So that's where your long-lost Bitterlich Averaging Instrument went.

It, or one just like it, is now in the repository of the National Museum of Forest Service History on Catlin Street.

“I’ve got the instructions but I’ve never spent the time to see how it works,” said Dave Stack, the intrepid volunteer archivist of the museum that’s still waiting for a home on Highway 10 West.

The BAI – since we’re on familiar terms – is an instrument roughly 18 inches by 13 designed 50 years ago to mechanically graph research observations to make a smooth curve.

“The other way to do it is regression analysis,” Stack said.

OK if we leave it at that?

Stack was showing off one the museum’s most recent donations last week and one of some 50,000 artifacts, photos and records that have been gathering in museum archives for decades. Some day they’ll be exhibited at the museum’s National Conservation Legacy and Education Center west of the Missoula airport, but that building is still at least $5 million in the future.

That the United States Forest Service had some use for the BAI is demonstrated by where this one came from this summer – a Forest Service laboratory in West Virginia.

“It’s like a lot of items that we get,” Stacks said. “We have about 700 members right now across the country – and we’d like to have three times that if nothing else. Most of our members are retirees, although some are current members of the Forest Service and just the general public.”

These are the men and women who see some out-of-use relic at the office and figure they ought to take it home and save it.

“So they have this stuck away in their closest and most of the older people say, 'When I die, my relatives are going to throw all this junk away,' so they call me up and say, do I want this?”

Most have fascinating back stories. The BAI was developed by one Dr. Walter Bitterlich, an Austrian forester who fought for the Germans at Normandy in World War II. Bitterlich, who had a number of other inventions, demonstrated it at the Sixth World Forestry Congress in Madrid in 1966. It was distributed in the United States through Forestry Suppliers Inc., in Jackson, Mississippi.

It’s among 36,000 artifacts already catalogued by Stack that range from the obscure to the delightful – like the 1913 music sheet for a Sam Lewis song “Across the Great Divide I’ll Wait For You.”As Stack sums it up, that's about a “girl crooning for her ranger.”

There’s the ultra-familiar – some 1,000 items having to do with Smokey the Bear, including a 1955 film featuring Eddie Arnold singing “The Ballad of Smokey Bear.” And there are the neatly boxed and moderately familiar rangers’ hats, shovels and pairs of dungarees. A lot of those.

“I don’t want any more 1960s to '80s uniforms. Nope, none of those,” quipped Stack.

He retired from the Lolo National Forest in 1999 after a 30-year career, joined the museum and has spent much of his time since then voluntarily collecting and cataloging the archives. It’s not a job to be taken lightly.

Employing museum best practices means researching the history of every item as well as recording donor records and deed agreements. While some artifacts are on loan, most have been donated.

In the small office at the Northern Region’s field service facility at 14th Street and Catlin are boxes and boxes of carefully archived papers, photos, and reports. The physical items – a portable radio developed in the late 1920s, an early computer, axes and Pulaskis, scaling sticks and a thousand other artifacts – take up the rest of the office and three rooms in an old streetcar barn across the way, which is now called the Forest Service Motor Pool and Equipment Inspection Facility.

Beyond that, a garage houses the likes of a 1960s vintage Tucker Sno-Cat from the Lolo forest, a 1943 Model A John Deere tractor in running condition that was used to cut the hay to feed the mules of the Ninemile Remount Depot west of Missoula, and a green and red horse-drawn 1911 wilderness strip grader. They don’t build trails with those things any more, Stack noted.

Lisa Tate was hired as the National Forest Service Museum’s first executive director this summer and is in awe at the depth and breadth of the collection.

“It’s quite amazing to me when I look at this project, having come into it just a couple of months ago, how much work has been done behind the scenes at a very high level and a very high-caliber of expertise and quality,” Tate said. “People don’t see that because they don’t see a physical museum where people can come and view this collection.”

“The best museums of history, through their artifacts and displays, are able to transport us to another time and place,” said James Deutsch, curator of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C.

When it’s built west of town, the museum’s Conservation Legacy and Education Center “has the potential to become one of those exemplary institutions,” Deutsch said.

***

Tate opened “A Diary of a Ranger.” The size of a large photo album, it contains on onion paper parchment day-to-day entries by S.S. Terrell from 1904-1906.

Terrell was supervisor at the Baker City Forest Reserve in Oregon before there was a U.S. Forest Service. It’s now part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

“Sir,” Tate read from one of Terrell’s early entries, “there were neither horses nor cattle grazing regularly up on the Baker City Reserve during the year 1903.”

“Then he goes on to talk about cattle and sheep and settlers and his analysis of all that,” Tate said.

The entries are made by Terrell’s own reasonably legible hand until July 5, 1905.

“So we know the day he got a typewriter,” said Tate.

It was four days after Gifford Pinchot’s U.S. Forest Service was born.

***

Neal Rahm was regional forester in Missoula from 1963-1971, the era of the “Bitterroot Controversy.” Rahm, whose collection of hundreds of photos, reports, inventories and letters are catalogued at the museum, was a key player. Residents took him and the Bitterroot National Forest to task for clearcutting and terracing tactics. Along with a parallel case in West Virginia, it was a hot-button issue that prompted major changes in Forest Service policy and led in 1976 to the National Forest Management Act.

“That’s one of the stories we’re going to tell,” Stack said. “Our goal is to tell the whole story. We want to address controversial issues because the Forest Service has been involved in controversial issues from Day One.”

With that in mind, Stack said the museum board has formed a panel of “academic historians” from across the county to help guide the telling of Forest Service history.

***

Those of us of a certain age remember Super Balls, those hard-rubber black balls that boinged into pop culture in the 1960s. Stack showed off what looked for all the world like one, only it had “Guayule” inscribed on it. Guayule is a flowering shrub that grows in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, and it became a weapon of war.

During World War II, Maj. Evan Kelley left his position as regional forester in Missoula to head the Guayule Emergency Rubber Project in California.

“The United States was cut off from natural rubber and the country was concerned that it wouldn’t have rubber to make tires for aircraft, etc., that it needed for the war effort,” Stack said. “The Forest Service was tasked with trying to see if this guayule could substitute.”

Kelley directed some 10,000 men in the planting and harvesting of guayule in the Salinas Valley, and nearly three million pounds of rubber were produced. He returned to Missoula in 1943 and retired on Oct. 31, 1944.

***

Stack’s eyes lit up when he picked up what he called “one of the most unique signs I’ve ever run across in the Forest Service.”

Apparently there were a lot of Polish woodcutters in New Hampshire in 1929, because that’s the language it’s written in, he said. It warned them to cut only trees marked by the Chief Forester of the U.S.; to avoid cutting down or injuring small trees while cutting, measuring or building roads, and to neither smoke nor light campfires in the woods from April 1 to Nov. 30.

The museum received it from David Field, who was a forester in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire in the early 1960s.

“The enclosed sign appeared as we were cleaning out a closet in the Gorham ranger station one day,” Field wrote to Stack.

It was common in the early days to come across signs posted in the woods in French, Field said.

But this was "the only national forest sign that I have ever seen that was written in Polish! I hope that it may find a place in your collection.”

***

Tate said the staff and board of the national history museum hope to find a way by next year to open the museum grounds on Highway 10 West. Today the only things there are a bungalow ranger station cabin from the Clearwater National Forest and a lookout tower that once overlooked the National Mall at the Smithsonian Institution's castle.

The public can view a rotating exhibit in the cabin and an interpretive trail on the property as the capital campaign continues to raise funding for a top-notch museum.

“One of the challenges we’re facing now is that people don’t know what we’re doing,” Tate said. “People have thought that the project has faded away. They don’t realize there’s been all this work done all these years behind the scenes.”

The museum now has a virtual exhibit online, a traveling exhibit, and with the addition of Tate and Cheryl Hughes, the museum’s education director, is developing teacher resources. Stack said with new software he hopes to start posting archives materials on forestservicemuseum.org in the next month or so.

“We want," said Tate, "to get something open in Missoula so people can see what we have, learn about what we’re doing and understand that the work in progress has been pretty major to date.”

The history museum is a nonprofit venture that has received support from the Forest Service brass. Nearly $4 million has been raised since the museum board announced plans in 2009 to build a state of the art, 30,000-square foot center.

"We need $5 million for the building, then the exhibits will probably be another 3-plus million (dollars)," Stack said. "They’re going to be of Smithsonian quality, interactive, and educational for all ages. We really think it’s going to be the best between Minneapolis and Seattle."

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Reporter for The Missoulian.