelt explains his decision to ratify the aptly-named Transfer Act on February 1, 1905.

“Our country is only at the beginning of its growth,” he said. “Unless the forests of the United States can be ready to meet the vast demands which this growth will inevitably bring, commercial disaster, that means disaster to the whole country, is inevitable. The railroads must have ties, the miner must have timber, the farmer must have timber, the stockman must have fence posts. If the present rate of forest destruction is allowed to continue, with nothing to offset it, a timber famine in the future is inevitable.”

Thus, with a stroke of his pen, and to Pinchot’s everlasting delight, President Roosevelt transferred 63 million acres of forest reserves from the General Land Office and the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture and changed the name of its Pinchot-led Bureau of Forestry to the U.S. Forest Service.

The event was the crowning achievement in Pinchot’s dazzling life, and it marked the high point in his warm relationship with Roosevelt. Who but the irrepressible Pinchot could have convinced a President of the United States to come to his home on a chilly evening in March 1903 to speak with the founding members of the Society of American Foresters? And who but the fiery Roosevelt would have used the occasion to offer a concise and unambivalent explanation of what he expected SAF’s founding members to do in the name for forest conservation?

President Roosevelt’s expectations for the newly designated national forests were also clearly articulated in a letter hand delivered to Pinchot on the day the Forest Service was founded. Some historians suspect that the letter, which bore the signature of Agriculture Secretary James O. Wilson, was actually written by Pinchot. No one knows for sure, but the author did an artful job of capturing the spirit, intent and voice of the President. Could it be that Pinchot and Roosevelt wrote the letter together?  Consider the possibility as you read these passages.

“And now, first and foremost, you can never afford to forget for one moment what is the object of our forest policy,” Roosevelt began. “That object is not to preserve forests because they are beautiful, though that is good; nor because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness, though that, too, is good; but the primary object of our forest policy, as of the land policy of the United States, is the making of prosperous homes. It is part of the traditional policy of home making in our country. Every other consideration must come as secondary.

“The whole effort of the Government in dealing with the forests must be directed to this end, keeping in view the fact that it is not only necessary to start the homes as prosperous, but to keep them so,” he explained. “That is why the forests have got to be kept. You can start a prosperous home by destroying the forest, but you cannot keep it prosperous that way.

“You yourselves have got to keep this practical object before your minds; to remember that a forest which contributes nothing to the wealth, progress or safety of the country is of no interest to the Government and should be of little interest to the forester,” Roosevelt concluded. “Your attention must be directed to the preservation of forests, not as an end, but as a means of preserving and increasing the prosperity of the nation.”

“In the administration of the forest reserves,” Wilson wrote, “it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people and not the temporary benefit of individuals or companies. All the resources of the forest reserves are for use, and this use must be brought about in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner, under such restrictions only as will insure the permanence of these resources.

“The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advance in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore indispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of the Department for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value.

“You will see to it that the water, wood and forage of the reserves are conserved and wisely used for the benefit of the home-builder first of all; upon whom depends the best permanent use of the lands and the resources alike. The continued prosperity of the agricultural, lumbering, mining and livestock interests is directly dependent upon a permanent and accessible supply of water, wood, and forage, as well as upon the present and future use of these resources under businesslike regulations, enforced with promptness, effectiveness and common sense.

Wilson’s instruction was several pages long, but it concluded with this felt necessity no longer reflected in federal laws and regulations that strictly limit commercial access to natural resources held in National Forests:

“In the management of each reserve local questions will be decided upon local grounds; the dominant industry will be considered first, but with as little restriction to minor industries as may be possible; sudden changes in industrial conditions will be avoided by gradual adjustment after due notice; and where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”

Since our founding in 1986, we have been consistent and strong advocates for the kind of forest conservation Gifford Pinchot and President Roosevelt championed, so it should surprise no one that we are also consistent consumers of reports prepared by many different “ologists” who work for FIA and/or the five Forest Service Research Stations scattered across the nation. Their organizational structure and inter-relationships are a bit confusing, but the symbiotic relationships we have found – the frequent cross-pollenization of research - is impressive and quite valuable in our work.   

We begin at the FIA unit in Portland, Oregon where we began with Con Schallau more than three decades ago. Our journey will then take us to the Intermountain Station in Ogden, Utah, the Southern Station in Blacksburg, Virginia and the Northern Station at St. Paul, Minnesota. We will also interview scientists working at the research stations in Fort Collins, Colorado and Amherst, Massachusetts. At Fort Collins, we expect to learn what’s new in forest, woodland and aquatic ecosystem research, and at Amherst we will update our 10-year-old survey of forest management objectives most frequently cited by the nation’s industrial and non-industrial landowners.

Are America’s non-industrial landowners still focused on creating and conserving wildlife habitat, and are our industrial landowners still committed to growing as many trees as they possibly can for the nation’s burgeoning homebuilding industry? FIA’s websites could answer these questions for us today, but we still want to talk personally with the researchers who gather, analyze and disseminate this critically important information.

In recent years, our public outreach has drawn heavily on FIA survey plot reports that document growth, mortality and removals from the west’s national forests. As we have reported many times, the news is not good. Mortality exceeds growth by wide margins in most national forests in the Intermountain West. The reasons why are many and serious, but to FIA’s great credit, it has wisely steered clear of the political firestorm that now accompanies the real firestorms that are annually destroying from five to 10 million acres of U.S. forestland. I can’t imagine what Gifford Pinchot or President Roosevelt would say on hearing the news about this dreadful mess, but if history is prologue, their reactions would surely reverberate on Capitol Hill.

Following the Great 1910 Fire, which leveled three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana most of it in two terrifying days and nights, Pinchot took dead aim at Congress for its failure to adequately fund the Forest Service.  

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was cast, the rider thrown, the battle lost,” Pinchot told a reporter from Everybody’s Magazine. “For want of trails the finest white pine forests in the United States were laid waste and scores of lives lost. It is all loss, dead irretrievable loss, due to the pique, the bias, the bullheadedness of a knot of men who have sulked and planted their hulks in the way of appropriations for the protection and improvement of these national forests.”

Bear in mind that the outspoken Pinchot had been fired from his Chief’s post by President Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, eight months before the 1910 Fire for publicly lambasting his Interior Secretary, Richard Ballinger. Taft replaced Pinchot with the demure Henry Graves, but the formality of a presidential appointment hardly mattered to Pinchot or his legions of supporters, and it clearly did not matter to the assignment editor at Everybody’s Magazine. What mattered most was what the mercurial Pinchot thought about the largest forest fire in American history. His fiery response served notice that he had no plans for exiting the forestry stage he had erected with Roosevelt’s blessing.

Although we first reported on the declining health of the West’s national forests in 1989, I never expected to see growth, mortality and removal bar graphs like the ones you will find on our website now. Way back when, our primary use of FIA research was in our enormously popular “Truth About America’s Forests” series. We published seven updates over a 15-year period and gave away more than one million copies across these United States. We still get requests for copies.

We begin our report from the PNW-FIA unit in Portland in about two weeks. We are interviewing station scientists and staff, plus several FIA customers in Oregon, Washington and California. We also profile their latest research on three fronts:

  • Remote sensing using drones, satellites and high-altitude photography
  • The latest findings concerning carbon sequestration in forests, which should be of great interest to policymakers who are struggling to find and implement sustainable solutions to the West’s deadly wildfire/air quality crisis.
  • given growing concern for our wildfire crisis and
  • Forest inventory-based landscape scale growth simulation models that allow FIA customers – including federal forest policymakers – to measure and compare the environmental and economic impacts of various forest management techniques.

We hope you find this series as informative and useful as we expect it will be. Once all our investigative reports have been posted on our website we will summarize our findings in a print version. My personal goal is to get you connected to FIA and research station staff nearest you. I have been an FIA customer for 30 years, and a working journalist for 54. I can say from experience that the men and women who staff this remarkable program bring the same dedication, entrepreneurial drive and creativity to their work that I find in solution-driven family-owned businesses. These are first-rate professionals worthy of the highest level of public and congressional support.

Onward we go,

Jim Petersen

Founder and President

The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

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