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National forests, national identity.

As we celebrate a landmark year for these great American proving grounds, it is well to look thoughtfully behind so that we may see more clearly ahead.

Imagine what the United States would be like without its great forests, without the tree-covered expanses of the Appalachians, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the Rocky Mountains. More than a century ago, a small but influential group of American artists, writers, scientists, and intellectuals found reason to fear that very possibility and thereby sparked a lively dialogue about the consequences of forest depletion. From those first debates sprang the conservation movement.

Environmentalists who pause for a moment and consider the historical context might find to their surprise that the founding ideals of the National Forest System are not as simple as the "wise use" of natural resources, but rather that the forests--like public parks--also rest on deep stirrings of conscience for the protection of an American sense of place.

In terms of federal involvement, conservationists achieved their greatest breakthrough in 1891 with the passage by Congress of the Forest Reserve Act, which empowered the president to proclaim forest "reserves"--later renamed national forests--on the nation's public lands. Thus had the United States committed itself to ensuring that the warnings of its conservation prophets did not in fact come to pass.

The national forests--as both a system and an idea--are therefore a century old. Today the American people collectively share more than 191 million acres of national forests and grasslands (both managed by the U.S. Forest Service), which comprise an area nearly twice the size of California. To be sure, that statistic is no cause for complacency; it does, however, grant Americans the privilege of feeling proud. Whatever the system's faults, it nonetheless endures as a great national proving ground, a place for testing and reevaluating that most basic question: Can use and the environment in fact coexist?

That the question is still relevant today is reason alone for commemorating the national forest idea. Prior to its inception, the nation was committed to transferring practically all public lands to private ownership. Beginning in the 1850s, millions of acres were awarded to western railroads to help speed construction in unsettled areas. The policy seemed to make perfect sense. After all, how else was the government to encourage economic growth if not through the sale of the public lands to settlers and investors?

Yet the end result of privatization, as our forebears eventually discovered and many of us have since forgotten, is not always what the nation expects. By the end of the 19th century, speculators were swarming over the public domain in what has come to be known as "the great barbecue" of natural resources. It was the abuses of this land rush, both real and alleged, that finally convinced concerned Americans of the need for major reforms.

A deep and abiding concern for landscape esthetics--for the beauty of the natural world--comprised the second important cornerstone of forest conservation. As the historian Roderick Nash has noted, "The literary gentleman wielding a pen, not the pioneer with his axe, made the first gestures of resistance against the strong currents of antipathy."

The appreciation of forests, in other words, began among those people who did not struggle with the natural environment in order to make a living. As early as the 18th century, a growing curiosity about the North American forests, especially in the intellectual capitals of western Europe, had partially offset the pioneer's historical indifference. Scientists, artists, and adventurers were turning inland from the coastal settlements to fulfill the expectations of armchair explorers with lavishly illustrated accounts of the New World's unique kaleidoscope of plants, birds, and animals.

By the close of the American Revolution, the so-called primitive qualities of the continent had already formed the basis of a working national identity, a consciousness founded on the conviction that nature, if not culture, might serve as the enduring symbol of the United States.

Unlike Europe, the argument unfolded, the United States was not encumbered by a history of privilege and aristocracy. Granted, Europe had many enviable qualities, including great works of art and storied traditions. But that heritage aside, the potential of Europe had finally run its course. The future of Western Civilization was on the American side of the Atlantic, where democracy had finally triumphed over monarchy and dictatorship. Nor was there any greater proof of America's eventual superiority than her unbounded wilderness, a vast storehouse of land and natural resources stretching 3,000 miles to the Pacific. Thus Thomas Cole, for example--setting the theme for the distinguished Hudson River School of landscape painting--noted proudly: "In America, all nature is new to art."

The outcome could not have been foreseen at the time, but in turning to the natural world as their primary subject matter, the painters of the Hudson River School established esthetics--and not merely production--as one of the emotional pillars of forest conservation. The Hudson River School corroborated what nationalists had been saying since independence--that America's distinctiveness was its wildness, a unique sense of place brought about principally by the absence of human works. Granted, the United States offered none of the prized romantic scenes so commonplace throughout Europe--mountaintop castles, cathedral villages, ancient harbors, and storied battlefields. Instead, Cole challenged his counterparts to examine the mountains, rivers, forests, and seacosts of New York and New England where, despite random human interruptions, an even greater subject--the divinity of the universe as revealed through rocks, clouds, plants, and other examples of nature's handiwork--still awaited the artist's brush.

Consequently, with each change in the northeastern landscape, especially deforestation, it seemed that the nation's character--not just its appearance--was being visibly threatened. Not only did the United States depend on wood for commerce and industry, the nation had also taken cultural and intellectual refuge in the promise of an unspoiled continent. The more Americans altered the landscape, reducing both its freshness and diversity, the less credibility that form of reasoning seemed to hold.

All the necessary elements for conservation were finally in place. All that remained was to convince the public of the need.

In George Perkins Marsh, conservationists everywhere found both unity of purpose and greater sense of direction. Growing up among the mountains that surrounded Woodstock, Vermont, he had observed the complicated relationships between forest cover and streamflow. Years later, as American minister to Turkey, Marsh recalled those boyhood lessons and applied them to his studies of the eastern Mediterranean, arguing that its ancient civilizations had declined in large part because deforestation and overgrazing had destroyed their resource base.

His lifelong interest in European history, his mastery of European languages, his distinguished political career, and his extensive travels abroad--all uniquely fitted George Perkins Marsh for unquestionably his greatest contribution, the publication in 1864 of his book, Man and Nature. "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent," he wrote, setting the theme of this classic study. "Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords."

Man and Nature went on to describe, in exhaustive but absorbing detail, the effects of human settlement on forests, water, wildlife, and deserts. It was the prospect that the United States might repeat the environmental mistakes of the ancients that concerned Marsh the most. "We have now felled forest enough everywhere, in many districts far too much," he maintained.

Like any important sourcebook, Man and Nature was a unifying force, a crucible of knowledge for conservation's early champions. In that respect alone, its significance as a milestone on the road to the national forests cannot be overestimated. Although the first national forests would not be proclaimed for another quarter century, Man and Nature lent legitimacy to the emerging body of opinion that some of the public lands should be retained in government ownership.

Granted, the first significant shift in federal policy addressed the need for public parks, most notably Yosemite, authorized June 30, 1864, and Yellowston, established March 1, 1872. Of most importance, however, was the principle they represented. In those instances where public lands of any national significance were visibly threatened, the government had the right--indeed the duty--to maintain those lands for public benefit.

Wherever forest conservation had begun to take hold, the esthetic and the practical went hand in hand. Noting the march of the logging industry into northern New York, Marsh called for the protection of the Adirondacks "as far as possible" in their "primitive condition." Only larger tracts of land, he believed, would effectively serve as an "asylum" for wildlife and as "a garden for the recreation of the lover of nature."

That Marsh included natural beauty among the reasons for protecting forests underscores the influence of landscape esthetics on the conservation movement. In 1875, to cite another important example, botanists, landscape gardeners, and estate owners formed the American Forestry Association and, in advocating forest conservation, stressed not only the functional principles espoused in Man and Nature but also the natural beauty of trees (see "Fighting for the National Forests" on page 25).

In 1876 concerned New Englanders, many from the Boston area, founded the Appalachian Mountain Club. Like AFA, the new organization decried both the waste of forest resources and the loss of natural beauty. Gradually, the organizations diverged, with AFA devoting more and more attention to the importance of forests as watersheds and perpetual sources of timber. But the precedent had been set. Whatever differences of opinion later characterized the movement, forest conservation began in the public mind as an indivisible bond between trees as a commercial resource and a common natural heritage. The latter principle might be ignored, but not without touching a wellspring of indignation as deep as the nation's search for a distinctive national identity.

Ultimately, the public would not support concervation without a conscience, defined as the recognition of true equality between the needs of national production and the integrity of the national landscape as a source of literary, scientific, and artistic inspiration.

Meanwhile, other events were adding forcefully to the warnings of Man and Nature. On the night of October 8, 1871, the lumbering town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was battered by a so-called "hurricane of flame." By dawn the following day, the entire town, its environs, and nearly 1.3 million acres of land had been swept by a wall of fire so devastating and so intense that the word firestorm is believed to have originated in later accounts of the event. The human toll was equally frightening--at least 1,500 lives, many lost as people tried to flee the raging inferno.

Although it was months before the accounts of Peshtigo had been fully compiled, no incident more dramatically reaffirmed the need to dust off the nation's land laws and look more seriously into the future.

The Division of Forestry, established in 1881 in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Adirondack Forest Preserve, approved by New York State in 1885, were among the important results of the public's growing awareness of conservation issues.

A widening circle of government experts began to step forward, among them Carl Schurz, John Wesley Powell, Charles Sprague Sargent, and Franklin B. Hough, The unavoidable problem, they all agreed, was that the original frontier was rapidly retreating and by the early 1880s survived only in pockets of the West. However large, those pockets in no way compared to the frontier of but a few decades earlier.

As part of the census of 1890, the government reported the closing of the American frontier. No longer was it possible to distinguish a clearly defined boundary between the settled and unsettled halves of the country. That seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of natural resources stretching to the Pacific was now surveyed, settled, or otherwise spoken for.

To say the least, thinking Americans were dismayed. Somehow the frontier had distinguished the United States from all other nations. As long as there had been a frontier, Americans had a ready-made justification for their lack of cultural attainments. One thing was now evident--what forests the United States already possessed were all it would ever possess. Granted, some of those forests were extensive and still largely untouched. But given the fact that even tlarger forests had long since fallen to the axe, could anyone take comfort just in the knowledge that so much still remained?

On March 3, 1891, Congress answered by approving the Forest Reserve Act. For the better part of a decade similar proposals had gotten nowhere; indeed, the Forest Reserve Act itself has long been interpreted as something of an accident, the beneficiary of a Congressional rush to complete business in the waning hours of that particular session.

Regardless, the act itself proved far-reaching. Without furhter consent from Congress, the president was authorized to proclaim forest reserves anywhere on the public domain. Theoretically at least, the president has unilateral authority to circumvent the objections of any special interests, including the opponents of conservation in the legislative branch.

Nor did President Benjamin Harrison waste any time in getting down to business. Just three weeks later, he proclaimed the first of 15 forest reserves established during his administration--the Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve in Wyoming, lying immediately to the east and southeast of the national park proper. The prophets of conservation had finally been vindicated. There would indeed be public forests. Not everything in the country would fall blindly to the axe.

Distinguished by the contributions of President Theodore Roosevelt and his chief advisor, Gifford Pinchot, the history of the national forests since 1891 is vastly more familiar. When Roosevelt came to office in 1901, approximately 47 million acres had been set aside as reserves. By 1909, as TR took his final bow, the system was three times larger, a whopping 151 million acres. Indeed, well might it be said that the first decade of this century was conservation's Golden Age.

It was not that Theodore Roosevelt invented conservation; more to the point, his rare combination of talent and enthusiasm revolutionized the movement. He knew how to pick and advance good people, among them Gifford Pinchot. An astute administrator and publicist, Pinchot shared with Roosevelt a background of family wealth and influence. Following his graduation from Yale University in 1889, Pinchot sailed to Europe to study professional forestry. Later he was back home, convinced that western Europe was decades ahead of the United States in the management and protection of its remaining forestlands.

By 1898 he had been chosen to lead the Division of Forestry. Like his predecessors, he quickly came to resent the irony of the fact that the reserves themselves were controlled by the Department of the Interior instead of Agriculture. Bluntly, as he put it, he was "a forester without forests."

That is, he was until Teddy Rossevelt moved into the White House. It took a few years, but no February 1, 1905, Roosevelt presented his gifted advisor with the greatest victory of his career: signed legislation authorizing the transfer of the forest reserves to Pinchot's jurisdiction. Just a month later, Pinchot's agency was receiving double its precious appropriation under its new title, the U.S. Forest Service.

And then TR and Pinchot really got down to business, so much so, in fact, that early in 1907 Congress moved to prohibit the president from proclaiming additional forest reserves in six western states (the states, of course, with the most forest acreage). As part of a major legislative package, the bill was too important for Roosevelt to simply veto, but it sign the bill be must, he did not have to sign it immediately. Over the next week and a half, the lights at the White House burned far into the night. Gifford Pinchot pored over his maps, those indicating which forests still required protection in the six affected states. Each time Pinchot pointed his finger, Roosevelt drew his pen.

By March 2, 1907, and the close of congressional business, more that 16 million acres of new forest reserves (known ever since as "the midnight forests") had been established, each in direct opposition to the bill still sitting on Roosevelt's desk. And then, Pinchot's forests safely proclaimed, TR picked up his pen one more time, finally signing away his authority to do what he had already done.

Cynically, perhaps, if sometimes with good reason, many Americans no longer consider their national leaders to be as vital or as committed. Then again, our cynicism may reflect nothing but our reluctance to admit that the beginning of any movement is often its most exciting state. There have been scores of major accomplishments since the days of TR--most have simply been approved with far less personal flair. Still, that does not make them less important. The acquisition of private lands for national forests throughout the East; the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964; and still more recently, the many directives authorizing the Forest Service to manage a broad range of other wild, scenic, and recreational lands--these too have been significant milestones in the history of the national forests. It's just that, lacking Roosevelts and Pinchots, they have not fired our imaginations in quite the same way.

In the final analysis, the erosion of credibility that is the fate of government forestry today is probably traceable in large part to elements of indifference to the historical record. The promise 100 years ago was a national forest system that not only secured the country's means of wood production but also protected the landscape as a source of national pride. In managing the national forests, beauty and utility were to be viewed as inseparable.

No wonder that Gifford Pinchot lost patience with so-called preservationists. Schooled in Erope, he based his own line of reasoning on the classical forest model. Trees would not be cleared; father may would be thinned. Always selective, the forester could not help by remain sensitive to the natural environment as a whole, including--and especially--its distinctive scenic qualities.

The later contention tath the classical forest was old faschinoed and inefficient was the undoing, in many respects, of the historical alliance between landscape esthetics and the national forest idea. So, too, adovactes for the protection of biological diversity, principally scientists and environmentalists, have openly rejected all but the classical forest model or its derivatives. Simply, a forest that appears to be whole is more likely to be whole, whether in terms of natural beauty or biological integrity. Here again, the rejection of classical forestry may be said to have pitted the aims of modern management agaisnt the evolution of America's cultural values.

Which will it be--a system of management that continually fragments and compartmentalizes indivisible natural qualities, or, as originally promised, working forests that are universaly functional, beautiful, and ecologically sound? In this, the centenial year of the National Forest System, that remains the enduring challenge. One thing is certain: Through history, that is the kind of forests--and forest management--most Americans have said they want. Ultimately, it therefore stands to reason, it is the only kind they will accept.
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Title Annotation:appreciation for national forests in a historical and environmental context
Author:Runte, Alfred
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Vision for the '90s: responsible, shared use.
Next Article:Fighting for the national forests.

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