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Walking in His Footsteps

Posted by Jonathan Oppenheimer at Jul 17, 2012 11:20 AM |

John Leiberg explored and reported on the conditions of North Idaho's forests more than 100 years ago. Many of his findings remain pertinent today.

Walking in His Footsteps

John Bernhard Leiberg was an explorer who was apparently part mountain goat. Hunt Institute photo.

Ever wonder what Idaho looked like more than a century ago? John Bernhard Leiberg was a Swedish-born explorer, bryologist (moss expert), botanist, forester—who was also apparently part mountain goat. Leiberg left detailed descriptions of his explorations more than a hundred years ago which we read today in the form of several forest assessments of North Idaho.

His work was conducted for the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The extent of his travels and assessments are unparalleled and represent an accurate report of millions of acres of treacherous mountain terrain in the absence of established roads, or even many trails.

Describing the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests (then part of the Bitterroot Forest Reserve) which he explored during the summer of 1899, Leiberg said the landscape was "a maze of deep, very narrow, winding canyons with a succession of steep, high, rocky, narrow-crested ridges separating them." Nonetheless, he scaled these canyons to provide insights on forest conditions for millions of acres.

Lieberg Lochsa 1899
The Lochsa River near Jerry Johnson Campground looks much the same today as it did more than 100 years ago. USGS photo.

As part of evaluating how fire suppression, logging, grazing and other land management actions have impacted our forests, the Idaho Conservation League reviews Leiberg's reports in order to understand how the landscape looked at the turn of the twentieth century, and how to define restoration. In our efforts to work with the U.S. Forest Service and other land managers, even with these historical documents in hand, we still have to consider how climate change and other factors impact our forests today.

In particular, Leiberg noted how fire helped to shape the forests of the region. While often viewing fire through a negative lens because of its impact on commercial timber resources, Lieberg's detailed observations remain useful today for their insights into how fire influences Idaho's forest composition and structure.

Ultimately, Leiberg was primarily interested in how much timber might be removed from Idaho's forests, how to drive the lumber down the rivers, and how the areas might be commercially developed. While many of Idaho's forests have been developed, much of the rugged country of the Clearwater remains pristine. That's why ICL is working now as a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative to protect some of these landscapes.

Check out Leiberg's report on the Bitterroot Forest Reserve (note: 111MB download and the Bitterroot Reserve Assessment begins on page 442) that covers much of the present day Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests. 

A report on his botanical survey of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains is available here.


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