Sunday, January 11, 2015

The State of American Forests in 1884

Slate blogger Rebecca Onion recently offered a post on the digitization of maps originally produced to display data collected by Charles Sprague Sargent, a botanist and first director of the Arnold Arboretum. The maps were published in 1884 as part of the 580-page Report on Forest Trees of North America (Exclusive of Mexico) for the Census Office of the Department of the Interior.

This report forms an invaluable snapshot for anyone trying to understand changes in the North American forest over the last 130 years. For instance, the last map in the report shows the distribution of redwood along the California coast. It displays both those areas where all merchantable (i.e., commercially viable) quantities of the species had been removed and those areas that still had in excess of 200,000 bd. ft. per acre.

Sargent, who was from the generation that preceded Gifford Pinchot, was not trained as a forester. His influence on the profession, however, has been significant. His comprehensive, two-volume Manual of the Trees of North America first published in 1905 is still a go-to reference on my bookshelf. Taxonomists may change the names and groupings of trees, but the basic characteristics of individual species remain constant over many generations.

The other part of the story is the David Rumsey Map Collection. The collection contains 150,000 maps, 30,000 of which are available online. Publication dates span from 1492 to 2007. There are 16 Sargent maps in the collection.

Rumsey, the president of Cartography Associates, started building the collection after working for 20 years in real estate and finance. In addition to digitizing and making the maps available as images, Rumsey is working on mapping and visualization software.

His Georeferencer allows the production of locationally accurate overlays in 2 or 3-D. I tried this with one of the Sargent maps of North America. Due to large extent of the map and the difference in the projections used, my test was less than successful. This does not diminish the potential of Georeferencer to be a powerful tool for looking at change over time and bringing history to life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Restored Forests Breathe Life Into Efforts Against Climate Change

It was a nice headline to read two days before Christmas. This New York Times article gave me a little extra holiday cheer. The comments on the article tempered my mood somewhat by, among other things, questioning the author's accounting claiming only that only minimal reductions in global CO2 will be achievable through REDD-type programs. Still, the article was well written and the discussion is important.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ten land buys that changed Florida history

Leading up to the vote on Florida's Water and Land Conservation Amendment on the November 2014 ballot, Kevin Spear of the Orlando Sentinel compiled a list of great public land purchases over the last 30 years. The areas highlighted in this video were all in my top 10. The entire list can be found in the Orlando Sentinel story.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gifford Pinchot, 150 minus 1

Today marks the 149th anniversary of Gifford Pinchot's birth. He was the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and founder of the Society of American Foresters. His impact on natural resource management can hardly be overstated. Here are a few webpages to browse in preparation of his 150th birthday next year:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A year in the life of That Tree, a photo a day by Mark Hirsch

I hope that most of you have seen A year in the life of That Tree, a photo a day by Mark Hirsch. Although this article is over a year old, I was unaware of this collection of photos until it was mentioned by some friends this week.

Who wouldn't love 365 photos of a bur oak? Many might think the project a little obsessive and the subject matter a little dull. But while I personally love the subject matter, the strength of the collection springs from Mr. Hirsch's creativity and artistic vision. He has a great eye. He puts the primary subject in context and gets us thinking about the tree's relationship to the landscape and all the species in it.

The subject came up during a discussion of whether an iPhone is a "real" camera. Ultimately, that's not the issue. I'm sure there were those who sniped at Picasso and Braque when they started gluing pieces of newspaper on the canvas. It may not have been "real" painting, but it's certainly real art. So are Mr. Hirsch's photos.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Adding the Treaty Oak to my life list

Over the course of my career, I've seen many large trees, some of them champions. Finding the giants of a particular species was never really a specific quest or hobby, but I feel myself be drawn in that direction by the iconic tree of the deep south, the live oak (Quercus virginiana).

Visiting the Angel Oak last fall may have set me on this course. My wife and I enjoyed hunting down the little park where it stands and then strolling beneath its massive crown. We stopped by Florida's champion Cellon Oak, on the same trip, and I took it as a personal triumph when my wife took our grandkids to visit the tree after an outing to pick strawberries at a farm nearby.

So as we drove from Fernandina Beach to St. Augustine on a pleasant Saturday morning, I suggested that we make a slight detour to visit the Treaty Oak in Jacksonville. I knew this tree was easy pickings. It sits in a 2.5 acre park near the St. Johns River, south of downtown in the San Marco area. Our iPhone GPS had the location and took us straight there. Being the weekend, we were able to park near the entrance to the park and have the tree all to ourselves.

With a score of 462 points, the Florida Forest Service considers the Treaty Oak a "Challenger" to the Cellon Oak's 517. It's most impressive feature is the crown spread, just six feet less than the Cellon Oak and with massive branches that dip to the ground in all directions. Walking into the gap in the canopy on the park's boardwalk feels like entering a leafy cathedral.

According to the Wikipedia article, there is no actual treaty associated with the tree. As part of the effort to save the tree in the 1930's, journalist Pat Moran is said to have created the story of native Floridians and settlers signing an accord there. Fortunately, the land was purchased by the Alfred I. duPont Testamentary Trust and finally donated to the City of Jacksonville by Jessie Ball duPont in 1964.

Having visited and photographed three of the six largest (recorded) live oaks in Florida, I feel drawn to find the others. Located in Lake, Madison, and Marion counties, all are within a two hour drive. I've got plenty else to do, but every visit to those grand old trees has seemed like time well spent.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Building clocks and growing oaks

Most weekday mornings I have just enough time to hear one segment of NPR's Morning Edition on my way to the carpool lot. Yesterday, it was Steve Inskeep's interview with Danny Hillis, a scientist and computer engineer who is building a 10,000 year clock. This multi-million dollar monument, funded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, is designed to build a link with our descendants, hundreds of generations into the future.

During the interview, Hillis recounted a story that he says inspired the project. As a forester, I was surprised that I had never heard about the forest managers who had foreseen and prepared over the span of 400 years for the eventual replacement the oak beams at New College, Oxford. Presumably, Mr. Hillis heard the story from Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and co-chair with Hillis of the LongNow Foundation, who had included it in his 1994 book and 1997 BBC series, How Buildings Learn.

The story can be further traced to anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904 - 1980). It has been repeated by many sources including British Prime Minister David Cameron in an address last October. Yet apparently, the story is a fabrication. New College archivist Jennifer Thorp wrote a 2008 paper debunking the story and was quoted in the Guardian refuting the Prime Minister's remarks.

The story's pertinence to forestry is not that particular trees had been planted and set aside for a particular use. Rather, it is that trees of sufficient size and grade were made available to fulfill a need that could not have been accurately forecast. Beyond that, trees should continue to be available through the maintenance of a diverse and healthy forest resource.

Those who planted the oaks hundreds of years ago did not know exactly when or how they might be used. Neither did the foresters who planted their replacements. They just had a sense of duty toward future generations and were willing to take actions from which they would not personally benefit. It shows a faith in the future and an ability to plan for the unknown; sort of like building a 10,000 year clock.