Photos reveal forest changes in Sierras

By Bettina Boxall Los Angeles Times
Thursday December 27, 2001

CARSON CITY, Nev.— A drive into the Sierra Nevada can seem like a retreat from time, a return to landscapes unmolested by the 20th century. 

But the mountain range dividing Nevada and California, while largely undeveloped, is far from unaltered. George E. Gruell has the photographs to prove it. 

The 74-year-old retired federal wildlife biologist hiked and occasionally helicoptered his way to dozens of mountain spots recorded in photographs taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

He hunted for the same peaks and boulders, the same vantage points. And when he found them, he took another photo. 

In a just-published book, Gruell matches the new and old images, showing how much the landscapes have changed. In scene after scene, the contemporary photographs document dense forest and lush growth. Their historical twins show leaner country in which the trees were fewer, the ground more open, the meadows more abundant. 

The face of the Sierra has filled in — and Gruell says that’s not good for wildlife, the forest and the future of the range“s ecosystems. 

He says factors that caused the growth include heavy livestock grazing a century ago that bared soil for tree seedlings to take root; logging that cleared the way for new growth; and a wet climate cycle in the 1900s. 

Most of all, Gruell argues that decades of anti-fire policies reduced wildfires, and they need to be brought back to return the Sierra to what it was. 

Gruell’s work, partly reimbursed by logging interests, touches on an impassioned debate about the Sierra Nevada’s vast forest land. Logging levels, the role of fire and the decline in wildlife have been the subject of fierce political and environmental battles for years. 

Gruell advocates prescribed burns — controlled, deliberate fires that many environmentalists favor as a way of clearing dense undergrowth. 

But he also says logging limits imposed on federal land in the last decade are too restrictive and that in many places, stands need to be thinned before periodic prescribed burns can be started. 

Gruell is well aware that his work, “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849,” is more than just a picture book. 

“This publicly advocates forest management, which involves disturbing the landscape. And there are a great many people out there who don’t want any disturbance in the landscape,” he said. 

After retiring from the U.S. Forest Service in 1987, the Carson City, Nev., resident started lecturing and consulting on fire ecology and fire’s effect on wildlife habitat. 

In 1992, the California Forestry Association, a timber industry group, offered him a contract to conduct a repeat photographic study of the Sierra Nevada. He produced a brochure of about 20 photographs and wanted to do more. So he pursued the work on his own, poring over thousands of old photographs in historical libraries. 

Gruell said he had been rejected by several publishers and was waiting to hear from another when he showed his manuscript to the Forest Foundation, a nonprofit group affiliated with the California Forest Products Commission, funded by industry companies. 

The foundation was interested in his work and paid him a fee that covered his expenses in developing the book. Gruell said the foundation also arranged to get copies of his book at cost from Mountain Press Publishing Co. in Missoula, Mont., which issued it last month. 

Gruell said he that had no reservations about taking a fee from the foundation and that it exerted no influence on his work. “It’s an objective look at the landscape and what has happened,” Gruell said. 

He snapped his first repeat photographs with a 35-millimeter camera borrowed from his aunt in the 1950s. When he joined the Forest Service in 1962, he started using large-format cameras belonging to the service. 

Again and again, his photographs showed that the landscape had been more open a century ago. Along with others, Gruell began to question the forest service policy of fighting fires and suppressing the natural fire cycle. 

He says that without nature’s cycle of frequent fire to clean out undergrowth, the forest has become so dense that fire now can reach catastrophic intensity. 

Gruell says the tree canopy has become so thick that desirable plants beneath have declined — and in places, the Sierra resembles a jungle.