Printer Friendly

100 years of American forests.

Our forests represent a substantially transformed legacy - certainly in comparison to 1600, a difference most of us understand. But our forests have also been substantially transformed since 1896 - a dimension which is much less understood by most people.

The view of humans toward the nation's forests has changed profoundly over the years. Native Americans viewed the forest in a spiritual context. But they also took a utilitarian approach to the forest. They used and managed it to serve their own ends. European Americans initially viewed forests as an encumbrance to agriculture, or as a virtually inexhaustible resource to be mined. At first they used the forest - its wildlife, wood products and land - to meet their subsistence needs for food and energy, much as Native Americans had done.

Later, the abundant wealth of the forests was used to build the homes, cities, and transportation infrastructure of a growing nation, and the lands previously occupied by forests were used to feed a rapidly growing population. These were vital uses. However, it became increasingly clear that old approaches were not sustainable.

One hundred years ago, a growing number of people began to be increasingly concerned about what was happening to much of the nation's woodlands. Fears about future supplies of timber were mixed with apparent implications of increased flooding and watershed damage, depleted wildlife populations, loss of the beauty of the American landscape, and even concerns about how forest clearing was affecting the climate itself. All of these concerns began to call into question the myth of forest inexhaustibility.

The conservation movement acquired its primary impetus as the century turned and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, found himself, after the assassination of President McKinley, in a position to take action. Joining him as the chief advocate of "wise use" of the [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] forests was Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service.

A number of forest policies emerged as national goals and priorities in response to public concerns. The success of those policies depended upon effective cooperative relationships among federal, state, and local governments, as well as private forest landowners and other private sector interests.

The policies and priorities that had the greatest effect on the improved condition of our forests are the following:

* Focusing on fire suppression, prevention, and public education to protect the forest;

* Establishing and enhancing the profession of forestry, and later of wildlife management, hydrology, and other natural resource disciplines, through establishment of accredited natural resource schools, professional societies; etc.;

* Improving the art and science of forest regeneration and management, including research, establishment of tree nurseries, and providing technical and financial assistance to forest landowners;

* Improving the efficiency with which wood products are utilized in the woods, at the mill, and in end-product applications. Such gains are the result of wood utilization research, its effective application, and the incentive created by increasing real prices for forest products. The Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, established in 1910, has been a significant contributor over the years to expanding the technical knowledge necessary for improving the utilization of wood products;

* Improving the quality of forest management on private lands by improving economic incentives and removing tax and other disincentives;

* Establishing the forest reserves (later the national forests) for watershed protection, irrigation, and sustained timber production;

* While not established for forestry purposes, one policy that nonetheless had a significant beneficial impact on the nation's forest resources was the strategic decision made in the Department of Agriculture in the early decades of this century to emphasize agricultural research aimed at increasing crop yields. Prior to that, USDA primarily focused on statistical reporting, soil and farm implement testing, and related activities.

* An additional factor that has had a significant positive effect on forest conservation has been the increasing real price of wood over the decades. Between 1850 and 1950, the real price of lumber, and of standing timber, increased by more than five times, adjusted for inflation. This has created powerful economic incentives both for growing and managing forests and for reducing consumption of wood by using it more efficiently. The power of such economic incentives for conservation and efficient use of the resource by the private sector was largely unrecognized by early conservation leaders.

It is a measure of both the inherent resilience of our forests, and of the success of the policies that were put in place in response to public concerns in the early decades of this century, that forest conditions over much of the United States have improved dramatically since 1900. On page 66 there is a snapshot of the forest situation that existed about 1896, as contrasted to 1996.

The Eastern Forest Comes Back

Nationally, the United States has about the same area of forests today as it did in 1920. However, some areas have considerably more forest than existed in 1920. A growing tide of land abandonment and reversion to forest, particularly of marginal farmland east of the Mississippi, began to increase the area of forest land in some areas. Beginning gradually in the mid-1800s, marginal agricultural land in the East and South began to be abandoned as more productive farmlands in the Midwest were opened up.

The reasons for reversion back to forest are complex. Two related factors were working in concert. The growth of the cities accelerated the transition of U.S. agriculture from subsistence to commercial. At the same time, the nation's progressively improving transportation system opened up more productive western lands to provide for the growing cities. The steep lands, small fields, and less productive lands of the East and southern Appalachians were unable to compete commercially with the lands of the Ohio Valley and much of the rest of the Midwest. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 was the first major step that set the stage for cropland reversion in the Northeast. Cropland depletion was also a factor in some cases, as was the reduction in the need for pasture resulting from declining numbers of draft animals.

The process of farmland reversion back to forest continued into the 1900s and was accelerated by the Great Depression. Under the Resettlement Act, a New Deal program, thousands of farmers in the Appalachians and elsewhere were relocated to more productive land. Between 1925 and 1945, almost 20 million acres of their abandoned farms and depleted woodlands were incorporated into the eastern national forests under the Weeks Act. Millions of additional acres became state parks and forests.

In many ways, the forest and farmland landscape of many parts of the Appalachians, as well as other areas of the East and South, has come full circle. By the 1960s and '70s, the pattern of forest, fields, and pastures was much as it had been prior to 1800. In many areas the rural landscape has taken on an appearance much as it must have had prior to the American Revolution.

American Forests - The Challenge

As our population has continued to urbanize, the principle of forest conservation for products and services has remained, but its role and scope have enlarged. A few decades ago we began to view forests as attractive settings for outdoor recreation and as places for human spiritual renewal. More recently, we have begun to view forests as ecosystems supporting a complex web of life, of which humans are a part.

As human population numbers and resource demands increase, the emerging challenge for society and its land managers is to find ways that both commodity products and amenity values can be realized over time from the same area of forest. This is the challenging new focus for the evolving concept of land stewardship and forest sustainability.


The person who would forbid by law the harvesting of ripe trees from the forest should pass other laws to be consistent. He should make it illegal to sit on wooden chairs, to walk on wooden floors, to sleep in wooden beds, to eat from wooden tables, to rock his children in wooden cradles, and to accept shelter under a wooden roof upheld by wooden walls. When his daughter leaves his metallic home to attend her first Junior Prom on a concrete dance floor, he should make sure that she does not clothe her twinkling toes and graceful ankles in that part of a harvested tree called rayon.

from Joseph T. Hazard in Our Living Forests: The Story of Their Preservation and Multiple Use, 1948


The forest industries in America actually began about 500 years before Columbus rediscovered the continent. The Viking/Irish people who populated Iceland and Greenland made trips to the North American continent, probably to what is now Labrador, to cut timber.


In 1990, more than 400 trees were planted for every child born.

In the early days of Northwest timbering, sawmills did not accept logs less than 16 inches in diameter. That policy left trees for later generations.


This forest is not a thing that was made once and remained the same ever after. It has grown and develops as a whole, just as each individual tree grows from infancy to old age.

Ernest Bruncken, in North American Forests and Forestry: Their Relations to the National Life of the American People, 1900


Today the forest products industry of the Pacific Northwest is far and away the best partner that the transportation systems have. The tree industry, in all its ramifications, furnishes the railroad with 66 percent and steamships with 80 percent of the traffic they haul. This Pacific Northwest partner of the railroads and the steamships contains less than 3 percent of the population of the country - 13 percent of the area - yet upon its hillsides stands 55 percent of all the virgin timber in the United States.

Wood Products, August 1940

RELATED ARTICLE: A National Forest Timeline

In 1877, Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, made a journey-through American forests. "I observed the notion," he said, "that the public forests were everybody's property, to be taken and used or wasted as anybody pleased, everywhere in full operation. I observed enterprising timber thieves not merely stealing trees, but stealing whole forests. I observed hundreds of sawmills in full blast, devoted exclusively to sawing timber stolen from the public lands."

According to Douglas W. MacCleery of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the rationales for creating the national forest system was the conventional wisdom of a hundred years ago that, due to the long time frames and low economic returns involved in growing trees, the private sector could not be relied upon to shoulder much of the burden for producing the nation's wood, once the original forests were harvested. Time and private enterprise have disproved that rationale, but the great national forest system of the United States remains one of the great monuments of world forestry.


A publication by George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, sounded the first alarms about Americans wasting land and forests.


The 1870 census included a forest survey for the first time.


Yellowstone National Park was created, establishing the precedent for setting aside from development specific lands because of their natural attributes.


The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in response to a speech by Dr. Franklin B. Hough, called for the protection of forests.


The U.S. Congress created the Bureau of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture. During its entire first decade it was granted only $60,000 for work. Dr. Franklin Hough took the job of managing it for a salary of $2,000. However, the position had no authority over any forest land for many more years.


The American Forestry Association organized to support protection of existing forests and reforestation.


Carl Schurz, the Secretary of the Interior, tried to get Congress to pass laws protecting the public forests. Instead, they passed the Timber and Stone Act, which allowed the sale of public forested and stony land (thus supposedly unfit for agriculture) in chunks of 160 acres for only $2.50 an acre. These lands were in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Another act passed at the same time allowed any settler or miner to cut whatever trees he needed from public land.


The first attempt to get Congress to pass a bill withdrawing public timberland from cutting and setting up the office of Forester failed.


The Bureau of Forestry became the Division of Forestry, but it still had no timberlands to administer.


For the first time, a professional forester, German immigrant Bernard E. Fernow, became the head of the Division of Forestry.


The Forest Reserve Act was finally passed, giving the president the authority to set aside forest reserves. These were not to be operated in any way, just established as closed areas. President Harrison's first reserve was the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve in Wyoming, consisting of 12,40,000 acres, which are now part of two other national forests. Although there was a Division of Forestry within the USDA, these reserves were placed under the Department of the Interior.


Before President Harrison left office, he had set aside a total of 15 forest reserves, totally 13.5 million acres.


A committee was created in 1896 to make recommendations on whether, and how, to extend the national forest reserves originally created by President Harrison. Its chairman was Harvard University's Dr. Charles Sprague Sargent, and its secretary was a young European-trained American forester whose name would become synonymous with forest conservation, Gifford Pinchot.

Ultimately, the committee would recommend that an additional 21 million acres of forest reserve be added to the 13.5 million acres already set aside by President Harrison. However, it also recommended that the land be opened up for use. This was passed by Congress the following year as the Act for the Administration of the Forest Reserves. It included the need for maintaining water flow and providing "continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States." Under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, Harrison's 13.5 million acres would expand ten-fold.


The first grazing permits were issued for the forest reserves.


Gifford Pinchot, America's first professional forester, was named to head the Forestry Division. He sent employees into the field for the first time and began to build a large staff.


In line with Pinchot's concepts of multiple use of national forests, a law was passed allowing the recreational use of the national timberlands.


The national forests were moved to the USDA, within which the Division of Forestry became the Forest Service. Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson made one important rule: The people of the service should "serve the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run." In following his guidelines, Gifford's staff created the term "multiple use" and included regulations for using forests for timber, forage, water, agriculture, minerals, recreation, and wildlife.


Because westerners in Congress did not take kindly to presidential proclamations naming new national forests, they added a rider to the Forest Service's appropriations bill stopping all national forests being added to the six main western forest states without approval of Congress. The president was unable to veto the bill, but he could delay the signing while pulling off an end run. William B. Greeley, who would later become the chief U.S. forester, relates the solution devised by Gifford Pinchot and the president. "Each of us was assigned a state or part of a state. We studied all the reports on its public lands and pored over every old map. Wherever we found reasonable evidence of forest cover, we redrew national forest boundaries." Some of the earnest young men even met with the president, who, down on his hands and knees, spread out maps and helped with the work in areas that he knew. Within a few days, the president had added 18 million acres to the national forests in the six western states by proclamation. A few hours later, he signed the bill taking away his power to do so again.


The first federal forest experiment station was established in Arizona.


The Forest Products Laboratory was established with the University of Wisconsin at Madison for the scientific study of wood and it uses.


The Weeks Law was passed. It provided for the purchase of land to protect navigable streams and land in the East to become national forests. All prior national forests in the East had been on public land. It also called for collaboration between the states and the federal government in the protection of forests from fire.


The first national forests in the East were established.


The Clarke-McNary Act augmented the Weeks Law in establishing a national program of forest-fire prevention; the first Wilderness Area in a national forest was set aside, in Gila National Forest, New Mexico. Such areas are left in their natural state.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps was created. For the next nine years, more than 2 million men worked on major projects, many of them in the national forests, such as roads, watershed protection, bridges, and buildings.


The forests of the national forest system were called on to do yeoman effort in fighting World War II. The military used more tons of wood to fight the Axis than they used steel.

1996-Today, there are more than 150 national forests in the United States, incorporating at least 180 million acres of wooded land.


Nature untouched by human hands is beautiful and grand, but grander and more beautiful is the life of man, with its constant striving for a more complete subjection of the forces and matter of nature to the aspirations of the human spirit.

Ernest Bruncken, in North American Forests and Forestry: Their Relations to the National Life of the American People, 1900


The oldest community owned forest in the United States was established at Newington, New Hampshire, soon after the town was founded in the mid- 1600s.

Throughout most of American history, wood has found its primary usage as a fuel. Its second most important usage was for fencing. It has been estimated that in 1850, there were 3.2 million miles of wooden fences in the United States. That's enough to circle the Earth more than 120 times. Even after wire came into widespread use, the lowly fencepost was a major destiny for wood.

In 1605, Captain George Weymouth of the British Royal Navy, exploring the northern coast from the sea, ventured into the bay of a Maine river and led a party of men ashore. They returned with some samples of white pine. The quality of the wood delighted the British, who still call white pine "Weymouth pine" in his honor.

The Cannibal Tree in Oregon is a Douglas fir that grew entirely around an Oregon white oak, swallowing it.


The first college-trained scientific foresters in America were graduated from Cornell University in 1901.

The first forest conservation law in the United States prohibiting the selling of wood from conifers of less than one foot in diameter was passed by Nevada in 1903. However, nothing was done to make the law enforceable.


The pioneer had to learn to conquer and use a bewildering variety of trees. He could shape masts and building timbers, and make boxes of eastern white pine; vehicles of tough white ash; polished furniture of walnut, black cherry, or curly maple; fenceposts of honey locust; farm implements and chairs of hickory; canoes of birch, barrels of elm, light utensils of basswood, and long-enduring planks and beams of oak and chestnut.

from Hidy, Hill and Nevins in the introduction to Timber and Men: The Weyerhaeuser Story
COPYRIGHT 1995 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:1896-1996: Wood & Wood Products Centennial; includes related articles
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Previous Article:The story of wood, wood products and Wood & Wood Products.
Next Article:The forest products lab - giving its work away.

Related Articles
Timberlands tomorrow.
Stopping by the woods.
Once upon a century: a magazine for the ages.
The great green East: lands everyone wants.
Penn's sylva: forests regained.
To cut or not to cut: how to manage healthy forests.
A junk to jobs experiment.
Trees for life: the world's ancient forests are disappearing, and it could spell disaster for all living things. (Forests).
A race to reclaim forests: timber-managed land is up for sale, and forest communities are scrambling to maintain pristine environments and their way...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters