Technological Change

Dave Jolly on Technology:
Play Audio Clip Heli-Stat Fact Sheet

The twentieth century saw numerous advances in technology. The Forest Service was often quick to adapt to this technological change and occasionally at the forefront of developing new technology. As a public land manager, the Forest Service oversaw numerous projects involving developing technology related to agriculture and silviculture. These advances helped the Forest Service develop better strategies for managing public lands within the United States and to assist other countries in managing their lands. However, the Forest Service also adopted more mainstream technology – like telephones, computers, and airplanes – as a way of streamlining a number of projects. The adoption of these technologies changed the way the agency approached its work. The men interviewed for this project witnessed numerous technological changes; some of these men even helped in developing new technology.

Forest Service Beaver Fire Patrol Planes, July 1960

Source: Photograph of Forest Service Beaver Fire Patrol Planes, July 1960; Historic Photographs, compiled ca. 1880 – ca. 1970; Records of the Forest Service, 1870-2008, Record Group 95; National Archives at Chicago [online version available through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 2131345) at, June 14, 2013].

Changing communication technologies impacted the Forest Service. Written communication was greatly improved through the growing use of first, typewriters, and later computers. Ray Mason remembered that when he was first hired in 1957 and admitted that he could type, his supervisor quickly recruited him to type memos and other communications. Prior to the introduction of typewriters, memos and letters were all written out longhand. The introduction of computers in the 1960s and 1970s improved forest planning and helped timber management efforts, while also further revolutionizing written communication in the Forest Service. These changes were sometimes slow to trickle down to the forest level. Sid Haggard worked on developing computer systems for the Forest Service at this time and recalled that computers were originally only used in regional offices. It would take years before computers were available at the district level. Once computers were available in every district, communication became much easier between offices, particularly since the Forest Service was one of the first federal agencies to develop an electronic mailing system. Mr. Haggard started work on this system in the 1970s and by 1985, electronic mail was available in almost every district. Initially, there were some concerns about the ease of communication that electronic mail provided. Some people within the agency were worried that those working on the district level would have too much access to communicating with their superiors in the Washington Office. This issue also emerged when telephones and radios first started to be used in the Forest Service. Mr. Mason recalls that when telephones were first introduced on the district, their use was discouraged. Anyone using the telephone needed to make a log of who they were calling, the purpose of the call, and the length. Lengthy communications were sent via memo rather than transmitted over the telephone. Mason also noted that when he first started working for the Forest Service in the late 1950s, radios were often purchased for fire emergencies and, on the district he worked, their use was restricted to reporting such emergencies. He recalled:

Radios were expensive and far and few between and they were usually bought with fire money and on the Ozark you could not talk on a radio about anything except fire.  A ranger and I got stuck in a creek. There had been a big rain the night before that had rearranged this ford and there was some big holes in it and we, I, I was driving, I drove right into a big hole and drowned out the engine and right up above us, high on this mountain peak was one of our towers.  It had a radio, so [I wanted to] call a radio and get him to come down with his tracker, transport and he can pull us out.  “Nope, we bought this with fire money and this is not a fire emergency.”  So I had to walk about five miles, all straight up hill, to this tower site to get the guy to come down.

Automatic Data Processing Center, South Building, USDA, 1969

Source: Foresters at Work: Washington, DC; Photographs Relating to National Forests, Resource Management Practices, Personnel, and Cultural and Economic History, compiled ca. 1897-ca. 1980; Records of the Forest Service, 1870-2008, Record Group 95; National Archives at College Park, MD [online version available through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 7001036) at, June 14, 2013].

As technology progressed, transportation in the Forest Service also changed. When the agency was first created in 1905, staff often relied on horses and cattle as a means of moving themselves and resources across the forest. While not as widespread as in the past, animals continue to be used in certain situations. Jack Alcock explained that when Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, the Forest Service used a variety of transportation methods to salvage and rebuild the Francis Marion National Forest, including helicopters, tractors, trucks, and horses. He noted that horses were especially capable of accessing areas that were difficult to reach through other methods. Increasingly, however, the agency has relied on trucks to travel across the forest. The Forest Service has also benefitted from advances in aviation technology. Helicopters and planes have become important tools for the agency in terms of evaluating conditions on the land, particularly in the case of fires. Bob James noted that in the aftermath of World War I, the Forest Service began testing the use of aircraft in the fire protection program. The agency used  the planes to spot fires from above and then sent messages to fire camps below. Following World War II, the agency experimented with dropping water on fires from planes above. Eventually, they also dropped fire retardant chemicals to stop the spread of fires and allowed hand crews to work on putting the fires out. Initially, the majority of these pilots were World War II fighter pilots who had recently returned from service abroad. The Forest Service also used planes to drop smokejumpers into difficult to access areas to fight fires on the ground. Mr. James noted that the smokejumping program was one of the most successful programs implemented by the Forest Service. Ultimately, helicopters would also be used for these programs.

While aviation technology has been incredibly important in terms of fighting fires, the Forest Service has also experimented with using this type of technology as a means of moving timber. In the 1980s, the agency worked on developing the Heli-Stat (officially named the Piasecki PA-97), a blimp powered by four helicopters. The Forest Service had been using helicopters to move timber, but there are limits on how much weight a helicopter can handle. The intention behind the Heli-Stat was that it would be able to move significantly larger quantities of timber. Designed by Frank Piasecki, the Heli-Stat was in development for a number of years before being tested in 1986. Unfortunately, something went wrong during the test flight and, according to Dave Jolly, who worked on the project, “it shook itself to death, it shook itself apart.” The project was ended after the unsuccessful testing. Despite this failure, however, it is clear that the Forest Service has embraced technological advancements as a way to increase productivity and efficiency.