Then and now 

Seeing the forest for the trees with George Gruell

George Gruell’s new book is not for everyone. It is, however, for the activist, environmentalist, ecologist, photographer, outdoorsman, or anyone who might be even a bit curious about the transformation of forestland over time.

Fire in the Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849 is a book to linger over, a book to ponder. Through repeat photography—a sort of then-and-now study—Gruell examines the woodlands of the Sierra Nevada Forests, re-photographing sites depicted in historical photographs to compare past vegetation to present. “My greatest wish is that people unaware of forest trends, or even those who are aware but are stymied by concerns about being ‘politically correct’ will find information and motivation in this book to promote decisions based on a sound knowledge of ecology,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Though this book could be considered quite scientific, even esoteric, there is something peaceful and poetic about it. Looking at the sets of photographs side by side—one, for example, taken of Bear Valley, Calif. in 1860 next to virtually the same shot taken 133 years later—you can’t help but find yourself squinting at the two images as if looking at a baby picture of some beloved grandparent, studying both for signs of the same person.

“As a wildlife biologist who has studied fuels management and fire ecology, it is inherent in me to want to understand what is going on out there. Studying these old photographs is a fascinating way to learn what has been in relation to what is now and what may be in the future,” explains Gruell, who says he felt like an archeologist digging up history while amassing the old photographs for the book.

According to Gruell, the historic photographs included in the book were not easy to come by, but they offered a clarity that new photography often does not. “I think because the photographs were taken by old, larger format cameras and only one print was presumably made with no altering or enlarging, the images have a purer clarity,” he says. “There is something really beautiful about them, romantic almost.”

Another challenge while creating the Rorschach-like then-and-now photograph pairs was relocating the historical camera points.

“Sometimes, I couldn’t get within 100 to 200 feet of the original camera point because the newer, denser vegetation totally obscured the way,” he says. A clearing in the mid 1800s made it easy to snap a certain view, while some taken 150 years later, when a blanket of conifers may have grown thick and dense like fur, are inaccessible to a photographer.

The book poses three major questions: How did the forest of the Sierra Nevada look during early EuroAmerican settlement? How has the vegetation changed since then? And which human activities and natural events contributed to the startlingly changed landscape of our national forests? Five main agents—fire, logging, climate, grazing of livestock, and mining—have all played integral roles in transforming these forests in the last two centuries, fire being the most influential.

“I’ve often thought what the land would be like if it had been totally undisturbed by man,” Gruell says. “There would be lightning and natural fires to keep the landscape more varied, more open, and well, more scenic, too.” Because, in theory, natural forest fires would be smaller and less intense, occurring at more frequent intervals so the natural litter and forest fuels would keep itself cleaned out. This would result in forestland that had more clearings, more stands or clusters of trees and shrubs, and less overall density of vegetation.

At first glance, the land in the photographs seems to be thriving. There are more trees, more vegetation, more cover. Looking closer and learning about the needs and cycles of the land itself, we learn that denser is definitely not better. The threat of raging, unstoppable wildfires is not the only problem related to this increased density. Along with it come problems for certain populations of flora and fauna. “Wildlife simply can’t get through to graze and wander if vegetation is too dense. That can change feeding and mating patterns, and also certain plants can no longer grow at all if there is no light or open ground.” Gruell says. “Plants and animals adapt to changes in their environment. Just recently, I have noticed that there are no deer up high near the woods where I live in Carson City, Nevada. They are coming lower and lower because there is more food and they have easier access to it.”

In some ways, says Gruell, the politics of fire suppression and intentional fire building have ballooned to such an extent that the original goal of maintaining the natural integrity of the forestland has fallen from sight. “Professionals at higher levels know what we should be doing, but politics won’t allow them to do what’s necessary,” he says. “The Forest Service puts most of its effort into fire suppression because that is was the public wants. People don’t want raging fires near the towns in which they live. They don’t want to feel unsafe. What the public wants is paramount in their thinking.”

The irony remains that like a vaccine, small, regular fires would diminish the effect of the more devastating wildfires. “It all boils down to common sense. I’ll use the analogy of someone with a yard. If he doesn’t tend it, it will become overgrown, out of control,” he says.

When asked if looking at the images of the Sierra Nevada forestland now in comparison to the 1800s saddens him, Gruell replies: “No, I think more it inspires me to continue to get the message out that the landscape has declined and we need to make different choices. The transformation of the land has just happened as a result of social change and attitudes, but there is always room for new understanding, and new choices.”

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