Editor’s note: This story has been revised to correct errors in the description of the management of this land.
An astronaut aboard the International Space Station observed this distinctive checkerboard pattern alongside the Priest River in northern Idaho. The photograph was taken just before sunset, so some mountainsides glow while others are covered in long shadows because of the low Sun angle.
The squares in this landscape checkerboard appear to be the result of forest management. Similar patterns originated in the 1800s, when alternate parcels of land were granted by the U.S. government to railroads such as the Northern Pacific. Many parcels in the Pacific Northwest were later sold off and harvested for timber.
The land shown here is now managed for wildlife and for timber harvesting. The white patches reflect areas with younger, smaller trees, where winter snow cover shows up brightly to the astronauts. Dark green-brown squares are parcels of denser, intact forest. The checkerboard is used as a method of maintaining the sustainability of forested tracts while still enabling a harvest of trees.
The Priest River, winding through the scene from top to bottom, is bordered on both sides by a forest buffer that can serve as a natural filtration system to protect water quality. For nearly a century, the river was used to transport logs. Its function changed in the 1990s when the main stem was set aside for recreation by the Idaho state government.
Whitetail Butte has historically been used by state and federal land managers as a lookout point for forest fires.
Astronaut photograph ISS050-E-28519 was acquired on January 4, 2017, with a Nikon D4 digital camera using an 1150 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 50 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by Andi Hollier, Hx5, and M. Justin Wilkinson, Texas State University, Jacobs Contract at NASA-JSC.