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Government Reports

GOSIP— Acronym for "Government Open Systems Interconnection Profile"

As fast as Manifest Destiny propelled America west, the federal government sent soldiers and surveyors to explore and report upon it. These men were ordered to maintain detailed journals, and because scientists were deliberately recruited to record zoological, botanical, and meteorological data, their official reports can be extremely useful to anyone doing environmental history on the western United States.

Click here to solve the puzzleLt. Edwin Beale, traversing northern Arizona on an exploratory expedition in 1857, famously described the pine forests of the southern Colorado Plateau:

"We came to a glorious forest of lofty pines...The country was beautifully undulating, and although we usually associate the idea of barrenness with the pine regions, it was not so in this instance; every foot being covered with the finest grass, and beautiful broad grassy vales extending in every direction. The forest was perfectly open and unencumbered with brush wood, so that the travelling was excellent..."

Charles F. Cooper, in his 1960 report, "Changes in vegetation, structure, and growth of southwestern pine forests since white settlement" used historical accounts such as Beale's as well as an analysis of stand structure to attempt a comprehensive description of pre-settlement forest conditions. Cooper is often cited for his conclusion that "the entire forest was once much more open and park-like than it is today."

Between 1853 and 1855 the federal government financed six separate expeditions to locate the best route for constructing a railroad from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Those six surveys produced twelve massive volumes of scientific reports, including three volumes of separately published zoological monographs. For example, Lieutenants Joseph Ives and A.W. Weeks led an expedition west along the 35th parallel, and their report includes more than two hundred pages on the botany and eighty pages on the zoology they encountered.

Township map of the Flagstaff, AZ area. Image "GLO Township 21 North Range 7 East "
Township map of the Flagstaff, AZ area. Image "GLO Township 21 North Range 7 East "
© Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University

Historical records of vegetation conditions are useful for establishing reference conditions since Euro-American settlement. In 1785 Congress established the General Land Office and a rectangular system for surveying land. A subsequent act of 1786 provided for the subdivision of townships into one-mile square sections. With the publication of a guidebook in 1855, there was a standardized methodology for government-contracted surveyors.

The basic technique used trees at township, section, and quarter-section corners as references. Compass bearings and distances from the corner to usually either two or four trees were recorded. The common name and often the diameter of these "witness trees" or "bearing trees" also were noted, and the trees were marked with a characteristic blaze. Particularly in later years, surveyors often were instructed to provide descriptions of forest type, locations of streams and other landscape features, and the presence of major disturbances such as blow-downs and forest fires.

Since its inception in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service has been publishing a wealth of information from a wide variety of disciplines. The Rocky Mountain Research Station publishes its serial reports online: the General Technical Reports, Conference Proceedings, Resource Bulletins, Research Notes, and Research Papers. Also online are reports from the Forest Service Research & Development Division which conducts ecological and social science research to understand ecosystems, how humans influence those ecosystems, and how to manage for sustained and enhanced benefits.

Up-to-date forest fire information and research from government reports is gathered and made available online by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of wildland fire agencies that includes the USDA-Forest Service, the Department of Interior, the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is the nation's logistical and support center for wildland firefighting. Their website provides information on current wildland fire, fire statistics, prevention and education, safety, and science and technology.

In 1974, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service established the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER, pronounced 'bear') program to conduct immediate assessment of site conditions following wildfire. Where necessary, BAER implements emergency rehabilitation measures to 1) minimize the threat to life and property, 2) reduce soil loss, 3) increase runoff control, and 4) prevent deterioration of water quality. BAER reports for major fires are frequently available online.


Cooper, Charles F. 1960. Changes in vegetation, structure, and growth of southwestern pine forests since white settlement. Ecological Monographs 30(2): 129-164.

Egan, David and Evelyn A. Howell, eds. 2001. The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems. Boulder, CO: Island Press.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Satellites Aid Burned Area Rehabilitation." 4/22/03.

National Interagency Fire Center. "National Interagency Coordination Center." 4/22/03.

U.S.D.A. Forest Service. "Research and Development information at the USDA Forest Service." 4/21/03.


Last edited May 21, 2003

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