On this date in 1922, the Agricultural Appropriations Act of May 11 made the first appropriation for the improvement of public campgrounds in national forests. The bill made special reference to the protection of public health and the prevention of forest fires. The U.S. Forest Service received $10,000. What’s most surprising about that amount is that’s what the agency actually suggested it needed in the chief’s annual report the year before—and then they actually received it!
The bill was passed during the first recreation boom. The automobile and a bit of leisure time were both widely available following World War I. With several national forests located not far from urban centers, the forests were attracting campers in increasingly larger numbers. A 1922 study of the 960 campgrounds in the national forests revealed that more than a million people used them annually. Those numbers were expected to keep increasing as the 1920s roared on.
Though the Forest Service had constructed and opened its first campground in Oregon in 1916, the sheer volume of visitors after the war forced agency leaders to recognize two things: facilities were needed to properly dispose of all the litter and human waste being generated, and an uneducated public represented a fire hazard. In developing new campgrounds and improving existing ones by adding “public-comfort stations” that made available “a few simple sanitary conveniences,” the Forest Service argued that neophyte campers would be less inclined to go “into more remote places and [build] dangerous camp fires, as inexperienced people are likely to do,” but rather would “stop at those improved spots and thus greatly decrease the danger of destructive fires.” According to testimony given in support of the 1922 bill, the agency “has been forced into the recreation business as a means of taking care of the public.” It was build facilities or “make it unlawful for the public to enter the national forests,” an alternative they didn’t desire. The money would be used “in part for the preparation of camp plans and the simple construction necessary for sanitation and fire protection,” i.e., clear parking spaces, construct outhouses and fire rings, and level tent sites.
The request for money came at an important time in the history of recreation on federal lands. The National Park Service had been established in 1916 over the objection of Forest Service leaders, who felt that the parks should fall under their jurisdiction because of their timber holdings. Critics of the Forest Service felt otherwise. They argued that, like in the case of Hetch Hetchy, the Forest Service didn’t want to preserve land but develop it. The debate over the mission of the two agencies can be seen throughout the testimony, with one congressman questioning why “the Forest Service is duplicating practically everything there is in the national parks and specializing in promoting competing projects.” Chief William Greeley had to explain that there was no competition between the two, with associate forester E.A. Sherman adding that most of the visitors were local travelers “of a kind that would not reach the national parks.”
At the same time that the Forest Service was struggling to meet demands for recreation it was also developing its position and policy on wilderness and primitive areas. Two years before, the agency had decided not to develop Trappers Lake in Colorado at the behest of Arthur Carhart, and in 1924 the Forest Service would declare the first wilderness area, the Gila in New Mexico. The debate over wilderness aside, recreation grew in importance during the 1920s as the recreation boom took off. In 1923, the Forest Service received $20,000 for improvements and then nearly double that amount the following year. That was the same year that the agency included it as a line item in its annual budget for the first time—a sign that the agency was fully committed to recreation as both policy and practice.
The Forest History Society Photograph Collection features numerous images of recreation on national forests, including over 300 historic photos of camping and campgrounds. These photos and others can be accessed through our searchable online image database. A selection of recreation photos has also been highlighted on the FHS Flickr pages. Below you will find a few examples of photographs documenting national forest campgrounds through the years.