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A Century of History in the Nation's Second Experimental Forest

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This circa 1911 photo of a group of people hacking their way through the woods to establish the Experimental Forest in 1911 is said to picture Louie White (?), Douglas MacDonald, Howard Simson, Raphael Zon, W.W. Morris, Ed Brown (?), Donald Brewster, John This circa 1911 photo of a group of people hacking their way through the woods to establish the Experimental Forest in 1911 is said to picture Louie White (?), Douglas MacDonald, Howard Simson, Raphael Zon, W.W. Morris, Ed Brown (?), Donald Brewster, John

Priest River Experimental Forest celebrates 100 years

Later this year a monumental milestone will be celebrated in the Priest River area when the Priest River Experimental Forest, 13 miles northeast of the city of Priest River, celebrates its 100th anniversary. In the century from 1911 to 2011, the Forest has provided invaluable scientific research that has benefited, and continues to benefit, forests throughout America and even some foreign countries.

Generally, the Priest River Experiment Station, as it was originally called, maintains a low-key profile as far as the general public is concerned. People know it’s there, but not too many, even the locals, really understand the significance of the scientific studies that have gone on there over the course of the past 100 years. The nation’s forests, especially those of the Northern Rockies—Region One of the U.S. Forest Service—have benefited immeasurably.

“Our mission is research,” says current Forest superintendent, Bob Denner, in describing the work of the approximately 6,400-acre forest. The station was established in September 1911, largely as the result of the disastrous 1910 forest fires, which brought home to the struggling infant Forest Service how little anyone really knew about forests and how they grew, and the importance of rectifying that ignorance. A single forestry school (Yale) existed in the whole United States, and Germany and Scandinavian countries provided the foundations for professional forestry education in this country.

According to Denner, the station was the second Experiment Station to be established in the entire country, and the Forest was the second Experimental Forest. One might find some disagreement in various publications that have cited different statistics over the years, but Denner stands by the facts as he’s come to know them. Currently, there are not two entities involved. The Priest River Experimental Forest is now the proper name for both the forest and the headquarters center and its buildings.

Forest research conducted at Priest River has ranged from studies on timber management, cutting and regeneration, to experiments having to do with genetics, insects and diseases, slash disposal, soil productivity, and much more. Its fire research was so effective the Forest Service over-concentrated on wildfire control to the point that fire is now coming back as a valued management tool. Fire research done at Priest River led to the creation of the smoke jumpers, the fire research laboratory in Missoula, Montana, and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, all geared to winning the fight against wildfire.

The long struggle to breed blister rust resistant white pine has been another of the Priest River facility’s most important contributions to the health of forests. In 1911 western white pine was the dominant and most commercially important tree in the woods of northern Idaho. White pine forests would be decimated in a few years, almost totally wiped out by a canker disease of five-needle pines called blister rust, which sneaked in from France via Canada. The Forest Service spent years vainly trying to control the blister rust fungus by eliminating its alternate host, ribes plants (currants and gooseberries), but was finally forced to concede defeat and turn to breeding blister rust resistant trees from naturally occurring resistant trees found in small numbers throughout the region. Now, white pine is being reintroduced into the wilds as a result of the breeding program.

Current research centers on the continuation of white pine genetics advances and studies of insects and diseases, and research having to do with understanding climate change and its impacts on forests. Water quality studies are ongoing. Thinning to reduce wildfire danger where forests and rural population distributions meet (the so-called wildland-urban interface) is also an ongoing practice, as is the development of computer models to aid in research. Anything touching on silviculture is grist for the mill at the Priest River Experimental Forest.

The Forest has its own weather station that has been recording temperature and precipitation daily since 1911, and maintains those records in an unbroken line since their beginning. It also boasts a 1,000-acre natural area of virgin stands of trees as old as 400 years in the Canyon Creek watershed, and a waterfall. Looking Glass Lookout was built on a mountain top in the Forest in 1917, and was renamed Gisborne Lookout in 1951 in honor of Harry Gisborne, who made his reputation as the nation’s foremost fire researcher during his long tenure at Priest River. A plaque honoring Gisborne is mounted on a rock slightly east of the lookout tower.

Gisborne spent 28 years studying fire, and died of a heart attack on November 9, 1949, while walking the Mann Creek Fire near Helena, Montana, trying to determine what the conditions were that coalesced to take the lives of 13 firefighters. He has been described as “egotistical, arrogant, and eccentric, making work and relationships difficult for his co-workers,” but he was totally dedicated to his science and no other man who served at Priest River did more important work.

In a career that spanned 22 years, he produced 111 publications. His work influenced fire fighting techniques, the understanding of conditions that promoted fires, and the study and use of climatology throughout the United States. He was instrumental in the creation of the Fire Laboratory in Missoula and lobbied long and hard for the inclusion of a wind tunnel there. His work with brothers Robert and Dick Johnson, owners of Johnson Flying Service, paved the way for the use of airplanes in fighting forest fire and led to the creation of the Smokejumpers and HotShot crews. The tools he created or perfected to study weather continue to be used and became the standard across the nation.

He was nothing if not creative when it came to improvising in the interests of economy. Lacking funding to purchase the anemometer he needed to measure wind speed, Gisborne devised a makeshift affair out of a couple of hunks of tin, then directed a plumber to make 160 of the devices for him to calibrate. He did it by mounting each of the gauges on the front of his car, then he lay on the fender counting the revolutions as his wife drove the vehicle at 5 to 15 miles per hour down the road.

The Burning Index Meter, used throughout North America, resulted from his experimentation that came from learning how many minutes it would take for a Bull Durham cigarette to burn up 100 acres if tossed into a bed of duff on the forest floor.

His fire danger meter, developed at Priest River in 1931-32, was eventually adopted throughout the U.S. and Canada, then the world. The fire danger meter rates the effect of six factors in fire danger: season, activity of lightning and people, visibility, wind velocity, relative humidity, and fuel moisture and inflammability. The integration of those factors makes it possible to rate fire danger in terms of rate of spread.

The 150-foot-tall steel tower Gisborne climbed each day in order to access the tree canopy for his weather studies still stands on the Forest. It was constructed after a near accident in the daily routine of climbing the tallest trees convinced a supervisor of Gisborne’s need for a safer way to conduct the research.

While Gisborne produced far more significant scientific research, Priest River’s most famous alumnus is considered to be Bob Marshall—he who became a nationally known conservationist and had a popular wilderness area named after him in western Montana. Marshall came to the station in 1925 as a junior forester working on silvicultural investigation, primarily having to do with western white pine. Marshall counted seedlings, collected data on sunlight and soil composition, slope, logging debris, ground cover and other variables, and wrote reports about them. He appears, however, to have been far more interested in writing about the life he observed going on around him.

One of his more memorable articles, published in a Forest Service Northern District newsletter, described the eating habits of loggers, their table manners and profanity. “The average woodchopper,” he wrote, “spends just 35 minutes a day in food assimilation… and 33 percent of the diners commonly depended upon their forks to harpoon the staff of life… and it is the virility of his adjectives and interjections which differentiates his oral activities from those of ordinary mortals… it transpired that an average of 136 words, unmentionable at church sociables, were enunciated every hour by the hardy hews of work.”

Marshall’s two separate stints on the Forest ended in 1928 when he left to obtain his doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins, thereafter spending the remainder of his career in various Forest Service administrative roles. By the 1930s he joined with others in calling for the Forest Service to become more of a conservation model than a use-oriented model. Backed by the Wilderness Society, Marshall managed to add nearly five-and-a-half million acres to federal wilderness, before dying in 1939 at age 38.

The question might be asked: why was the Priest River valley, largely a wilderness in 1911, chosen as the site for important forest and weather research? The deciding factors were several.

There were no roads at the time in the Forest, which is part of the old Priest River Reserve of the Kaniksu National Forest. A primitive road ran close by, however, connecting the town of Priest River with Coolin on Priest Lake. The road and the mail, passenger and freight stage that traveled between the two villages were among the plusses, although the route was a goat trail of deep dust in the dry season and a mud bog in the wet.

A railroad nearby was also a consideration. The Great Northern Railroad had built its main line east and west through the town of Priest River in 1892, making the fledgling city the center of rail-laying because of the abundance and suitability of timber for ties. The railroad advertised for laborers in Europe, and a sizable number from Italy swarmed in to answer the call. Countrymen already in the U.S. also responded. According to an old Priest River Times newspaper, it was common knowledge that “Italians make the best gandy dancers in the world.” When the rail laying moved on, the Italians stayed and imported their families and friends, leading to Priest River’s long-time nickname of “Little Italy.”

Another plus for locating the station on what was then a meadow on the old Benton Ranger District was that, while few people lived in the area at the time, ranches nearby could supply fresh provisions to the staff, along with additional labor when it was needed.

The main attraction, however, was the site itself. Denner finds it “kind of unusual that the Forest was established on the east side of the [Priest] river, because the east side is generally state-owned and the west side is the federal land, but they (the Forest Service personnel who chose the site) liked this location. It consists of all of the Benton Creek drainage, most of the Canyon Creek drainage, contains every commercially important tree species found in the Northern Rockies, and has a good diversity of classes,” he said. “Its 640 acres was land originally reserved by the federal government and given to the state, then Idaho returned it to the Feds for the station.”

Or, as statements attributed to F.J. Rockwell, Forest Assistant for Region One, in Kathleen L. Graham’s 2004 History of the Priest River Experiment Station, “... the area near the Benton Ranger Station was chosen because it best fulfilled the desired conditions including the ability to study climatology of the area and the impact of weather on the various species. All the important forest types (western white pine, western larch, Douglas fir, and western yellow pine) were found on the 720 acres set aside for the Station. There were also large flats that were covered with lodgepole pine, while a trail from the Station along a ridge top led up to the alpine-type species on the top of Bald Mountain.”

Graham’s publication goes on to state “Rockwell determined that the even-aged stands of white pine, larch, Douglas fir, and yellow pine of 40-50 years of age in Benton Creek Basin would provide excellent opportunities for experiments in thinning and for the creation of permanent sample plots for study of yield and growth.”

A further advantage that led to picking the Priest River site was that a telephone line already connected the ranger station to the towns of Priest River and Coolin.

Thus, August of 1911 found a party composed of Raphael Zon, head of the Forest Service’s Office of Silvics, Robert Y. Stuart and F.I. Rockwell from the District Office traveling to the Benton Ranger Station with the basic supplies needed to establish the Priest River Experiment Station. The preliminary work on the physical facilities began on September 1 under the supervision of Zon, William W. Morris, on temporary assignment from the Coeur d’ Alene Forest, and Donald H. Brewster from the St. Joe, who became the station’s first director. The preliminary work was completed by October, with the remainder left to Brewster and Douglass MacDonald, the cook. A twelve-inch snowfall on November 9 made it necessary to set the first nursery beds by shoveling away two feet of snow.

The work of the Forest has been ongoing ever since, in spite of often very limited funding for many years, especially during times of war. One year there was no funding at all. The Civilian Conservation Corps replaced nearly all of the station’s original buildings in the 1930s. The only new building since then is the conference center, in 1998. It was constructed to match the appearance of the older buildings, which, with the Gisborne Lookout tower, have been placed in recent years on the National Register of Historic Sites.

The Forest not only hosted two CCC camps during the Depression, it has also hosted Youth Conservation Corps camps in the past and innumerable seminars, workshops and conferences for visiting professional foresters. Those go on today. Throughout most of its history, the superintendent and his family lived in one of the buildings at headquarters, but that is no longer true. Denner and his wife now reside in Genessee, Idaho, near Moscow, where he is a Forester at the Forestry Science Laboratory at the University of Idaho and is in charge of four experimental forests, not just the one at Priest River.

A building on the Priest River Forest also housed the West Bonner County Alternative High School, now called PREP, for almost a year during the school’s search for a permanent home, and served as the site of its first commencement exercises.

Today, the Forest hosts an all-day Forest Expo, co-sponsored by the Priest Community Forest Connection, in May that brings all West Bonner County’s sixth-grade students and adult volunteers from the community together for activities revolving around forestry and conservation education. In 2010, an added benefit was a new interpretive trail, constructed for the children’s use by the two sponsoring groups, that leads from the headquarters buildings down to Benton Creek.

An indication of the sheer enjoyment Expo provides the children can be found in the comment of one young man several years ago who objected vociferously to being forced by his parents to attend, on the grounds it would be “boring.” At the end of the day, when it was time to go home, looking utterly exhausted, the reluctant participant approached one of the volunteer helpers and confided with a satisfied sigh, “This was a good day!”

The Priest River Experimental Forest will be celebrating its 100 years of existence with a birthday bash this fall, September 8-10 Now moved to October 6, 7 & 8. “I’m putting together a mailing list right now,” Denner said earlier this year, “and will be sending out cards with the dates and a website for specific information (www.fs.fed.us/rmrs/pref-anniversary). Liz Johnson Gebhardt (executive director of the PCFC), is my local contact for making things happen for this birthday party.”

The celebration will coincide with the International Year of the Forest, as proclaimed by the United Nations, that will see a variety of commemorative events scheduled around the world. So far, the Priest River birthday is the only one listed that’s scheduled in Idaho. For those interested, that website is www.celebrateforests.com.


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Marylyn Cork

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Homepage, Headlines, Priest River, Priest River Experimental Forest, Priest River Experiment Station, Bob Denner, forest fires, timber management

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