CARROLL: Forestry book tells tales of past

“Black Hills Forestry: A History by Wyoming” by John Freeman is one of those rare books that brings 125 years of complexity into focus with sharp and insightful clarity. It’s a page turner, and unexpectedly so given it is what could be called an administrative and political look at federal forestry in the Black Hills.

If you wondered at the mind boggling scope and span of the major events in Black Hills history over the past decades, wonder no more. In this book are the answers to the questions you didn’t even know you had. What did Homestake Mine have to do with the U.S. Forest Service? How did famous sheriff Seth Bullock of Deadwood end up as a forest supervisor?

Freeman sorts out the forest industry and environmental movements with skill and grace, giving each its due, forming the many parts into a readable whole. In an interview earlier this year I asked Freeman, a scholar not usually associated with forestry and forest history, what he discovered. His conclusions surprised him, he told me, and left him glad to have taken on the not-insignificant task.

“…the chief forester would be proud of the changes [in management of the Black Hills] because of the continuing emphasis on the greatest good for the most people in the long run,” Freeman wrote.

Using current and former luminaries, from forest supervisors to industry lobbyists and environmental lawyers, Freeman cuts through the rhetoric to get at some very important truths about Black Hills forestry. The book is timely as policy makers consider what to do next in the continuing battle to prevent further bark beetle damage and severe wildfires. According to the book, “A longitudinal study completed in 2007 by Forest Service entomologists (insect scientists) and silviculturists (forest scientists) confirmed for most people what had long been observed by inhabitants of the Black Hills: thinning works.”

Even for those who paid close attention to Black Hills forestry over the past two decades, Freeman’s effortless weaving of the many strands of intrigue, from the White House to the ranger’s office, offers many rewarding surprises. If the best histories are written by those who have lived long enough to understand human interaction in life and politics, then this is a great regional history with high local interest and a wide general audience.

Freeman interviewed dozens of people, searched major collections, and enlisted a number of people to help in this important effort to understand why the forest looks like it looks today. Among the very gratifying surprises was Freeman’s liberal use of to illustrate the book. In this age of digital immediacy, the ability to find not only photographs in the book but to then be transported to a website filled with thousands of outstanding color and black and white images, videos, documents and records makes this among the first interactive histories in print. I recommend reading the book on a Kindle or other web-based device for the big picture in all its glory.

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