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Many of the great fortunes and giant corporations of the late 19th century grew out of the extraction of the rich natural resources of the Eastern Region. By the end of the century, new and powerful corporate organizations had virtual monopolies on the use of oil and iron ore. While the timber industry was highly competitive, there were great timber barons who tried with some success to apply monopolistic tactics of American big business. At the same time, millions of acres of land had been taken under cultivation, some of it marginally suited for agriculture.

There were significant benefits to the nation from the exploitation of its natural resources. The era of logging, for example, provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers, many of them immigrants. The lumber produced was an inexpensive building material for the mushrooming towns and cities. The railroads, which tied together the trade of the country and made travel much easier, ran on wooden ties. America would not have grown to be a prosperous industrial nation and world power without the rapid exploitation of its natural resources which took place in the 19th century.

There were, however, some prices to be paid. It was becoming painfully apparent by 1900 that the once vast resources of minerals and soil were not endless. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of the forests of the nation had been cut. Equally distressing was the erosion of soil caused by the cutting of forests and the fires which frequently followed the cutting. Most rivers and streams in the East and Midwest were beginning to silt badly, causing them to be less navigable and to flood severely. Wildlife, ranging from the buffalo, elk and deer to the passenger pigeon, had disappeared from places where they had once abounded.

While these problems may have troubled some thoughtful people in the latter part of the 19th century, they could do little about it. State governments in that age were often manipulated by corporate interests; their leadership, legislators, and court systems were much more concerned with economic progress and industrial development than with protecting the environment. This was the golden age of laissez faire, when the national government considered its sacred duty to be encouraging industrial growth with protection, favoritism, and outright subsidies. The presidents, congresses, and federal courts of this so-called Gilded Age considered, as un-American, any attempt to limit the right of anyone to exploit, abuse, destroy or to make money in any way from private property or the public domain. Indeed, most Americans believed that it was not the proper function of the federal government to do anything about the destruction of America's natural resources.

Forest Conservation

Most Western ideas about human's place in nature and his/her responsibilities toward it have their origins with the ancient Greeks and in the Bible. Generally, these philosophies place man in charge of the earth, giving it to him to have dominion over. The Bible tells man to "replenish the earth, and subdue it." However, by the later part of the 19th century, it was becoming increasingly apparent that man had done too much subduing and not enough replenishing. In 1874, the prophetic American writer George Perkins Marsh noted that the face of the earth was changing and that unknown and unsought results would flow from man's interference in nature. He warned against the heedless destruction of the nation's natural resources. [1]

In 1871, a forest fire near Peshtigo, Wisconsin, showed how destructive humans could be to the natural environment. The fire was of theretofore unbelievable magnitude, killing as many as 1,500 persons. The fuel for the Peshtigo fire was in large part the unused wood and debris left by lumber companies when they cut the forest. [2] In 1879, John Wesley Powell, working for the U.S. Geological Survey, published his Report on Arid Regions. The report dealt with forests in the West and their vulnerability due to aridity; it urged public ownership of western lands to protect streams and prevent forest fires. [3]

In the early 1870's, Franklin B. Hough, a physician, historian, and statistician, became motivated to do something to stop the destruction of American forests. He made a personal crusade of getting himself appointed by Congress to study the situation, becoming the first federal forestry agent. His 650 page report, made in 1879, called for a new kind of forestry and a re-examination of property rights. He described the forest situation in blistering terms, condemning the "pioneer mentality" toward forests and the greed of the timber companies. He called the cutting of trees on public land "thievery" and recommended the strict enforcement of existing laws and the creation of forest reserves. [4]

The Division of Forestry

Others were influenced by Hough's report Secretary of Interior Carl Shurz took action to enforce the existing land laws and to stop timber thievery on public lands. In 1881 the Division of Forestry was created within the Department of Agriculture. Hough was named chief but he was uncomfortable in the spoils dominated administration of President James A. Garfield and his successor Chester A. Arthur. Although he persevered in publishing his forestry reports, he could accomplish little in government and left it. He died in 1885. His place was taken by Nathaniel Egleston, who was well intentioned but a product of the spoils system and ineffective in office. Egleston was replaced in 1886 by Bernard Fernow, but remained active in forestry affairs for years. Fernow, a German-born professional forester, set the Division of Forestry on a firm course, even though he assumed leadership of the Division at a time when budgets were as low as $10,000 per year and the handling of forest lands in the public domain had come into disrepute.

Early Forest Land Laws

The bad name which had come to be associated with forest lands and federal agencies was largely the result of scandals in northern California (and elsewhere) having to do with the General Land Office and the notorious Timber and Stone Act of 1878. This Law permitted individuals to purchase nonarable and nonmineral land from the government for $2.50 per acre. It was designed to help western farmers and ranchers in arid areas acquire enough land to make a living, but it was terribly abused by lumber companies who hired individuals to file claims for as little as the price of a beer and thereby acquired commercial forest land. It is estimated that 95% of the claims were fraudulent out of a total of 8 million acres of land acquired under the Act. [5]

Other land laws of the United States, including the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the sometimes scandalous land grants to transcontinental railroads, were subject to open abuse, especially in the West, where land fraud was considered a minor offense. Part of the problem was that the land laws were written to accommodate the American frontier at a time when forests were considered a boundless resource and a barrier to settlement. Even the later Timber Culture Act, which was designed to encourage agriculturalists on the Great Plains to plant trees, was abused to the extent that 10 million acres of government land were sold in the 18 years the law was in effect. At the same time, few trees were actually planted. [6] One author has commented about the General Land Office situation in the West that "fraud was a frontier way of life." [7]

The federal government and indeed the nation had difficulty thinking and acting in realistic terms with regard to the American forests. However, a small group of foresters and conservationists led by Fernow and Hough, often acting through the American Forestry Association, sought affirmative action from Congress to protect the nation's dwindling forest resources. Shortly after taking over as head of the Division of Forestry in 1886, Fernow drafted a bill to be presented in Congress by Senator Eugene Hale of Maine which was aimed at ending land frauds through strict enforcement of the land laws. Included in the bill was a provision to take control of forest lands away from the Department of Interior's General Land Office and into the hands of the Division of Forestry of the Department of Agriculture.

The Hale Bill died in committee, but in 1891 Fernow, Hough, and the American Forestry Association were able to convince enough Congressmen to pass the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. This vitally important legislation authorized the President to create Forest Reserves out of the public domain. President Benjamin Harrison was quick to use the new law, setting aside the Yellowstone Forest Reserve by presidential proclamation in 1891. Before his term was up in 1893, Harrison, guided by Fernow and the Division of Forestry, had created 15 Reserves containing over 13 million acres. Grover S. Cleveland, who followed Harrison as President, added 5 million acres but then stopped the process, saying he would add no more until Congress acted to adequately protect the Forest Reserves. As things stood, the Reserves existed only on paper and in reality were no better off than unreserved lands in the public domain. [8]

The Forest Conservation Movement

In 1896, under the urgings of Fernow, Gifford Pinchot and eminent botanist Charles S. Sargent and the Secretary of Interior, Hoke Smith, requested that the National Academy of Sciences appoint a National Forestry Commission. The purpose was to survey the timber resources of the nation and make recommendations concerning them. Also behind this move was the American Forestry Association, which had become a major force in American forestry. Established in 1875, the Association was a vehicle for those interested in forestry to meet in conventions, exchange ideas, and to publish their writings. Hough was quite active in the organization, as were most of the early leaders of American forestry. [9]

In 1897, on George Washington's Birthday, President Cleveland, acting on the recommendations of the Forestry Commission and the new Secretary of Interior, David R. Francis, created 13 new Forest Reserves covering 21 million acres. The action was really quite precipitous because there was still no agency or governmental structure to administer so many millions of acres. [10]

When the McKinley Administration took office, the new Secretary of Interior, wanting to know more about the Forest Reserves, commissioned Pinchot to make a confidential study of the situation. Pinchot strongly recommended the adoption of three goals: (1) permanent tenure of forest land, (2) continuity of management, and (3) permanent technically trained foresters. In these three precepts lay the future of the Forest Service. [11]

Roosevelt and Pinchot

Meanwhile, outside of the federal government was a small but potentially influential group of concerned citizens who were worried about the damage being done to the environment. It was, ironically, a group of big game hunters whose very purpose was a threat to wildlife. Their leader, Theodore Roosevelt, was one of the most avid hunters of his day. As a young man, he had hunted in the backwoods of Maine and New Hampshire and on the prairies of Illinois. By the 1880's, his hunting range was no longer in the East but had been pushed westward to the Badlands of Dakota and to the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills.

Roosevelt, like other hunters, regretted the disappearance of game from the natural ranges in the East and could see the same process taking place in the West. In 1887, he and other hunters met in Roosevelt's home at Sagamore Hill to form the Boone and Crockett Club. The members were all wealthy sportsmen, and the rules they adopted for the Club provided that every member had to have killed a big game animal. They took their name from two famous hunters, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. However, the goals of the Club were more than just improving the prospects for hunting. The members wanted to practice conservation, not only for the big game but also for other wildlife and for the public lands and forest resources of the nation. [12]

In American Big Game Hunting, published in 1893, Theodore Roosevelt wrote,"The preservation of forests and game go hand in hand. He who works for either works for both." Never one to make empty statements, Roosevelt began about this time to make discreet inquiries about a forester named Gifford Pinchot. Through a mutual friend, C. Grant LaFarge, secretary of the Boone and Crockett Club, Roosevelt saw to it that Pinchot was signed as a member. Pinchot gave the Club a new direction and forestry became more and more important. The Boone and Crockett Club had powerful connections and became an important element in the coalescence of the national Conservation Movement. The Movement tended to focus on forest conservation, partly because of the leadership of Pinchot but mostly because of recognized need. Most Americans could easily see that the forests were endangered and that the forest landscape was deteriorating rapidly. Problems such as the exploitation of minerals, erosion and watershed damage, and the extinction of wildlife were less obvious. [14]

The work of Gifford Pinchot in American forestry is detailed elsewhere. It will suffice to say that when he became head of the Division of Forestry in 1898, a new era began for American forestry. In addition to being the founding father of the modern Forest Service, Pinchot was also the father of the multiple use concept of National Forest management and a principal leader of the Conservation Movement. [15]

As President, Theodore Roosevelt took most of his advice concerning conservation from Pinchot and Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield, son of the assassinated President James A. Garfield. Together, the three men set the policy of the federal government on a new course toward real conservation of public lands.

The Multiple Use Concept

Pinchot, being a forester, seemed to have been interested primarily in saving American forests, especially in the West where there were still forests to be saved and where the lands remained in federal hands. But as he moved toward the formulation of a comprehensive policy for saving the forests, it became clear that Pinchot held a pragmatic philosophy which had the capacity to fit forest conservation into the basic American goals of economic progress and development. The concept is now known as "multiple use," and it would allow the continued development of the Forest Reserves through timber cutting, grazing, mining, drilling, dam-building, irrigation, and public recreation. However, the federal government would have to manage them so that the resources were used in reasonable ways and not destroyed. [16]


Concurrently with the crusade for the protection of wildlife and forests another movement was developing. Its origins can be traced to nature writers such as John Muir, a California naturalist and advocate of the creation of National Parks to protect natural wonders such as Yosemite. One other was John Burroughs, and eastern naturalist whose many writings gave the nation greater interest in protecting the natural environment. Burroughs greatly influenced Theodore Roosevelt, himself a serious naturalist. Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club and the intellectual father of the movement which is best termed preservation. Muir looked upon forests and wilderness as a place to renew one's soul and upon nature itself as a reflection of God, truth, and beauty. Muir's blend of pantheism, mysticism, and dogged activism set the direction for future generations of environmentalists and preservationists. The preservationists look upon humans as interlopers in the wilderness, unnatural intruders whose activities must be kept to a minimum or eliminated entirely.

The two philosophies, multiple use and preservation, were obviously antithetical, and this became clear nationally in the Hetch-Hetchy controversy. Hetch-Hetchy was a valley in Yosemite National Park which the federal government planned to fill with a lake by building a dam. Water was badly needed to supply the city of San Francisco after the earthquake/fire of 1906. Although there was much support for the project locally, John Muir and his followers fought to block the project, arguing that the valley was one of unique beauty and that to flood the valley would destroy the beauty forever. [17]

Chief Forester Pinchot and Secretary of Interior Garfield saw the Hetch-Hetchy as an excellent way to utilize a Forest Reserve in the public interests. They had the backing of powerful industrial and municipal interests as well as much public support. In the end, President Roosevelt sided with his advisors, and the Hetch-Hetchy dam was built. This same story has been repeated many times since, with different settings and projects and with different outcomes. The significance of the Hetch-Hetchy controversy is that it began a divergence of views which continues to this day. In the early days, the fight between Muir and Pinchot, who had once been friends, became bitter. [18]

Creating the National Forest System

When Gifford Pinchot became chief of the Division of Forestry in 1898, one of his first goals was to gain control of the Forest Reserves. Since these were still nominally under the control of the Department of Interior, the matter had to be handled diplomatically between two departments of the federal government. After the Department of Interior realized the shortcomings in its efforts to combat trespass and fraud on the Forest Reserves, it became willing to allow the Division of Forestry to manage the Reserves. Foresters of the Department of Agriculture would examine the Reserves, make all technical decisions, and administer the plan they developed. Interior land agents were to assist when possible. Pinchot, as head of the Division of Forestry, would report to the Secretary of Interior on accomplishments. It was a hybrid bureaucratic arrangement which had little hope of permanency, but it gave Pinchot de facto control of the Reserves. [19]

When Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901 with the assassination of William McKinley, the work of forest conservation quickened. Roosevelt and Pinchot were old friends who had worked together in the Boone and Crockett Club to help preserve wildlife and establish wildlife reserves. Roosevelt understood fully the importance of forest conservation. Politically, he saw the public favor to be gained from espousing conservation movement, even if it meant antagonizing some of the major corporate interests of the nation.

As President, Roosevelt backed Pinchot in the creation of a whole new system of Forest Reserves, later called National Forests. When pressures from corporate and western interests forced Congress to withdraw the power to create Forest Reserves in 1907, Roosevelt and Pinchot worked over maps until midnight on the day the power ended creating new "midnight forests." [20]

The Forest Service

The Forest Service is Born

Concurrently, Pinchot worked to reorganize, strengthen, and redirect the agency he headed from a largely technical advisory bureau to a diversified management organization capable of overseeing the vast new Forest Reserves. In 1901, Congress changed the Division of Forestry to the Bureau of Forestry, a definite bureaucratic upgrading. [21] On February 1, 1905, the Forest Reserves and personnel were transferred to the Bureau of Forestry; and on July 1 of that year, the Forest Service, with Pinchot as its head, was created, replacing the Bureau of Forestry.


The head of the Forest Service was called the "Forester" until 1935. He was directly responsible to the Secretary of Agriculture and charged with the general administration of the Forest Service. Under the Forester and heading the various branches were "Assistant Foresters." The chief assistant to the Forester and the person in charge in his absence was the "Associate Forester." After 1935, the title of Forester was changed to "Chief." The various departments of the Washington Office as of 1930 were the Office of the Forester (Chief) and the branches of Finance and Accounts, Operation, Forest Management, Range Management, Lands, Engineering, Public Relations, and Research. [22]

In order to facilitate communication between himself and the assistant foresters, branch chiefs, and other key figures in the Washington Office, Pinchot began the practice of formal weekly or biweekly meetings. This was known as the Service Committee. Over the years, much important policy and action was discussed and decided in these meetings. Special visitors were often invited when it was thought they would contribute to the proceedings.


From the beginning, Pinchot and the Forest Service worked on the principle of decentralization. The work of the Washington Office was overseeing the big picture—coordinating with other federal agencies advising the President, and working with Congress—but the basic work of the Service in the field was to be directed outside of the Washington Office. To achieve this goal, Pinchot and his successors recognized that the people working in the field had to be increasingly well qualified for their jobs, beginning with the Rangers. Pinchot insisted that Rangers pass difficult Civil Service examinations and that they be robust, outdoors men who were "capable of enduring hardships and of performing severe labor under trying conditions." Horsemanship and woodcraft were essential, and Pinchot made it abundantly clear that "Invalids seeking light out-of-door employment need not apply." But the Rangers needed to be more than simply strong, silent types; they also had to be able to deal "tactfully with all classes of people" and to make "intelligent reports". [23]

Pinchot envisioned a forest agency with a Chief Forester and seven Districts each supervised by a District Forester with headquarters on or near the Forest Reserves of the District. [24] These Districts would have broad functions and staffs which were miniatures of the Washington Office with modifications to meet local needs. Once in power, Pinchot implemented the system the way he wanted it. It remains essentially the same today. Each Regional Forester (the Districts were changed to Regions in 1931) exercises considerable power, often managing millions of acres. He/she has the authority to make policy and administer his/her Region with a more or less free hand. In 1930, there were nine Districts (Regions) of the Forest Service: #1 (Northern) in Montana, northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwestern South Dakota and headquartered at Missoula, Montana; #2 (Rocky Mountain) in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and western Oklahoma and headquartered at Denver, Colorado; #3 (Southwestern) in New Mexico and Arizona and headquartered at Albuquerque, New Mexico; #4 (Intermountain) in Utah, southern Idaho, western Wyoming, Nevada, and northwestern Arizona and headquartered at Ogden, Utah; #5 (California) in California and southwestern Nevada and headquartered in San Francisco, California; #6 (North Pacific) in Washington and Oregon and headquartered at Portland, Oregon; #7 (Eastern) in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Puerto Rico with headquarters at Washington, D.C.; #8 (Alaska) in Alaska with headquarters at Juneau, Alaska; and #9 (Lake States) in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin with headquarters at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [25]

Line Authority

Each National Forest, and there are 156 today, is headed by a Supervisor who has what is called "line authority" to protect, develop, and utilize the resources of his/her National Forest. Each Supervisor devotes most of his/her time to reviewing and supervising programs and insuring compliance with policy and procedure. In effect, the forest headquarters of the Supervisor is a planning unit. There is also a structure of Forest Ranger Districts. The Forest Ranger System is headed by the Chief of the Forest Service. Ranger Districts do the grassroots job of the Forest Service, working with ranchers and loggers, state and county officials, local business interests, conservation groups, and the media. [26]

The "line authority" mentioned earlier is a basic tenet of Forest Service management. The line begins with the Chief and extends downward to the Regional Foresters, the Forest Supervisors, and the District Rangers. At each level, the line officer makes his or her own decisions and answers only to the next higher level. The line of authority is obviously similar to the chain of command in the military. The system has evolved gradually over the years. When Henry S. Graves was the Forester (1910 to 1920), he decided to reorganize the Forest Service at the top to further strengthen the line of authority. He created five top positions, including himself, all of whom had his authority and could deal directly with officers in the field. William B. Greeley, the next Chief, was concerned that District Foresters, Forest Supervisors, and District Rangers were spending too much effort in making reports to each other and to Branch Chiefs. Greeley also moved to decentralize authority, especially to the District Foresters. For instance, cases dealing with occupancy problems would be handled by the Districts. He had thought about having a satellite office headed by an Assistant Forester located somewhere in the West to be closer to the problems, but he decided against this plan, preferring instead to strengthen the District Foresters with much of the same powers that the satellite Forester might have had.

The general idea was to take much of the work out of the various branches in Washington and give it to the Districts. Most day-to-day operational planning and decision making would be at the District level, and the five top leaders would concern themselves with policy making, dealing directly with the Districts. The line of authority would run "up and down the line" and would not be diverted into suboffices in Washington or in the District Offices. [27] The system has worked in much the same way ever since. The "line officers" of the Forest Service are reasonably autonomous and answer only to authority up and down the line. Line officers are assisted by a staff of specialists.


Another distinctive characteristic of the Forest Service is a distaste for paperwork. In 1916 Graves endeared himself to all of the District Foresters by telling them he wanted to change certain reports to make them bi-yearly rather than monthly. Also, what he wanted in the reports, rather than a detail of specific incidents going on in the offices, was a concise "epitome" of the progress and conditions of work as a whole. For instance, in a fire report, he did not want a diary of all the fires and what happened on each. What he did want was "the same sort of thing a District Ranger would tell me if I just happened to drop into a District Office at the end of a fire season." [28]


In 1920 and 1921, the Forest Service was concerned with salaries of employees. It was a period of rapid inflation and Forest Service salaries did not keep pace. The District Forester of District 7 reported several times at Service Committee meetings that technical experts of his District had been lured away by private industry or forestry agencies in other countries for salaries as high as twice as much as they had been making. He reported a general decline in morale in the District over the salary question. Those who remained with the Forest Service, however, had generally come to terms with the situation and decided to see it through. They had faith in Congress to eventually give them adequate salaries. [29]


The assault of the Industrial Age on the natural resources of the nation and particularly the Eastern Region was so devastating that something had to be done to stop it. In a democratic society and under the federal system, the best place for something to be done was in the national government. The creation of the National Forest System was a logical and effective step toward the national goal of forest conservation. The Forest Service, given the task of managing the National Forest System, became the part of the federal government most concerned with promoting better forestry and forest conservation throughout the nation.

Reference Notes

1. George P. Marsh, Man and Nature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1965) (reprint of 1864 edition), Chap. 3, passim.

2. James B. Trefethen, Crusade for Wildlife, Highlights in Conservation Progress (New York: Boone and Crockett Club, 1961), pp. 4-5.

3. Michael Frome, The Forest Service (Boulder: Westview Press, 2nd edition, 1984, p. 18.

4. Ibid., pp. 13-14.

5. Leland D. Baldwin, The Stream of American History, II (New York: American Book Company, 1957), p. 77.

6. Ibid., pp. 77-78.

7. John Ise, The United States Forest Policy (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1920), p.79

8. Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service: A History (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, n.d.), pp. 22-30.

9. Ibid., pp. 18-20, 24.

10. Ibid., pp. 30-34.

11. Ibid., p. 50.

12. James B. Trefethen, Crusade for Wildlife, pp. 15-20.

13. Ibid., p.44.

14. Ibid.

15. Michael Frome, Whose Woods These Are: The Story of the National Forests (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962), Chapter IV, passim.

16. Ibid., pp. 51-52.

17. Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service, p. 114.

18. Ibid., pp. 114-115.

19. Ibid., p. 56.

20. James B. Trefethen, Crusade for Wildlife, pp. 67-71, 124-126.

21. Agriculture Department Appropriations, 31 Stat. 922, 929.

22. Darrell H. Smith, The Forest Service, Its History, Activities, and Organization (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1930), pp. 98-99.

23. Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service, p. 82.

24. Ibid., p. 51.

25. Darrell H. Smith, The Forest Service, p. 112.

26. Michael Frome, The Forest Service, p. 43.

27. "Minutes of the Service Committee," 1920, Inventory # 8, Minutes of the Service Committee File, NA RG 95.

28. Henry S. Graves to District Foresters, October 20, 1916, Chief Forester's Correspondence, Region 7 File, Inventory #4, NA RG 95.

29. "Minutes of the Service Committee," 1919 and 1920.

Gathering of conservationists in the early 1990's President Theodore Roosevelt, Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot (back) and naturalist John Muir (4th from right) and others.

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Updated: 11/24/2008