Congressman William Holman of Indiana:
Unknown Founder of the National Forests
The origins of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 have at last come to light. For nearly a century, the "who" and the "why" behind its famous Section 24 remained shrouded in mystery and mythology.
Gifford Pinchot in his autobiography called Section 24 "the most important legislation in the history of Forestry in America . . . [and] the beginning and basis of our whole National Forest system."  This "most important legislation" reads:
This 68-word clause baffled everyone because it gave the president power only to proclaim forest reserves. It did not confer the power to administer the reserves nor did it provide appropriations for management of any kind, nor did it state the purpose of the reserves.
Dr. Harold K. Steen, executive director of the Forest History Society, has pointed out that the clause doesn't even make sense grammatically: The first sentence lacks a necessary noun, it doesn't say what the President may set apart and reserve as public reservations. 
As a result of this sketchy, seemingly incomplete law, the earliest forest reserves were simply off-limits and their resources totally locked up. Homesteading was prohibited. Timber cutting and livestock grazing were prohibited. Hunting and fishing on the reserves were prohibited. Tourism and scientific research were prohibited. One could not even legally set foot within the reserves. This triggered a serious rebellion in the West, and it took Congress until 1897 to write a law providing administrative guidelines and appropriations for the forest reserves. Even then it was added as an emergency rider to a Sundry Civil Appropriations bill. And the 1897 law was written in the dark about the intent of the 1891 act. 
One of the undisputed facts that has always been known about the original Section 24 is that it was a rider tacked on to "An act to repeal timber culture laws, and for other purposes," a huge bill reforming public land law. Another undisputed fact is that the rider was added at the last minute in a House-Senate conference committee but was not referred back to the originating Public Lands Committee of either the House or the Senate, which is an illegal procedure. The bill went straight to a floor vote where both chambers passed it, unaware of Section 24, according to most historians. President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill into law March 3, 1891. 
Beyond that, the picture dissolves into confusion. Politicians and conservationists in 1891 and in the years since had no idea who added Section 24 or what its legislative intent was. Why did the origins of such a momentous forestry law lay hidden for so long? The answer that we will discover is that everybody was simply looking in the wrong place, because the facts were in the public record all along. However, there were enough red herrings to justify the lapse. At least half a dozen unlikely people have taken credit for attaching the rider. At least half a dozen likely explanations of its origin have been offered. The controversy over Section 24 is as murky as the clause itself. 
The most generally accepted account tells a story something like this: The idea of creating forest reserves goes back to the 1870s, so it was nothing new when Section 24 was passed in 1891. More than 200 forestry bills had been introduced in Congress during the twenty years from 1871 to 1891 and they all failed. 
But the reservation clause is thought by professional historians to have originated in 1889 with the law committee of the American Forestry Association, a citizen's organization founded in 1875. AFA's law committee consisted of three distinguished professionals: Bernhard Eduard Fernow, an immigrant German forester who in 1889 was the chief of the Division of Forestry in the U. S. Department of Agriculture; Nathaniel Egleston, the immediate past chief of the Division; and Edward A. Bowers, commissioner of the General Land Office in the U. S. Department of the Interior. 
This law committee met with President Benjamin Harrison in April 1889, presenting a petition advocating an efficient forest policy. The president was cordial but took no action. The following year the American Forestry Association memorialized Congress to create forest reserves and to provide a commission to administer them. Congress likewise took no action.
The law committee tried again, this time with Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble. Fernow, Bowers, and Egleston were joined by others, including John Wesley Powell, head of the U. S. Geological Survey. Fernow impressed upon Secretary Noble his responsibility to protect the public domain.
As Dr. Steen wrote of the meeting in his book The U.S. Forest Service: A History, "Accounts vary as to who said what, but it is generally accepted that as a result of the meeting, Noble personally intervened with the congressional conference committee at the eleventh hour to get Section 24 added." 
If this story is true, the intent of the rider that authorized forest reserves was clearly forestry, i.e., the professional management of reserves for both protection and use. However, the first forest reserve actually created under Section 24 was not even related to forestry, but added a huge section to Yellowstone National Park by presidential proclamation after Congress had just rejected a bill proposing the identical enlargement.
However, John Ise, the historian who in 1920 wrote the first comprehensive history of U. S. forest policy, seems to have confirmed that Noble added the rider. He wrote: "Noble, who had been influenced by Fernow and Bowers, and perhaps by other members of the American Forestry Association, asked the committee to insert a rider authorizing the president to establish reserves."
He based his assertion on a letter from Fernow, who replied to Ise's correspondence, "My memory is, that at the time the story was current, Mr. Noble declared at midnight of March 3, in the Conference Committee, that he would not let the President sign the bill . . . unless the Reservation clause was inserted. Since these things happen behind closed doors, only someone present can tell what happened, Secretary Noble or one of the conferees. All we, that is, Bowers and myself, can claim is that we educated Noble up to the point." 
But no government documents corroborate that any of this really happened. Dr. Steen wrote, "Much of the original documentation has been lost for what is now called the Forest Reserve Act of 1891." 
Noble's secretarial papers would probably tell the tale. But those papers are lost. They were given to the Missouri Historical Society by Noble's sister-in-law shortly after his death on March 21, 1912. On February 19, 1928, a Mr. Tibbott, who was writing a book on President Benjamin Harrison, asked to examine Noble's papers, but they were missing. Somewhere between 1912 and 1928 Noble's papers had disappeared. I consulted with Senate Historian Richard Baker. He could find nothing about Noble and what had happened in that House-Senate conference committee meeting. He observed that there is little likelihood that any executive-branch officer could violate the separation of powers doctrine so blatantly as to thrust himself into a closed-door legislative session making imperious demands and threatening a presidential veto. Baker suggested that the Noble story was probably fabricated. The only professional historian who had suggested the same thing was Dr. Steen, who said in a footnote that the writer of a 1971 Ph.D. dissertation had cast doubt upon Noble's specific role and whether Fernow was even aware that the amendment was under consideration.
I read the thesis of Herbert D. Kirkland, a young doctoral candidate who had sifted through massive amounts of documentation that others had missed. Primarily through letters that have been gathering dust in the National Archives for nearly a century, Kirkland showed decisively that neither Forestry Division chief Fernow nor Interior Secretary Noble even knew that Section 24 had been added, much less had anything to do with putting it there.
Kirkland wrote, "nothing at all appears on the Forest Reserve Act in the Division of Forestry papers until March 16, 1891, almost two weeks after it became law. These papers indicate that it was quite likely that Fernow was not even aware of this legislation until after it had passed." Yet, as a result of Fernow's statements and their interpretation by Ise and others, nearly everyone gives Noble credit for initiating the Forest Reserve Act. 
In fact, Noble found out about Section 24 on Monday, March 16, 1891, when Arnold Hague, an Interior Department employee in the U.S. Geological Survey assigned to Yellowstone, took the news to Noble in a private meeting.
Hague's letters show that he and Washington lawyer and Yellowstone advocate W. Hallett Phillips discovered the enactment of Section 24 late the previous week. Hague, an ardent preservationist, realized the implications of Section 24 in rectifying the recent crushing defeat of a bill asking Congress to expand Yellowstone National Park. Hague took Section 24 to Noble, who asked him and Phillips to draft an appropriate proclamation establishing a Yellowstone Forest Reserve with the same boundaries as the failed proposal to Congress. Hague delivered the draft proclamation to Noble on March 25. Noble forwarded it immediately to President Harrison, who signed it March 30, not two weeks after Noble found out about Section 24. 
Why did Noble get credit for inserting Section 24? Arnold Hague's letters reveal that answer, too. In an April 4, 1891 letter to Forest and Stream magazine publisher George Bird Grinnell, Hague provided "such data as you may need in order to make up an editorial for your paper" about the Forest Reserve Act. After citing Section 24 verbatim, Hague guessed: "It was put in, I suppose, as a sop to those who believe in timber preservation." He did not know who did it. But he advised Grinnell, "In your editorial you had better give the Secretary of the Interior a little taffy for his seeing the necessity for this thing." Grinnell obliged. And that's how the Noble myth entered American literature.
But if Noble didn't add Section 24, who did? And why? Doctoral candidate Kirkland, who so brilliantly uncovered Hague's key role in throwing credit to Noble, could not penetrate further. "This writer," he concluded, "has been unable to determine who specifically drafted the forest reserve clause and attached it to the Act to Repeal Timber-Culture Laws. It appears, however, that it came from someone within the conference committee rather than from Noble, Bowers, Fernow, Hague, Phillips, or the variety of other people sometimes given credit for publicizing the idea of reserving forest land."
And that's exactly where it came from. My staff searched the Congressional Record for the names of those assigned to the conference committee. The three senators and three representatives were not hard to find: For the Senate there was Public Lands Committee chairman Preston B. Plumb, Republican of Kansas; Richard E. Pettigrew, Republican of South Dakota; and Edward Carey Walthall, Democrat of Mississippi. For the House there was Public Lands Committee Chairman Lewis Edwin Payson, Republican of Illinois; John Alfred Pickler, Republican of South Dakota; and William Steele Holman, Democrat of Indiana.
Six men. None of them stellar names in the firmament of American history. Certainly none of them recognizable champions of forestry, or preservation, or any of the things for which today's national forests are noted. One of them is the actual father of the national forests. But which one? The papers of each of these men are still extant and fail to set one conferee apart as a forest reserve advocate.
There was one thing left: to go over the Congressional Record with a fine tooth comb. The conference report containing the Section 24 rider was debated on February 28, 1891 in both the House and the Senate. 
First the Senate. Senator Preston B. Plumb, chairman of the Public Lands Committee, submitted the conference report to the Senate and recommended that it Do Pass (with the new Section 24). The secretary of the Senate proceeded to read the conference report. Immediately, Senator Wilkinson Call of Florida interrupted the reading, saying he felt the conference version should be printed "so that we might all understand it before acting upon it." Plumb blandly asserted, "there is nothing in the report on any subject whatever that has not already undergone the scrutiny of this body, and been passed by this body."
That was true of everything in the bill except Section 24. The Senate had never seen it before. But why would Plumb lie? Was it he who added Section 24, but for some secret reason?
Upon the reading of Section 24, Senator Call pounced on the amending rider and said, "I shall not willingly vote or consent . . . to any proposition which prevents a single acre of the public domain from being set apart and reserved for homes for the people of the United States who shall live upon and cultivate them." Senator Plumb then told a real whopper: "no bill has passed this body or any other legislative body that more thoroughly consecrates the public domain to actual settlers and home-owners than does the bill in the report just read." As we have seen, President Harrison would soon use Section 24 to consecrate the Yellowstone Forest Reserve to keeping actual settlers and home-owners out forever.
The Senate voted its approval of the bill, and was perfectly aware of what Section 24 contained. They had just heard it read to them. Senator Call of Florida clearly pointed out its flaws. The charges that Section 24 was passed in ignorance are false.
In the House, a similar drama played itself out. Representative Payson, chairman of the Public Lands Committee, presented the conference report to the House, where the clerk began to read it. The chief objector here was Mark Dunnell, who back in 1873 had originally introduced into the House the Timber Culture Act, which this bill repealed.
Representative Payson patiently answered Dunnell without lying about the bill's contents. The clerk then read the whole bill, including Section 24. Dunnell regarded himself as a champion of forestry, but he vociferously opposed Section 24, feeling it important enough to merit its own fully detailed law. A number of representatives asked questions, mostly about details that might affect their constituencies. Payson and conference committee member William Steele Holman answered them.
Thomas Chipman McRae of Arkansas arose and said, "I do believe, Mr. Speaker, that the power granted to the President by section 24 is an extraordinary and dangerous power to grant over the public domain, and, if I could, I would move to amend by striking out that section. I would cordially vote to strike it out, and am sorry that it is in the bill."
Mr. Holman asked, "What section?" Mr. McRae answered, "Section 24. I do not believe, Mr. Speaker, in giving to any officer, either the head of a Department or the President, power to withdraw from settlement at will any part of the public lands that are fit for agricultural purposes and not required for military purposes. There is no limitation upon this extraordinary power if the land be covered with timber."
McRae continued for two more paragraphs, deeply worried about the power granted by Section 24. Then Mr. Holman said, "My friend will remember that the bill in regard to the withdrawal of forest land is exactly the same as the bill passed last session, after very careful consideration." 
That was the clue everybody had missed. The true story had been staring us all in the face in the pages of the Congressional Record for nearly a century. During the 50th Congress, 1888, H.R. 7901 was introduced, "A bill to secure to actual settlers the public lands adapted to agriculture, to protect the forests on the public domain, and for other purposes." The bill was introduced by William Steele Holman, Democrat from Indiana, one of the 1891 conferees. But in 1888 he had been chairman of the Public Lands Committee! The Democrats ruled the House in 1888 and a Democrat therefore chaired every committee. The Republican-dominated 51st Congress relegated Holman to ranking minority member of the House Public Lands Committee in 1891, and therefore to lowest man on the totem pole of the famous conference committee.
In Holman's bill was the answer. Section 8 says:
This is the original model for Section 24, but here it stands in its entirety. There is no question about it. There were plenty of forest reserve bills introduced in both the 50th and 51st Congresses, but none contained language even close to that of Section 24. Its similarity to Section 8 is too precise to be coincidence. And Section 8's grammar is correct.
Section 8 immediately answers several questions, the most obvious being why Section 24 is grammatically incorrect. Someone in the 1891 conference committee cloned Section 24 word for word from the template of Section 8 but purged the clause which referred to designated timberlands because the 1891 act made no such designation. A splicing phrase had to be added, which was evidently done under pressure of time, because no one seems to have noticed that the splice added the innocent-sounding word "in" at just the wrong place. Here is the 1888 prototype with the extracted words of the 1891 paraphrase shown in boldface type and the added splicing phrase shown in italics within brackets, i.e., the boldface and italics are Section 24.
At least now we know the paradigm for Section 24. And we are sure that the conference committee knew it, too. We see that they deliberately eliminated the power to administer the forest reserves, not wishing to entrust them to the secretary of the interior for some reason, and also deliberately eliminated the power to allocate military appropriations to protect the reserves with troops.
Holman's 1888 bill was accompanied by a full report from the Committee on Public Lands explaining exactly why Section 8 said what it said. The protection of watersheds received a great deal of discussion, as did the creation of timber reserves for the sale of timber by sealed bid to the highest bidder, the prevention of large landed estates being illegally built from the public domain, and provision for settlement by actual settlers in opposition to corporations. A key passages states:
That is the legislative intent of Section 24. The documentation wasn't lost. We were simply looking for it in the wrong place. But there is a good reason it appeared to be lost: Holman's 1888 bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Bills that die tend to vanish from history.
The forest reserves had no original primary purpose, but a mixed one not too different from today's multiple use principle. Forest reserves were intended to specifically preserve watersheds, to provide for controlled timber cutting within reserves, to prevent fraud, monopoly, speculation and the buildup of private landed estates, and to generally intersperse settled areas with non-settled timberlands where nothing but commercial quality trees could be cut under government control. The original forest reserves were intended for both preservation and use.
Had we known that fact, had we known the legislative intent of the original forest reserves, had we known that Gifford Pinchot's 1905 policy that forest reserves (national forests) are for the purpose of preserving a perpetual supply of timber for home industries, preventing destruction of the forest cover which regulates the flow of streams, and protecting local residents from unfair competition in the use of forest and range was virtually identical to the original legislative intent, modern court cases such as the Monongahela lawsuit, Izaak Walton League v. Butz, would likely have had an outcome more favorable to wise use. We would have known that the Forest Service's long traditional practice was right on target with the actual legislative intent behind the 1891 forest reserves.
The report bears the signature of William Steele Holman, chairman, Public Lands Committee, House of Representatives, United States Congress. So does H.R. 7901. Although we cannot say for certain that Holman wrote the language of Section 8 and Section 24 (he probably did, as we shall see), we can certify that he is legally responsible for that language as committee chairman and signator. That makes him the father of the forest reserves. And the unknown founder of the national forests.
Ironically, there's probably not a forester alive today who ever heard of William Steele Holman. The Forest Service has raised no monument in memory of him because they have no memory of him. Sadly, Holman died in 1897 without realizing what he had set in motion.
Who was William Steele Holman? He was a pioneer lawyer born on a farm near Aurora, Indiana, September 6, 1822, who lived to serve more terms in Congress than anyone else had at the time. He became a classic Jeffersonian Democrat of unquestioned integrity, embodying the ideals of a nation of frugal yeoman farmers and mistrusting every kind of intemperance or concentration of power, political or economic. His entire life was without scandal of any sort and he remained ever a stickler for the proprieties. He was self-effacing and personally modest. Were it not for a dedicated and capable biographer's scholarship in the 1940s we would know almost nothing of him today.
Early in his career as Democratic Representative from Indiana, Holman stood one day on the House floor listening to a measure he found unacceptable and uttered the cryptic but lawyerly response, "Mr. Speaker, I object." It became his trademark. Whatever Holman didn't like met with "Mr. Speaker, I object." Newspaper reporters tagged him The Great Objector and efficient Congressional Record printers paid him the unintended compliment of stereotyping the line: Mr. HOLMAN. Mr. Speaker, I object.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee he slashed funding for every imaginable project, characterizing government spending as a carnival of luxury and extravagance. His zeal for thrift became legendary and he gained the title Watchdog of the Treasury. Committee chairman and future president James A. Garfield had to deal with Holman regularly, good-naturedly explaining the merits of an appropriation or cajoling him to remove an objection. Frequently to avoid delay, Garfield accepted Holman's suggestions on small points.
In 1885 Holman was appointed chairman of a congressional committee to investigate the expenditure of appropriations for Indian Schools and for Yellowstone National Park. The inquiry would take three and a half months, out to the Pacific coast by the northern route and return through Arizona by way of the southern. The investigators included Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois and other high ranking members of Congress. Holman exasperated the committee by forcing them to practice a rigid economy on the entire trip. He would honor requisitions for Pullman berths only at night, making the members ride coach by day or pay their own Pullman fares. Holman refused to use a sleeper at all, sitting up all night while his colleagues rode in comfort. He lectured committeemen that he and his wife had traveled in an ordinary coach all the way from Indiana to California and back. At hotels he demanded rooms without bath, but the committee rebelled and made him approve rooms with baths. The watch-dog of the Treasury barked at every requisition.
He saw Yellowstone first hand, visited many homestead settlers, and traversed public lands that would one day encompass more than fifty national forests. He was well aware of the many measures that had been introduced to Congress proposing forest reserves and felt personal sympathy for such protection. His biographer, Israel George Blake, described Holman as a botanist of no mean ability. He also noted that, "Holman saw to it that his farm contained many beautiful flower gardens filled with unusual plants. He transplanted trees from various historic spots which formed a sort of arboreal avenue of history. It is said that when one or another of these old friends of the forest was marked for the axe he would be heard to say in as startling tones as he ever addressed to the Speaker of the House, "I object."
Three years after his investigative trip west, Holman led his Public Lands Committee in writing H.R. 7901. It is clear that even if he was not sole author of the Section 8 forest reserve clause he concurred with it completely. As chairman of the committee he would have had the power to force its alteration or removal.
Holman the Jeffersonian Democrat was fanatically against land monopoly of any kind. A speech he gave on the floor of the House in 1870 denouncing railroad grants and other land monopolies and sympathizing with the landless and laboring people was reprinted in booklet form and widely circulated. He believed that the whole tendency of the government since the Civil War had been to foster the growth of gigantic businesses and overgrown estates, and that these corporations now considered themselves responsible to no one, not even to Congress itself. Holman could not tolerate that idea and did everything he could to prevent public land monopoly and help the actual settler. 
Knowing this about the man who is legally responsible for the language of Section 24, we can conclude how it actually came to be added to the 1891 bill to repeal the timber-culture act.
There is no reason to believe that anyone but Holman inserted the rider. No one on the Senate side of the conference committee had any vested interest in the language of H.R. 7901, certainly not enough to copy it almost verbatim: Remember, after H.R. 7901 passed the House in the 50th Congress it died in the Senate Public Lands Committee. The Senate conferees of the 51st Congress knew Section 8's forest reserve language but clearly held it in no special regard. The other House conferees were Republicans who had no particular interest in forest reserves. Holman came to the conference committee as the sole House Democrat, and a dethroned one at that. Republican Lewis Edwin Payson of Illinois had replaced Holman as House Public Lands Committee chairman and John Alfred Pickler of South Dakota was second ranking majority member. These party relationships are important. The Republicans in the 51st Congress held only a slender majority of seven votes in the House. They knew their control was precarious, and that a powerful Democratic minority could easily block any Republican legislation. So Speaker Thomas B. Reed promulgated new rules that allowed the chair to entertain no motions whose purpose would be to block legislation. Holman, watch-dog of the Treasury, seethed with resentment, censuring the Republicans as a petty oligarchy. He entered the conference committee meeting in no fine mood.
Holman certainly insisted on the minority having some say in shaping the new law. He seized upon the forest reserve clause of his H.R. 7901 because it thwarted the Republican tendency to favor corporate capitalists. It was sufficiently technical and obscure that the other conferees would scarcely risk the whole bill just to keep Holman from adding a pet provision, especially one that had already passed the House in an earlier version.
So Holman, during the conference committee meeting, inserted Section 8 of H.R. 7901 as the new Section 24, eliminated the administration and appropriations provisions and also removed the inapplicable reference to designated timberlands, hurriedly patching up the language as best he could. Nobody in the conference cared a whit about Section 24 anyway, so nobody checked the grammar. Just as James A. Garfield had done earlier, the conference committee gave in to Holman on a small point to avoid delay.
And that is how the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 really happened. Where elite forestry professionals and their counterparts in the elite preservationist guard could not legislate forest reserves into existence, a curmudgeon lawmaker from Indiana who wanted to keep forests for many uses did the trick because he was in the right place at the right time.
It is time to recognize Congressman William Steele Holman of Indiana, 1822-1897, as the man behind Section 24the unknown founder of the national forests.
7. Bernhard Eduard Fernow in 1897 produced a chart for the American Forestry Association listing 93 pieces of legislation introduced in Congress from 1871 through 1890. See Proceedings of the American Forestry Association, XII, p. 41-58.
13. All of Hague's letters discussed here are in Record Group 57, Hague Papers, letter book 3B, National Archives. Hague to E. M. Dawson, March 16, Hague to Noble, March 25, 1891, Hague to Grinnell, April 4, 1891, Hague to Grinnell, April 6, 1891.