Centennial Mini-Histories of the Forest Service

Chapter 12
Reserve Act and Congress: Passage of the 1891 Act


Passage of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 followed two decades of congressional debate of public land policy. The debate addressed homesteading policy and its abuses such as the blatant fraud in granting title to public lands, as well as the general theft of public natural resources. It was these debates that led to concern over Federal forest protection, resulting in the act that enabled the formation of the National Forest System. After the Civil War, the increased westward migration led to the addition of new States in the 1870's and 1880's. The concerns of western members of Congress shaped debates about forests on public lands in the West, bills aimed at watershed and fire protection, as well as regulating timber sales. Between 1871 and 1897, of the 200 land policy bills discussed in Congress, only two related to forestry endured the legislative process—the Forest Reserve Act (1891) and the Forest Management Act (1897)—to become laws.

In his study of the legislative history of these two forestry laws, historian Harold K. Steen observed that "a bill fails of passage not because of opposition but because there are too few advocates to sustain it through the legislative process." Early advocates of Federal forest reserves included Franklin B. Hough—later appointed in 1876 as the first Federal forestry agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture—and fellow members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) such as Harvard botanist George Barrell Emerson (1797-1881). The AAAS proposed to Congress the appointment of a forest protection study commission to advise the Government on the status of forest conditions in the United States. Minnesota Congressman Mark Hill Dunnell (1823-1904) embraced the idea and introduced it in an 1874 bill that failed. Two years later, Dunnell tried a new way, using a rider to the 1876 agricultural appropriations measure calling for funding a report on forestry. The original plan was to locate the forestry agent in the Department of the Interior, the agency responsible for public lands, but by a quirk of congressional politics the agent ended up in the Department of Agriculture.

Forestry bills continued to be introduced in Congress in response to concerns about timber theft and fire. Damage by fire was the greater source of forest depletion, with vast areas burned off by wildfires such as the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in rural Wisconsin. The American Forestry Association supported an 1882 proposal by Ohio Senator John Sherman seeking "preservation of the woods and forests of the national domain adjacent to the sources of navigable rivers." Watershed protection was a major concern of supporters of forest preserves in the Adirondacks of New York State, with recreation and wilderness important secondary concerns. Creation of the Adirondack and Catskill Preserve in 1885 served as a model for advocates of Federal forest reserves. Bernhard Fernow, the German-born forester who was chief of the Division of Forestry, was instrumental in drafting the wording of a forestry bill introduced in 1888 by Indiana Congressman William S. Holman. The various bills circulating in Congress that were variants of the reserve theme all fared poorly.

Congress was not totally opposed to the retention of public lands for natural resource protection. Earlier, in 1872, the Yellowstone National Park was established by Congress. Arnold Hague of the U.S. Geological Survey had in the process of surveying Yellowstone become an advocate of its protection and lobbied for extension of the park. Toward that end, he enlisted the support of the Boone and Crockett Club, whose influential members included Charles Bird Grinnell, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot. Bills to expand the park were introduced in Congress and failed, the last one in 1891, the same year that a new way of expanding the park appeared.

It began with repeal of the Timber Culture Act of 1873, which had led to land and timber fraud under the guise of homesteading, and the desire of its sponsor, Congressman Dunnell, to replace it with an amended forest management law. The lack of agreement over the wording of his bill led Congress to appoint three members to serve as conferees, one of them Congressman Holman. Three days before adjournment, the committee delivered the proposed amended bill. The bill to repeal the Timber Culture Act is today known as the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, thanks to its last section.

Section 24 authorized the President to set aside timber reserves, along with the national parks and monuments already in existence, a shift in public land policy from disposal to retention. The natural resources found on public lands were to be "managed for the people" in the future. After heated discussion of its implications for homesteaders and presidential power the bill was accepted and later signed by President Benjamin Harrison on March 3, 1891.

The origin of section 24 of the Forest Reserve Act is still debated, with some partisans crediting Senator Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota, others Fernow of the Bureau of Forestry, and some favoring Secretary of the Interior John Witlcock Noble (1831-1912). Steen argues that Congressman Holman deserves recognition since his 1888 bill (influenced by Fernow) calls for protecting forests on the public domain, language later found in the 1891 act.

Yet, today, what is important is not the identity of the individual who drafted the bill but the realization that it was the work of a constellation of groups forming the conservation movement of the era. A quick example will suffice. A partial list of the supporters of the concept of Federal forest reserves were preservationists seeking parks; hunters and anglers seeking game habitat protection; western farmers and urban dwellers seeking watershed protection; and professional foresters in the Department of Agriculture concerned about forest depletion from fire, insects and disease, and non-sustainable-yield forestry practices. First out the gate in recommending the first reserve was Arnold Hague; he argued for selecting an area bordering Yellowstone Park, which he believed should become a reserve because it was a natural reservoir for water and a breeding place for elk and other large mammals (including the last herd of buffalo surviving in the wild). President Benjamin Harrison established the Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve on March 30, 1891 (the reserve was renamed the Shoshone National Forest in 1908). The next one was the White River Plateau Timber Land Reserve, established on October 16, 1891. The passage of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 made these and later reserves (national forests) possible and hence led to the basis of the National Forest System. In is this legacy of public natural resources managed by the workforce of the Forest Service that we celebrate with the 1991 Centennial.


Steen, Harold K. 1991. The beginning of the National Forest System. Washington, DC: USDA Forest Service.

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Last Updated: 19-Mar-2008
Forest History Society Electronic edition courtesy of the
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