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Cross-Time Photos From Northwest Fire Lookouts Reveal Big Changes

John Marshall / U.S. Forest Service
Northwest of Bald Mountain in Kittitas County, Washington.

The old saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words." That was the reaction of a U.S. Forest Service researcher when he rediscovered a trove of landscape panoramas called the Osborne Panoramas.

The photos were taken during the Great Depression at hundreds of fire lookouts in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Forest Service research ecologist Paul Hessburg heard about them as he was rooting about in the National Archives while hunting for visual evidence of how Northwest forests looked historically.

"We can tell an amazing story with these pictures,” Hessburg said. “We can go back, find those photo points, take new pictures of them and compare the old '30s view with the current view, and tell in pictures about the tremendous change in the forests and why they are burning and functioning the way they are today."

During the 1930s, Forest Service crews visited more than 800 lookout stations to capture the original sweeping black-and-white panoramics. For the repeat photography about eighty years later, Hessburg hired professional photographer John Marshall.

Credit Tom Banse
John Marshall photographs the Cascade Creek burn on the slopes of Mount Adams.

It has become a years-long project for the team. Marshall said the fact that most of the original lookout towers no longer exist is only one of many challenges.

"One week I couldn't get to a site because there was too much snow to drive in on the road,” he said. “A week later, a forest fire had started somewhere else and was blowing smoke over it. We had nothing but smoke for two months."

So far, Marshall has rephotographed 92 Osborne panoramas. He said different places tell different stories.

He described changes in the view of low to middle elevation forests in north-central Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

"They've definitely gotten a lot denser,” Marshall said. “You see the meadows shrinking up, the spaces between groves of trees filling in. It's more trees, less open area."

Credit John Marshall / U.S. Forest Service
Mission Peak in north-central Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

In historic times, these woods would experience regular low-intensity burns. As the ironic result of effective firefighting, the dry-side forests are now primed for severe wildfires.

That's already evident in the then-and-now view from some higher alpine lookouts.

“In the high country Pasayten Wilderness, what you see in the 1930s photos is a lot of small areas that were burned,” Marshall pointed out. “What you see now is enormous areas that were burned."

Credit John Marshall / U.S. Forest Service
Windy Peak, 17 miles northwest of Loomis, Washington.

The pictures tell yet another story when Marshall journeyed to the Blue Mountains in the Umatilla National Forest.

"There are actually some spots barren now that were forested in 1934,” he said. “I think that may reflect climate change. It's gotten drier. There have been insect attacks. There's been fire. On the harsher sites — the south aspects in places — the trees aren't coming back."

Credit John Marshall / U.S. Forest Service
Diamond Peak SE.

It turns out, Marshall and Hessburg are not the first to mine the trove of Osborne panoramas. In the last decade, the National Park Service commissioned retakes from lookouts in Glacier and Yellowstone parks. Commercial photographers have taken a stab at it here and there. Several amateur photographers have also undertaken their own time-series projects. In one case, the repeat photography aims to document the recovery of a forest after a wildfire.


Photographer John Marshall will present a slide lecture called "Fire and Forests, East of the Cascades" in Colville on Oct. 22, in Republic on Oct. 23, and in Tonasket on Oct. 24. You can find more details on the calendar page of Humanities Washington.

Related Stories: 

Cross-Time Photos Show Snapshots Of Seattle's Past And Present, Side By Side

Photographer On Summer-Long Mission To Capture Wash. State's Fire Lookouts

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.