Girard innovates his way through Forest Service ranks

The Seeley Lake Timber Sale 1907-1910


November 19, 2020

National Museum of Forest Service History

Jim Girard (1879-1952) known as the patriarch of national forest timber cruising. His point system to measure tree size is still used today.

If the early history of Seeley Lake is intertwined with the lumber industry, the rise of the United States Forest Service is incontrovertibly intertwined with Seeley Lake and in particular with the Big Blackfoot Timber Sale of 1907-1910. Historian and member of the Camp Paxson Preservation Board Gary Williams has been researching that sale. The Seeley Swan Pathfinder will be bringing some of the interesting bits of information he has discovered about logging in the Seeley Lake area and also about the fledgling U.S. Forest Service.

SEELEY LAKE – The previous article in this Timber Sale series established that once James Girard replaced Ambrose Norton as the forester in charge of the Seeley Lake sale, the Big Blackfoot Milling Company and particularly its General Manager Kenneth Ross were finally satisfied with the condition of the logging. Girard's reputation for exact scaling grew throughout his career in the Forest Service as he advanced from forest guard, ranger, scaler, lumberman, logging engineer and assistant director of a nation-wide forest survey. After his death in 1952 he was acclaimed "the patron saint of timber measurement." It was said he could tell the exact board feet in any tree just by walking through the woods. One year after his death a 60-acre memorial grove in Seeley Lake was dedicated to him, attesting to the truth behind the legend.


Born May 4, 1879 in a forested hollow in Cheatham County, Tennessee, Girard was one of 10 children. His schooling only extended to sixth grade. At 15 years of age he went to work cutting white oak logs into bolts for whiskey barrel staves. He earned $0.75 a day. When he found out a timber cruiser made $150 a month, he decided to learn how to be a cruiser. Scalers and cruisers estimate the amount of board feet a tree will yield. The scaler estimates on a felled tree, the cruiser on a standing tree.

Young Girard succeeded in getting a job as a compass man for a timber cruiser, but the man refused to teach him how to make estimates. According to J. D. Black in his "A History of Seeley Lake," the cruiser told Girard, "Your job is to run the compass and not ask questions."

Girard quit and went back to cutting staves. He also started to record the size of every tree he and his partner cut and the number of staves it produced. From these measurements he developed a volume table. At the age of 20 he was a self-taught cruiser. For the next six years he cruised timber for sawmills. For two years after that he ran his own sawmill.

He made his way west, working as a logging brush piler in Wyoming and a timber cutter in Idaho. Aware of his lack of formal education, he also began taking correspondence courses in English, engineering, business administration and cost accounting. In the spring and fall of 1907, he worked in Montana as a lumberman for the Anaconda Copper Mining (ACM), the umbrella corporation of Big Blackfoot Milling Company.

Black wrote that Girard and Norton became good friends while they were both working at the Seeley Lake site.

According to the National Museum of Forest Service History's biography of Girard written by Jud Moore, "The Forest Service borrowed Girard from ACM to help catch up on scaling for the sale. After scaling logs for three months, he accepted an appointment Feb. 1, 1908 as a 'forest guard.'"

Black credits Norton with convincing Girard to join the Forest Service. A forest guard's duties included scaling logs and marking timber. Girard had no experience marking timber for selective cutting and he found the Forest Service marking instructions difficult to follow. He decided to use common sense instead, marking mature and over-mature trees and leaving a good distribution of healthy immature trees.

Moore attests, "Forty years later, foresters and District Rangers cited it as an example of good selective harvest marking."

Girard replaced Norton as head forester on the Seeley Lake site in October 1909. When he took over, he instructed the timber sale bookkeeper to provide a daily report of how many men were working on the various logging activities: swamping (clearing brush around trees prior to cutting), felling (sawing trees), bucking (sawing logs into standard sizes), skidding (hauling logs from cut site to log landing) and road building. Using that information, he compiled a detailed cost report for Regional Forester F. A. Silcox.

In November 1911, after all the logs from the Seeley Lake sale had been driven to the mill and all the cleanup and paperwork was finished, Silcox proposed making Girard a logging engineer. Silcox defined the job duties as being capable of appraising timber quality, estimating logging costs and providing additional information that enables management personnel to arrive at a reasonable basic stumpage price.

As Girard advanced in rank in the Forest Service, recognition of his expertise increased. In 1920 he was asked to rewrite the National Forest Stumpage Appraisal Manual. It quickly became known as "the appraisers Bible." In 1939 he and S.R. Gevorkiantz published "Timber Cruising." According to Moore it is still considered by many to be the best work in the field.

In 1930 Girard was assigned to the Forest Research branch of the department where he worked on a nationwide forest survey. The group's monumental task was to determine forest acreages and volumes of timber; rate of forest depletion resulting from timber cutting for commercial purposes, fire losses, insect losses etc .; rate at which depletion was being replaced by forest growth; timber requirements for all purposes, including lumber, timbers, pulpwood, ties, poles, special products and fuel wood. They were then to prepare an analysis and comprehensive report for each region and for the entire nation. Girard wrote instruction manuals, trained and checked on field personnel and prepared tables for different tree species.

Moore's bio reported, "It was apparent to Gerard that so many volume tables would be required that – if the old, slow, conventional Forest Service methods were used – the survey would not have been completed before the 'second coming.' He developed a quicker method for preparing volume tables. It was called the "Girard Form Class Taper."

According to Moore, the idea germinated when he was working on the Seeley Lake sale. Girard felt that for each species there would be a relationship between the breast-high diameter of a log and its top diameter at a length of 16 feet. After recording measurements for a number of tree species he confirmed his theory and created his form class table. Using this method, under favorable conditions Girard was able to measure 1,000 to 1,200 trees a day.

Eugene Roberts, in charge of the survey in the eastern United States, said Girard was so good, "He took random strips in the various timber types and called out the diameter of trees as he passed. He called diameters so rapidly that two men were needed to record them."

Skeptical Forest Service officials checked Girard's' work before the Girard Form Class Taper technique was approved. Approval did not come until tree climbers, following behind Girard and taking exact measures had sampled more than 4,000 trees in different parts of the country and found Girard's method accurate.

Girard worked 12 years on the 480-million-acre survey. When world War I broke out, the War Production Board wanted Girard to examine Sitka spruce trees in Alaska and determine whether they were suitable for aircraft lumber. Though other foresters predicted Alaskan spruce would not meet the high-grade standards required, Girard's study concluded Alaska spruce was capable of producing twice as high a percentage of aircraft lumber as other Pacific Coast species and he established the precise conditions which a log required.

After Girard's success with the Alaskan spruce the War Production Board wanted him to determine the volume of sweet gum suitable for aircraft veneer. Next, it was a study of yellow poplar for possible use in aircraft lumber and veneer. Then it was sugar maple and yellow birch for aircraft propellers. Other war assignments followed: walnut gun stocks, handles for Army and Navy use, shunt poles for Great Britain, shuttle blocks, tent pins and boat quality cypress. In each case he provided the needed statistics in record time.

After 35 years in the Forest Service Girard retired. He went into partnership with two other notable ex-Forest Service men, Girard's friend from their Seeley Lake days David Mason and Eugene Bruce, also associated with the Seeley Lake sale.

Although Girard left his mark all over the United States, the grove of western larch (tamarack) trees on Boy Scout Road in Seeley Lake was chosen as a fitting place for his memorial because Seeley Lake was where his Forest Service career began.

Speaking at the memorial ceremony, Mason said, "You all know his kind, friendly nature, his tremendous physical and mental energy, his amazing shortcuts to the solution of tough problems, his sound and accurate judgment, and other unusual qualities, all of which rightly made him a legendary figure in forestry. This legend is marked by a stand of quiet and stately tamaracks on the shores of Seeley Lake in western Montana."

Jim Reed provided by the National Museum of Forest Service History

In June 2003, former Lolo National Forest District Ranger Tim Love hosted a field trip for the Northern Rocky Mountain Region's USFS retirees. Love took the group to the Girard Memorial Grove to see the old growth western larch stand spared in the 1907 Seeley Lake Timber Sale. This picture was taken several years after understory trees had been cut and removed.


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