July 13, 2020

Pictures Needed in the Telling

By Kirby Lambert, Outreach and Interpretation Program Manager

K. D. Swan at work, ca. 1936
Photographer: H. T. Gisborne, Courtesy of Elizabeth Starks

As you head out to enjoy Montana’s national forests this summer, take a minute to thank photographer K. D. Swan (1887—1970) for the role he played in preserving this incredible legacy. At a critical time in Forest Service history, Swan documented the public value of these natural reserves and widely promoted their use and protection.

For more than three decades, Swan photographed the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, an area that encompasses all of Montana as well as portions of Idaho and North and South Dakota. A native of Massachusetts and graduate of Harvard’s forestry school, Swan arrived in the Treasure State in 1911, six years after the Forest Service was formed. Initially, he surveyed homestead sites, planted trees, “cruised” timber to determine average tree sizes, volume, and quality, and worked as a topographic draftsman.

In the 1920s—recognizing the need for the agency to win further public support for its various programs and goals—the Forest Service established the Information and Education Branch. An accomplished photographer, Swan was soon transferred to the new division. As one chief later summarized Swan's charge: "There's a story there to be told, and pictures will be needed in the telling."

Hoodoo Lake Moose, #331160

Thereafter, Swan worked tirelessly, crafting exceptional photographs that dramatically illustrated the value that national forests held for the American people and vividly documented the myriad tasks involved in managing forest lands.

His images were used to illustrate numerous Forest Service publications—many of which he also authored—as well as non-agency publications ranging from National Geographic to the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. In addition, Swan regularly toured the region, spreading the "gospel of forest conservation" through educational and entertaining programs that he illustrated with still and moving images that he had taken.

Swan retired from the Forest Service in 1947, but he continued writing and taking pictures of the forest, devoting his efforts to the cause he loved. In 1968 he published his memoir, Splendid Was the Trail. This highly readable narrative still offers a detailed look at life and work in a remote, sparsely populated region during the formative years of the forest service. Copies are available through your library or the MHS Museum Store.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of the USDA Forest Service, Region 1

USFS promotional pamphlet, MHS 634.9/SW34
Big Salmon Lake, #300292
Swan River near Salmon Prairie, #366216
Eagle Creek, #365158
Trail Riders Skirting the Chinese Wall, #346819