The Origins of the National Forests
A Centennial Symposium
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The Origins of the National Forest System
Harold K. Steen
Forest History Society

Statistics on hundreds of millions of acres, hundreds of millions of recreational uses, billions of board feet, thousands of grazing permits, and so forth are obviously impressive—the national forests are significant—but do the numbers tell the whole story? Perhaps not; perhaps the real significance of the forests is the fact that they were created at all, and still exist, and are now permanent features. The fact that we as a nation decided a century ago to keep these forested lands under federal dominion—an atypical decision for the time—shows just how important we believed these lands to be. Important enough to create a major exception to the rule.

A closely related significance is the conservation legacy. Those who were the architects of the conservation movement were invariably involved with the national forests. It is fairly impossible to separate the notion of conservation with the fact of the forests; conservation superstars like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt played out their roles on a national forest stage. Again, the national forests are significant, and the more we study the more we learn just how broad and complex the story really is.

Historians are not think-alike clones of some master interpreter of yesteryear. Sometimes we debate about which is the best vantage point from which to view national forest history. Do we look over Congress's shoulder, do we watch what the outdoors types were doing, do we think that those who used the land for their livelihoods tell the best story? And how about cause and effect? What caused Congress to decide what it did when it did? And so on.

What about us interpreters ourselves? As we sifted through mountains of historical evidence, objectively of course, why did we select that particular small fraction of material as support for our paper?

The papers that follow will allow you to look at the origins and significance of the National Forest System from as many vantage points as there are papers, and reflecting as many biases as there are historians reading those papers. My approach is rather conventional; since it was Congress that authorized the president to proclaim forest reserves—a century ago—I try to figure out what caused Congress to decide what it did. I look at forces and influences closest to Congress and make judgments about the timing and significance of those multiple forces. As you can see from the papers that follow, others will suggest, and rightly so, that a much broader explanation than mine is in order, if we are to achieve full understanding.

The Origins of the National Forest System

I look mainly at that sliver of Congress that was concerned about land—the Interior and Agriculture committees in the House and Senate. Land. When I was in college I received money each month under the G.I. Bill. Generations earlier I would have instead received land, a piece of the public domain as reward for serving my country. If I had built railroads I would have received land. If I had homesteaded, as my Norwegian immigrant grandfather had, I would have received land. As new states entered the Union, they too received grants of the public domain. The national forest story is a story about land—large chunks of the public domain that despite a juggernaut of momentum to dispose of it would neither be granted nor sold.

The numbers are awesome. During the nineteenth century, fully one-half of the nation was transferred from federal ownership to state and private ownership—countless transactions of quarter-sections, full sections, or more. Federal land agents dipping quill pens into inkwells and recording by hand the fruits of three thousand statutes that Congress had passed by 1880 to dispose of the public domain.

An eighth of the nation was granted to the railroads, including 22 percent of Montana. To balance the score, an eighth of the nation was granted to homesteaders. John Wayne movies notwithstanding, the vast majority of homesteaders were rational enough to wait for the train; very few headed West in covered wagons.

The stated goals were simple: settle the West, establish sovereignty, expand the economy. If President Kennedy wanted a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, Lincoln wanted a railroad to California by the end of the 1860s—both presidential goals were achieved, and it's hard to say which cost the most or which achievement was the greatest for its time.

In the midst of all this, scientists and others were registering concern—even alarm. Pointing to Europe, the scientists held up example after example of abused land and the resulting erosion, floods, and other ills. This, too, could happen in America they insisted; unchecked forest fires in Colorado could cause floods in Kansas and even in far away Louisiana. The scientists urged, and politicians began to hear; government should devise some means to protect the watersheds of the West.

Political response to scientific concern about forested watersheds appeared in Congress in the early 1870s. By the end of the century, Congress would have considered nearly two hundred bills pertinent to forests; two in particular, passed in the 1890s, are the heroes of my story—a law authorizing the president to proclaim forest reserves and another that prescribed the purposes for which these reserves could be established.

The string of congressional interest began in the 1870s. What to do about floods? After gaining momentum across the Plains, by the time a flood reached Arkansas it could cause devastation over a vast area and could also disrupt river-based commerce. Upstream near the source, a flood might be less dramatic, but still to the local farmer it could be that a vital reservoir was washed out or silted up.

The flip side of flood is drought. Where I was raised near Seattle, drought meant that it was raining less than usual. But in the arid West, drought happened when the streams went dry. Irrigation works, such as reservoirs, would help. Upstream forests would also help, and Congress thought about both flood and drought and how to protect forested watersheds.

The story picks up steam and becomes a bit confusing—are we looking at cause and effect or at coincidence? In 1875 the American Forestry Association formed; by 1890 AFA would be a key player on the forestry stage. In 1876 forestry activity began in the Executive Branch—in the Department of Agriculture through a quirk rather than in the preferred and more logical Department of the Interior. By 1890 the U.S. Division of Forestry had grown in stature adequate to also be a key player along with the American Forestry Association. And it is no coincidence that the driving force in both institutions was Bernhard Eduard Fernow, a German forester who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1876.

Over in the Department of the Interior's Geological Survey, forest-related activity took shape with the 1888 establishment of the Irrigation Survey. Under the direction of scientist/politician John Wesley Powell, the agency aimed to do what its name implied—survey the West for its irrigation needs and potential. Key scientists assigned to the Irrigation Survey, such as Arnold Hague and W.J. McGee, along with Powell, figure large, but I will single out only Arnold Hague—he introduces the Boone and Crockett Club, Yellowstone National Park, and he ghosted the proclamation that created the first national forest. Hague not only deserves a paper just about him, but he deserves a biography, well supported by an especially rich collection of his records held by the National Archives.

I don't want to steal thunder from John Reiger's paper, so let me say only that the Boone and Crockett Club offered a forum and vehicle for Hague, Theodore Roosevelt, and others to swap opinions about conservation. Members of the club clearly influenced the course of conservation history. Yellowstone National Park is important to this story, because while Hague was assigned to surveying the Park's wonderful geology, he became an advocate for enlarging the Park; in fact, when he drafted the proclamation that created the first forest, he thought that he had expanded the Park.

The year 1888 is especially significant. Congress had been looking at but rejecting many forestry bills for nearly two decades, and by 1888 the bills were stacking up. The House Public Lands Committee crafted one bill as substitute for twenty-nine others already in the hopper. This bill—HR 7901 "to secure to actual settlers the public lands adapted to agriculture, to protect the forests on the public domain, and for other purposes"—contained twenty-nine sections. Section 8 would authorize the president to proclaim forest reserves and offered basic authority to protect and manage.

HR 7901 passed the House but failed in the Senate. But the concept of forest reserves created by presidential proclamation would survive and surfaced three years later in 1891.

This tidbit is not an exercise in trivial pursuit—for two reasons. First, a committee report accompanied HR 7901, so we can see what the intent of the bill was more clearly than by reading the bill itself. Second, historians—myself included—have managed to maintain a fiction that Congress didn't know what it was voting on when it ratified the process to create forest reserves by presidential proclamation. Two of the several authors who ignored the howls of the historical pack and got the story right appear in this volume—Joe Miller and Ron Arnold, and my thanks to them for leading me down a now obvious trail.

Fernow, Hague, and many others kept advocating—Fernow for some kind of forestry law and Hague to expand Yellowstone National Park. In 1890 and 1891 Congress took on the much overdue task of reviewing and codifying public domain statutes, even to the point of repealing the unpopular Timber Culture Act. The House and Senate each passed versions of such an act, but with differences. Thus, a conference committee was convened to find a middle ground between the bill's twenty-three sections. In committee, a twenty-fourth section was added—a not that unusual a process for the time—that plucked the essence of the defunct 1888 bill to authorize the president to proclaim forest reserves. However, there was to be no language for purpose or administration; to have included these knotty issues would have derailed the effort.

After much bickering and rhetorical flourish, the bill passed both houses, just as Congress was adjourning. President Harrison had been a strong advocate for forest reserves, and when the bill reached his desk, he quickly signed it on March 3, 1891. Our friend Arnold Hague of the Geological Survey, dejected by still another failure to attain approval for an expanded Yellowstone Park, saw this new law as a means to his end. He hastily drafted a proclamation for a forest reserve south and east of the park and sent it to the secretary of the interior, asking that it be directed to the president. It was, and on March 30, 1891, President Harrison proclaimed the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve, the nation's first. On July 1, 1908 the reserve would be renamed the Shoshone National Forest.

A bit more than two months after Harrison signed the law, the commissioner of the General Land Office sent a directive to field agents. The agents were to seek out recommendations for forested watersheds suitable for reserve status, and by this means announce the intent to establish a forest. This notion of prior notice was a crucial part of the process, and when the president ignored it in 1897 and again in 1907, Congress would react harshly. The first time (1897), the reserves narrowly escaped cancellation, and when Teddy Roosevelt did it in a much-celebrated (by him) incident, Congress essentially stripped the president of his authority to proclaim reserves in the West.

So the 1891 act effectively lasted a decade and a half, but during its short life the basic national forest system in the West would be established.

The job was only half done in 1891; still needed was authorization to manage the reserves and clarification of the purposes for which they could be established. Promptly in 1892, Congress began a six-year effort to round out a forest reserve agenda.

A key player was Congressman Thomas McRae from Arkansas, who was principle author of the law that would be passed in 1897. A committee report in 1892 accompanying McRae's initial bill was laced with cumbersome wording, but the essence of multiple use/sustained yield is apparent—timber, water, and forage were to be used but not to the detriment of the reserve itself.

During the 1970s much attention would be given to what Congress was thinking about during the 1890s—the so-called Monongahela decision on clear-cutting and the Supreme Court decision in U.S. vs New Mexico on federal rights to federal water, so it is worth taking a couple of minutes to look for ourselves.

With benefit of hindsight, we know that McRae's 1892 bill survived a half-decade of congressional jostling and scrutiny to provide the framework for what lawyers call the Forest Service Organic Act but what historians call the Forest Management Act. The problem that the courts have had figuring out just what congressional intent was, unlike for the rather prescriptive National Forest Management Act of 1976, that earlier statutes delegated broad authority to Executive Branch agencies. And in this specific case, the 1897 Forest Management Act is an amendment to an appropriations measure and thus lacks much of the usual legislative trail that a full-fledged statute would have.

Congress looked at a wide-range of options on its way to 1897, and what it rejected tells us much about the thinking of the time. Should the statute be prescriptive or delegate broad powers? Congress rejected a bill that was prescriptive. Should water be specifically earmarked for irrigation and industry, or should broader, more general options be put forth? Congress rejected language that would have limited water to use by farmers and corporations. State's rights were examined too; should states receive priority access to the resources on the forest reserves? The answer to this question is less concise because of exceptions, but the record is clear—national interests would not be subordinated to those of a state.

Finally, were the resources to be used—in a commercial sense. Absolutely. Some argued that water was so important that other activities should be proscribed, but this view did not prevail. The resources were to be used under the supervision of a federal officer according to rules and regulations established by the secretary of the interior.

Use but don't abuse—this legacy was repackaged in the 1960 Multiple Use/Sustained Yield Act, and again by the 1976 National Forest Management Act, but the idea has been around for a long time, and is still the theme of conservationists.

One final detail. From 1897 to 1905, agencies in the Department of the Interior managed and protected the forest reserves created by authority of the 1891 act. In 1905 the reserves were transferred to the Department of Agriculture, with its Bureau of Forestry, then renamed Forest Service. In 1907 forest reserves were renamed as national forests.

The book that follows adds much—insights, facts, details, interpretations. But as good, as interesting, as informative as these papers are, more could be written, more angles studied. I suppose this fact offers the strongest sort of evidence that the national forests are truly significant. To capture their story to everyone's satisfaction is beyond the ken. There is always more.

For Further Reading

Arnold, R. "Stepchild of America." In People of the Tongass: Alaska Forestry Under Attack, K.A. Soderberg and J. DuRette, eds. (Bellevue, WA: Free Enterprise Press, 1988).

Fairfax, S.K., and A.D. Tarlock. "No Water for the Woods: A Critical Analysis of United States v. New Mexico." Idaho Law Review (1979): 509-554.

Gates, P. W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1968.

Ise, J. United States Forest Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1920.

Kirkland, H. D. "The American Forests, 1864-1898: A Trend Toward Conservation." Doctoral Dissertation, Florida State University, 1971.

Manning, T. G. Government in Science: The U.S. Geological Survey, 1867-1894. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

Miller, J. A. "Congress and the Origins of Conservation: Natural Resource Policies, 1865-1900." Doctoral Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1973.

Pinchot, G. Breaking new Ground. New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1947.

Reiger, J. F. American Sportsman and the Origins of Conservation. New York: Winchester Press, 1975.

Rodgers, A. D. Bernhard Eduard Fernow: A Story of North American Forestry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951. Reprinted by the Forest History Society, 1991.

Steen, Harold K. The Origins of the National Forest System. USDA Forest Service, 1991.

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