The Tongass in black and white

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Posted: Sunday, July 24, 2005

There was a time when the Southeast Alaska interior wasn't just remote - it was a mystery.

In the 1920s, the U.S. Geological Survey convinced the Navy to launch a multi-year expedition to probe the rugged region from the air.

Their goal: Chart and photograph the Tongass National Forest, zeroing in on natural harbors, timber and potential mineral reserves.

"They were out there in a biplane, like the Red Baron," said Jim Russell, a Sitka-based timber specialist for the Tongass National Forest.

Bulky cameras mounted on the bellies of Navy amphibious planes in 1926 and 1929 snapped tens of thousands of vertical and side views of villages, mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes and valleys from 10,000 feet.

Alaska Gov. George Parks climbed aboard for a few flights, and the expeditions maintained their own floating photo laboratory, according to historical accounts.

It didn't take many years, though, before the high-quality photos produced by the Navy were replaced by more current ones. Tongass employees relegated thousands of the older photographs to storage cabinets and musty boxes in their field offices.

Now, after years of disuse, the Alaska Aerial Survey expeditions in 1926 and 1929 are getting serious attention again.

Russell and other Forest Service employees are using the old photographs to study changes in the Tongass, including the progress of yellow cedar disease on Baranof Island and the slow transition of an 1860 Russian clearcut on Sitka's Mount Verstovia back into an old-growth forest.

It's a fascinating method to learn about the natural forces at work in the Tongass rainforest, said Juneau naturalist Richard Carstensen, who has used the Alaska Aerial Survey photos on some of his independent research projects.

"We're looking at things going back to nature," he said.

Geologists also recently began using old photos to study the movement of glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Until recently, Russell was the self-appointed watchdog for the Alaska Aerial Survey photographs of the northern half of the Tongass, maintained at the Sitka Ranger District.

For many years, Russell fiercely guarded a key to four fire-safe cabinets that held the photos, covering about 8 million acres of the forest, he said.

The rest of those had been scattered around field offices in Petersburg, Thorne Bay and Ketchikan, Russell said.

Some were relegated to flimsy boxes and plenty went missing over the years, Russell said.

The Tongass has an estimated 13,000 photos from the two expeditions. Other photos from the Alaska Aerial Survey are housed in private and state museum collections, but no one interviewed for this article knew what happened to the negatives.

Bob Gerdes, a Tongass timber specialist in Petersburg who retired from the Forest Service about seven years ago, recalls saving the Petersburg Ranger District's photo collection from the Dumpster a few times.

"It seems like anytime they were moving furniture around, someone would say - "We don't need this anymore," Gerdes reminisced last week.

"I said they were very valuable," he said. "You show a photo to the old-timers and it brings a tear to their eye," he said.

Russell and other Tongass employees recently packed up and mailed off boxes of the Alaska Aerial Survey for a massive digital scanning project that started a couple of months ago in Petersburg.

Russell lobbied hard for the project because he is worried about what will happen to the aging photographs in the future.

"This is an effort to pull them together so the public and we, internally, can use them," he said.

"I'm very pleased to hear they are getting scanned," Carstensen said Thursday, adding that a collection of very detailed 1948 aerial photographs of the Tongass is now hardly accessible because it is stowed in a repository in the Lower 48.

Russell chased grant money to get the Alaska Aerial Survey uploaded to the Tongass' growing digital image library, which already contains about 80,000 historic and current images.

With a $10,000 Forest Service grant this year, Tongass imaging specialist Ron Hall is laboriously scanning the pictures, which are mounted on 21-inch by 9-inch heavy card stock.

"This will allow people to look at the photos no matter what office they are in," said Hall, who has so far processed several thousand of them on a flatbed scanner.

Hall sees a lot of Native communities, floating rafts of logs and other "interesting" features in the photos.

"They are very good quality. That is amazing ... considering they've been sitting in boxes for years," he said.

Russell, of Sitka, said his next project is to ensure that the original collection remains in Southeast Alaska.

They could otherwise end up in obscurity at a federal warehouse or archive in the Lower 48, he said.

"Did you ever see 'Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark,'" Russell said, wryly alluding to a scene in the Hollywood movie when the ark that stored the Ten Commandments was fork-lifted into a massive storage building jammed with identical crates.

Russell hopes that the Forest Service can find legal means to donate or loan the photographs to the state of Alaska.

He envisions that the state could then make the photos accessible to the public in the historical collection at Juneau's Alaska State Library.

Gladi Kulp, acting head of the historical collections at the library, said she is hopeful that the deal will go through.

She's already imagining new cabinet space for the large collection, which Russell estimates would take up roughly 225 cubic feet.

"You can't imagine how many people come in (to the library) and ask for baseline information," Kulp said.

"Nothing is written in stone, but we are definitely interested in these photos," she said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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