On this date in 1822, Franklin B. Hough was born on the western edge of the Adirondack Mountains in Lewis County, New York. Hough would become the first forestry agent of the U.S. government, the first chief of the Division of Forestry, and one of the most influential figures in early American forestry. Gifford Pinchot himself would refer to Hough as “perhaps the chief pioneer in forestry in the United States.”
Franklin Hough began his professional career as a practicing physician, but retired from medicine in 1852 in order to pursue his research and writing interests. Hough wrote several histories of the Adirondack region and also oversaw the New York State census in 1855 and 1865. While compiling census data for the latter, Hough was alarmed by the declining trend in available timber in the state. This discovery led to the cause of forest preservation becoming his life’s work.
In the 1870s, when his calls for allowing active forest management in the proposed Adirondack forest preserve went unheeded, he turned his focus to the federal government. In 1873 Hough presented a greatly influential paper, “On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests,” to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hough’s paper revealed the depletion of America’s eastern forests and declared the need for forest preservation and forestry education. The paper was especially notable because it called on governments to aid in forest preservation efforts, a radical departure from American free market ideals. Hough recommended that laws be passed to protect forest growth, and urged the scientists in attendance to bring to the attention of Congress and their state governments “the subject of protection to the forests, and their cultivation, regulation, and encouragement.” The following day a committee was appointed, with Hough as chair, to petition Congress about the critical national need for forest preservation.
The actions of this committee, as well as Hough’s own work, would lead Congress on August 15, 1876, to create the office of Special Agent in the Department of Agriculture to assess the state of the forests and lumber in the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture Frederick Watts appointed Hough to this position on August 30th.
Over the next year, Hough traveled the country and began preparing his detailed report on the nation’s forests. This immense report covered a huge number of topics such as forest ecology, tree planting, forest inventories from different states, tree diseases, connections between forests and climate, wood usage, information on timber industries, and much more. The first volume of Report Upon Forestry was published in 1878, with a second, mainly statistical, volume following in 1880. A third volume was published in 1882, and a fourth in 1884. (The Forest History Society library holds original copies of all 4 volumes of this report.) The detailed analysis contained in these reports was remarkable. Bernhard E. Fernow called Hough’s first report “by far the best and most useful publication of its kind on forestry in this country.”
In 1881, Hough also wrote Elements of Forestry, the first book on practical forestry written in the United States. That same year the Department of Agriculture converted the office of federal forestry agent into the Division of Forestry, making Hough the first chief of the Division of Forestry, the direct precursor to chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
At the influential inaugural American Forestry Congress in Cincinnati in April 1882, Hough delivered an address titled “Forestry of the Future,” in which he presented a detailed economic justification for a national policy of reforestation. Eventually, reforestation became an important part of American forest management policy.
Despite his many successes, personal differences with Commissioner of Agriculture George B. Loring led to Hough being replaced as chief of the Division of Forestry by Nathaniel J. Egleston in 1883. Although demoted back to forestry agent, Hough nonetheless continued to do stellar work for both the Division of Forestry and the state of New York until shortly before his death on June 11, 1885. He drafted the Adirondack Forest Preserve law and saw it passed one month before he died. Six more years would elapse before the federal government passed the Forest Reserve Act, its own comprehensive measure for forest preservation.
Although sometimes overlooked as a historical figure, Hough’s contributions to forestry and forest preservation in the United States cannot be overstated. Often referred to as “the father of American forestry,” Hough helped establish forestry work in this country, and brought about government action in the area of forest management and preservation on the state and national level. In 1963, his home in Lowville, NY, was declared a National Historic Landmark.
- The information in this post was taken largely from various materials in Franklin B. Hough’s biographical file in the U.S. Forest Service History Collection at the Forest History Society.