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National Forest Time-Lapse: 88 Years of Management and Rebound

1997 (Photo: USDA FS Photo)

With forest fires scaring more than 7 million acres of land this year, NPR has been looking into how the nation's forests themselves have changed over the years and the management practices that help shape them.

It reports that some forests at this point are so overgrown that it's no wonder recent years have seen such extreme fires:

This "tree epidemic" stems from Forest Service policy dating back to the early 1900s of aggressively fighting all forest fires. But regular, small fires clean out dead wood, grasses and low brush — and if fires are quashed, the forest just grows into fuel.

In its hunt for historical context, NPR happened upon a photo study from 13 years ago -- although the project is still ongoing -- that showed 88 years of change in Bitterroot National Forest in Montana.

The photo series shows "how dynamic the forest is with management." The images depict "selective logging" in an effort to help thin the forest but at the same time they also show just how "quickly the forest land rebounds" from this management.

The study itself looks at 13 points in the forest every 10 to 15 years, taking photos of that same spot to track the change. NRP reports the first photos were taken to document logging in the area, so they are not indicative of the forest in its "original" state.

Here is the series of photographs from Lick Creek Drainage Photopoint #4:

Check out all the photo series in the report starting at page 57 here.

Last year, the Forest Service spent a record $48 million for recovery work alone on burned areas. By the end of July, the agency had already spent $28 million on recovery and is on track for another possible record.

The number of fires and total acres burned this year in the West is within range of the last decade's average, but the fires have been bigger and have burned with more severity. They have also intruded into areas where the potential impact is greater.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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