John Leiburg’s Forest Condition Reports 1900-ish

From Leiburgs report on the Little Belts, p. 19. 1904.

Our discussion of past landscapes reminds me of a very neat thing to do which would have been impossible before digitized manuscripts. In the early part of the 20th century, a fellow named John Leiburg surveyed many of our western forests (as did others in the East) and gave detailed descriptions of what the forests of the time were like. Because it was 1897-1905 or so (publication dates), Leiburg could see the contrast between what he called “Indian” and “white man” occupancy.

You can go to this very cool site, find the area you are currently living (if it’s one he covered) and look through the document. You can also make it word searchable and search on what you are interested and download the reports. Here is one of the hits I got for the Little Belt Mountains in Montana when I searched on “fire.”

The areas burned over since the advent of the white man comprise in the aggregate 111,600 acres. The devastation has been wrought during the last thirty-five or forty years, chiefly since the location of Neihart and Barker mining camps. However, during the Indian occupancy there were many fires, as shown by the age of the forest and the composition of the stands.
No large area of the reserve has remained untouched by fire during the last one hundred and fifty years. The most extensive unburned tracts are at the head of Middle Fork of Judith River and contain 3,000 or 4,000 acres. They have not been touched by fires during the last three hundred and fifty years. Since the advent of white men fires have been most severe and widespread in the two northern tiers and the most southern tier of townships, and during the last century and a half of Indian occupancy the most extensive burns were at the head of South Fork of Judith River, extending across the main divide of the Little Belt Mountains and including most of the lower slopes of the Musselshell drainage. The age and composition of the forest show that relatively more ground has been burned over during the occupancy of the region by the white man than during the last three generations of Indians, as during the forty years of the white man’s occupancy 22 per cent of the reserve was laid waste, and during the preceding one hundred and ten years 58 per cent was burned over.

IMHO there are also really good descriptions of how trees grew back then.. here’s one from the Absarokas..

When a tract of forest situated below the upper subalpine areas between the 8,000 and 6,500 foot levels is destroyed by fire lodgepole pine almost always follows as the primary restockage in at least 98 per cent of the cases. It is always set exceedingly close, having 10 to 20 seedlings to a square foot of ground in favorable situations. The close-set trees develop long, slender shafts, and as the stand becomes older the natural process of thinning begins. The final result is that when the stand reaches 80 to 100 years in age it is filled with long, slender dead trees, and is a veritable tinder box. Most of the stands of the ages mentioned are choked with such accumulations of dead and fallen timber. Further additions to the inflammable material are furnished by the wreckage of the former forest, as often in a forest through which fire has run there is left standing a mass of seasoning timber, although every tree may be killed. Gradually the fire-killed trees are thrown down by the wind, forming great tangled masses of kindling wood for future fires to feed on. All of the destructive fires of recent years appear to have originated, or at least to have gained headway, in the debris that litters the close-set lodgepole-pine stands, and as these constitute the great mass and hence the most valuable portions of the forest, they need to be particularly guarded.

I encourage you to check out your local Forest Conditions report and share any interesting insights here.

3 thoughts on “John Leiburg’s Forest Condition Reports 1900-ish”

  1. I found a document from Leiburg about the forests in the northern Sierra Nevada. I zoomed in on the Truckee area and was disappointed that he arrived after the logging for the Comstock Lode had run its course. I really wanted to find out what was there before the loggers came. I decided to read the rest of the way through it and see that the Tahoe Basin surely isn’t ‘natural’, and not anywhere near “pristine”, as it is often described. He describes a near-extermination of sugar pines from the harvested areas. Most of the ‘yellow’ pines were taken, other than the isolated patches they often occupy. The true firs were less-preferred, initially. Leiburg did describe majestic old growth outside the fringes of the logged areas.

  2. Did you check on pre-EuroAmerican fire frequency compared to post EuroAmerican? It was interesting to me that there were more fires in the Little Belts after the EA’s showed up. Of course, if they got started, they didn’t have the technology to stop them. But then, neither did the Native Americans. So did the EA’s do things that led to more ignitions?

  3. The description of the Absarokas sounds a lot like what a lot of lodgepole country looks like today, so such “doghair” and “jackstraw” forests would not be outside their natural range of variation (they might be the “desired condition”), and there is no need for their “restoration.” I assume that forest planners are aware of this information and have used it in determining the NRV for forest planning.


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