On this day in 1897, President Grover Cleveland signed an executive order creating the Washington Birthday Reserves. He proclaimed 13 new or expanded forest reserves in the western United States, totaling some 21 million acres; it brought the total acreage in the forest reserve system (the predecessor to the National Forest System) to just under 40 million acres. When Cleveland created the reserves, so named because the signing occurred on the birthday of the first U.S. president, he acted on the recommendation of the National Forest Commission. Comprised of such leading conservationists as Gifford Pinchot, Charles S. Sargent, and Wolcott Gibbs, the commission had been formed in 1896 to advise the president and Congress on how to manage the federal forest reserves.
After spending several months out west examining existing reserves and potential new ones, and then spending many more months in rancorous debate over whether the forests should be placed under civilian or military control, in February 1897 the commission called for more land to be set aside before they even announced how to manage the forests. Cleveland must have recognized that adding to the already-controversial forest reserves was not going to be popular in much of the west.
Yet President Cleveland signed the papers. It wasn’t the most courageous move on his part. He signed it only days before leaving office and had nothing to lose politically. He left the decision of who should manage the reserves for his successor to determine. (It wasn’t settled until passage of the Forest Management [or Organic] Act in June 1897 — three months after Cleveland left office.) On the other hand, it took vision and foresight to do it, to see the value in establishing those reserves. Writing of Cleveland’s doubling of the national reserve, historian Geoffrey Blodgett said: “But for Theodore Roosevelt’s vastly more skillful flair for self-advertisement — Cleveland might be remembered as our presidential pioneer in imposing sanity on federal land use policy.” And Richard E. Welch Jr. in his history of Cleveland’s presidencies declared that “Cleveland scored his most important success as a reformer” by signing the order. It was, however, a curious move by a man who did not favor the expansion of federal government nor that of governmental paternalism. The Washington Birthday Reserves were, in fact, the second time he had added to the reserves — he had added 5 million acres in 1893 before asking for guidance on how they should be managed.
What is not discussed in forest or political histories in any depth is why President Cleveland backed the commission’s work and was willing to create the reserves. The decision should be looked at in the broader context of Cleveland’s lifelong interest in fishing and hunting. A recent biographer simply characterizes the interest in those sports as a way to escape the pressures of the office. It was more than that. Cleveland so loved the outdoors that in 1906 he published Fishing and Shooting Sketches, in which he celebrated the virtues of both sports. John Reiger, in his classic American Sportmen and the Origins of Conservation, barely mentions Cleveland but does acknowledge the president followed the sportsmen’s code while hunting and fishing, which included “possess[ing] an aesthetic appreciation of the whole environmental context of sport that included a commitment to its perpetuation.” But we learn nothing of how Cleveland came to learn it and embrace it. Reiger opens the door for Cleveland or conservation scholars and even offers a framework. Scholars, are you listening? Here’s an article or a master’s thesis waiting to be written.