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Crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau, 1854.

The bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau this month comes at an auspicious time. Given the political climate we live in, his essay “Civil Disobedience” resonates today more than it has in nearly a half-century. I break no new ground in saying that the man has much to say to us 155 years after his premature passing about our changing environment as well. As Gordon Whitney and William Davis noted thirty years ago in their article “Thoreau and the Forest History of Concord, Massachusetts”: “Although Thoreau was noted primarily for his philosophy, he was also an acute observer of the natural scene, much more than his self-appointed title, ‘inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms,’ might suggest.” And while Thoreau traveled and observed nature in different parts of New England, “As a practical ecologist, surveyor, and husbandman, Thoreau was intensely interested in the history and management of Concord’s woodlots in the nineteenth century.” Today, scientists—ecologists and forest researchers, among others—still use his observations as a baseline for their studies.

What makes him valued today as a forest historian can be traced in part to his experiences during the winter of 1856. His fascination with natural history increasing, Thoreau, according to Kurt Kehr, found himself trying to answer the question derived from the “observation common among New England farmers: when one cuts pine woods, the next generation is an oak woods, and vice versa.” In the essay “The Allegash and East Branch,” written in 1857 but posthumously published in the book The Maine Woods (1864), the 150th anniversary of its publication of which was celebrated elsewhere on this blog, Thoreau restated the question, saying that

no one has yet described for me the difference between the wild forest which once occupied the oldest townships, and the tame one which I find there to-day. The civilized man not only clears the land permanently to a great extent, and cultivates open fields, but he tames and cultivates to a certain extent the forest itself. By his mere presence, almost, he changes the nature of the trees as no other creature does.

To answer the question, he spent the winter and spring of 1856 watching and recording how natural forces dispersed tree seeds near and far. By mid-May, he had drawn his conclusions, and had “extrapolated a lesson in the principles of forest succession,” Kehr concludes in “Walden Three: Ecological Changes in the Landscape of Henry David Thoreau.” Pulling from several years’ worth of his journals, Thoreau presented a lecture in September 1860, “The Succession of Forest Trees,” a landmark work in forest history still worth reading today. Published in the New York Tribune and widely reprinted, it was the most widely read piece published in his lifetime.

Beginning the lecture with the farmers’ wisdom about oaks succeeding pines, continues Kehr, Thoreau then:

reasoned that while the wind is conveying the seeds of pines into hard woods, the squirrels and other animals are conveying the seeds of oaks and walnuts into the pine woods. He explained the successive alterations in tree populations (which he oversimplified a little here) in the following way: the oak seeds that are buried anew every year under the protection of the evergreen woods suffer less from the shading effect of the mature pines than do the pine seedlings. When the pine woods are cut down, the oak seedlings finally get a chance to develop into trees.

In short, he declared, all trees grow from seeds. They did not, as the dominant view held, spontaneously generate. Richard Higgins, in his recent book Thoreau and the Language of Trees, notes that “Thoreau also contributed to the understanding of the ages of trees and how to manage woodlands.” These were substantial contributions to forestry.

His ideas about forest succession echoed that of Charles Darwin and his work on evolution, published a year before Thoreau gave the lecture. Laura Dassow Walls, in her new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, says he was one of the first Americans to read On the Origin of Species on American soil. He was applying the principle of natural selection to the woods and fields of Concord for a new book—”Succession” was to be a chapter in it—though he would die before completing the work entitled “The Dispersion of Seeds.” His observations about humans as agents of environmental change (“When the pine woods are cut down…”) are found in that of George Perkins Marsh, who offered similar ones in his own influential book, published in 1864. Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, praised by Lewis Mumford as “the fountainhead of the conservation movement” and the book that led Gifford Pinchot and others to take up forestry, owes a debt to Thoreau “Succession.”

In George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation, biographer David Lowenthal makes clear Marsh read Thoreau. He praised The Maine Woods and drew from the younger man’s other works for his own, writing of Thoreau that “few men have personally noticed so many facts in natural history accessible to unscientific observation.” Both valued and praised wilderness as essential for humans, but also called for utilitarian conservation of natural resources. Like Thoreau, according to Lowenthal, Marsh “prescribed a balance of tilled land, meadow, and forest…. Indeed, the wildness Thoreau adored was no untouched terrain but a process of growth and decay, conquest and abandonment, in scenes made by both natural and human agency.” Thoreau’s conclusions, according to Higgins, were ignored by professional foresters and loggers. They “could not accept the work of a Transcendentalist, even a scientific one.” Thus, we find Thoreau in good intellectual company in 1864, but over time, his contributions to forest history became overshadowed by those of Marsh and others.

The next one hundred years saw appreciation of Thoreau’s forestry work recede, ignored by plant ecologists and foresters. The rise of the environmental movement and its embrace of Thoreau as naturalist-poet pushed his late-life scientific work out of the public’s mind, and with it his rightful place in forest history. The works cited here, and others coming out this year for the bicentennial, are balancing the scales of forest history. “In the last analysis,” observed Kehr, “Thoreau’s contribution to forestry was his readiness to combine careful methodology with an appreciation for man’s place in the ecology of the forest.” If his grasp of human and forest ecology are his contribution to forestry, then his writings about those topics are his contribution to forest history.

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July 1 marks the anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service’s establishment of the National Forest System in 1907—the day the “federal forest reserves” were renamed “national forests.” Historian Char Miller wants to share his birthday wishes for them.

Not every anniversary deserves commemoration. Ordinarily, the 110th birthday of anything would not merit much attention, but there is little about our time that is ordinary, particularly not for those deeply concerned about the protection and maintenance of some of America’s most beloved landscapes—the 193 million acres that constitute our system of national forests, a system that was born in March 1907.

So, head to the kitchen, bake a (big) cake and dot it with 110 birthday candles; light’em up; and just before you extinguish the blaze, make a wish.

Add 100 more candles to this cake, baked for the tenth anniversary of the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act in 1970. From left to right: Bill Bacon, Dick Droege, Burnie Payne, Ed Schulty, Chief Cliff, Red Nelson, Art Greeley, John McGuire, John Sandor (Assistant to Chief), and H. R. Josephson. (Forest History Society Photo Collection, FHS7035)

Mine is simple: that these public lands will remain public. That their management will become ever-more collaborative, inclusive, and resilient, and that that these alterations in management might insure that these treasured terrains will be around to greet their 220th.

Ok, that’s a lot of wishing (but then there are a lot of candles to blow out). Admittedly, too, there is little about these intertwined aspirations that is straightforward. This befits the occasion, though, for the establishment of America’s national forests was a complex and contested process—every bit as complicated as the contemporary debate over their presence and purpose. The traditional political history of their birth draws on the ideas of a three-generation set of academics, critics, scientists, and educators who, beginning in the mid-19th century, recognized that an industrializing United States was so rapidly exploiting its bountiful resources—whether timber, mineral, grass, or water—that the nation’s future was in doubt.

George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864) is the iconic expression of this insight (and associated anxieties) and it served as the foundational text for much to the subsequent debate about how to regulate the land (and the people) to sustain the United States over time.(1) Twenty years later, George Bird Grinnell picked up Marsh’s mantle, arguing that setting aside what he dubbed “forest reservations” would help regenerate cutover lands and rebuild the economies that depended on these woodland-based resources.(2) In 1905, Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s founding chief, reaffirmed the concept of sustainability embedded in Marsh’s and Grinnell’s vision when he announced the new agency’s mission: “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”(3)

Rangers gather around to look at The Use Book. The book, designed to fit in a shirt pocket, included the text of Secretary Wilson’s letter and the quote “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”

To make the case for durable management over time required moving heaven and earth, otherwise known as Congress. Its members had to embrace the notion that a portion of the federal public domain should remain in government ownership—a radical notion for many who believed that the best use of those acres was to get rid of them. Politicos also needed to accept that the best cabinet secretariat in which to locate these lands was not Interior, where they had been situated since the American Revolution, but Agriculture. Adding to the complexity of this drawn-out process was the need for a new social type—the forest ranger—and the development of laws and expertise that would enable these stalwart individuals to more effectively and conservatively manage our resources. There is much more to this story, of course, but many of the relevant legislative initiatives, executive actions, and judicial decrees tell the same tale: The institutionalization of the Marsh’s principles was a top-down affair.

Yet without bottom-up pressure from countless communities located in and around what would become first known as forest reserves, and after 1907, national forests, there would have been no political will to enact these important changes. The small Ashland (Oregon) Forest Reserve, like the sprawling San Gabriel Timberland Reserve framing Los Angeles to its north and South Dakota’s Black Hills Forest Reserve, and any number of others straddling the Rockies, came into being because of staunch local support that drew on an intersecting array of on-the-ground interests. Their vocal engagement caught the ear of representatives, senators, and presidents, shifting the political dynamic.

However democratic, this groundswell of opinion dovetailed with the oft-violent dispossession of native peoples from their ancestral lands. Justification for the wholesale appropriation of tens of millions of acres, as revealed in the path-breaking work of historians Mark David Spence, Karl Jacoby, and Theodore Catton, depended on the Doctrine of Discovery (a European conceit that exploration and conquest produced sovereignty) and Manifest Destiny (an American version of the same disruptive claim). For Native Americans, Jacoby writes, conservation “was inextricably bound up with conquest—with a larger conflict over land and resources that predated conservation’s rise.” The United States forcibly removed some people so that others might flourish. The establishment of the national forests, then, codified this brutal process of settler colonialism.(4)

That the indigenous nations were written out of the narrative of the public lands is captured in a small booklet—The Use of the National Forest Reserves—the Forest Service published on July 1, 1905. It speaks glowingly of how settlers and homesteaders can utilize these new forests. It details the permitting process that will allow prospectors, miners, grazers, and loggers to exploit the relevant resources they require. It identifies the mechanism by which counties will receive ten percent of the tax receipts these forests would generate to underwrite local school and other community needs. It extolls the conservation ethic that undergirds the Forest Service’s objectives:

The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the Western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advancement in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore indispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of this Department [of Agriculture] for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanence.(5)

That said, not everyone would enjoy the bounty of that projected future. Evidence for this is manifest in the fact that there is nary a word about those who had managed these landscapes for millennia, those whose stewardship practices the Use Book now criminalized. A penalizing, Beth Rose Middleton observes, that has had “ongoing consequence for indigenous identity, culture, and survival.”(6)

This erasure and the resulting inequalities of access and power was reified two years later when the forest reserves were officially renamed national forests. To mark the occasion, on June 14, 1907, the agency issued a newly retitled Use Book to reflect this shift in nomenclature. Still, like its predecessor, The Use of the National Forests makes a case for democratic participation in these forests’ management that could have significant implications for reengaging with Native American stewardship models. “There are many great interests on the National Forests which sometimes conflict a little,” the 1907 Use Book affirms. “They must all be made to fit into one another so that the machine runs smoothly as a whole,” a desired harmony that often made it “necessary for one man to give way a little here, another a little bit there.” Acknowledging that “National Forests are new in the United States, and the management of the vast resources is a very difficult task,” the text admits that “[m]istakes are bound to be made at first, and have been made. It is the users themselves who can be of chief assistance in doing away with bad methods.”(7)

Menominee Indians prepare for a river drive in Wisconsin, 1909. The federal government’s relationship with the Menominee over lumbering and forestry dates to 1871. It has evolved from one of conflict to one of collaboration. (FHS Photo Collection: Native Americans, Folder #2)

Among those who have been pushing back against some of these “bad methods” are Native American tribes, who Theodore Catton in his recent book American Indians and National Forests (2016) characterizes as the “most marginalized minority group in the United States.”(8) He tracks their determined efforts beginning in the mid-20th century to reclaim access to ancestral territory, secure long-ignored treaty rights to riparian and terrestrial resources, and, in some cases, demand the opportunity to co-manage forests and grasslands under the Forest Service’s purview. Among its other positive responses to this growing pressure, Catton explores a small set of cooperative projects in the field and, within the Washington office, two noteworthy initiatives: in 2006 the agency established The Office of Tribal Relations and soon thereafter incorporated “Native knowledge in the new planning rule.”(9)

These are baby steps, to be sure, as Catton’s tentative conclusions suggest. But they are worth lighting a candle (if not 110)—in cautious celebration of and as steadfast encouragement for much greater, collaborative-driven change in the years ahead.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, a Fellow of the Forest History Society, and author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), and editor of Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (2017).

NOTES

(1) George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864).

(2) George Bird Grinnell, “Spare the Trees,” quoted in John Rieger, “Pathbreaking Conservationist: George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938),” Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2005: 19.

(3) James Wilson to Gifford Pinchot, July 1, 1905, reprinted in Char Miller, ed. Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 39–42; Pinchot drafted the letter—which was really a job description—that Wilson, as Secretary of Agriculture, signed and sent back to his subordinate.

(4) Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), quote: 151; Theodore Catton, American Indians and National Forests (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016), 15–22; Beth Rose Middleton, Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011), 36–41. Ian Tyrell, in Crisis of a Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), links the domestic application of conservation to its role in framing American imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(5) The Use of the National Forest Reserves: Regulations and Instructions (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1905), 10–11.

(6) Middleton, Trust in the Land, 37.

(7) The Use of the National Forests (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1907), 25.

(8) Catton, American Indians and National Forests, 302.

(9) Ibid., 303–04; Middleton, Trust in the Land, offers a much more robust critique of the Forest Service’s interactions with the tribes and a fuller assessment of the tribes’ own application of Traditional Ecological Knowledge on their lands; her review of Catton’s book appeared in Environmental History 22(3): 534–36.

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On this date in 1949, four Forest Service smokejumpers made the first jump east of the Mississippi River and the first parachute jump ever made onto the Washington Ellipse, the oval park between the Washington Monument and the White House. The jump was even televised, which is how President Harry Truman reportedly watched it, even though he would’ve had a clear view of the historical event if he’d stepped out on the Executive Mansion’s balcony.

The smokejumpers had taken three days to fly out from their base in Missoula, Montana, on a Ford Tri-Motor. Why so long? The airplane’s top speed was 90 mph. Homer W. “Skip” Stratton later recalled 50 years later in an interview with The Missoulian, “If we got a head wind, we could see cars and trains passing us down below.” Of the jump, he remembered they came in so low they were about eye level with tourists looking out from the observation windows of the Washington Monument, which are 500 feet up: “We were waving at each other.”

DC Commissioner John Russell Young welcomes the smokejumpers to the nation’s capital. From left to right, Bill Hellman, Skip Stratton, Bill Dratz, and Ed Eggen. The White House is visible in the upper left corner. (American Forestry Association Photo Collection)

The first two men to hit the silk were Stratton, 27 years old, and William D. Dratz, 26. On a second pass, Edward J. Eggen, 26, and William D. “Bill” Hellman, 23, jumped and landed in the middle of the Ellipse. Hellman had become a new father while on the trip. His son was born the day before the DC jump.

With no forest fire to attack, smoke pots were lit to provide some sense of excitement for the smokejumpers and the hundreds of spectators who turned out to watch. The Washington Post reported the next day, “It wasn’t an invasion, citizens, it was the United States Forest Service demonstrating how its smoke-jumpers fight forest fires in remote sections of the West.” Interestingly, the day before this leap into history the newspaper characterized their job as putting out fires “inaccessible to automobiles,” a indication of how new the concept of smokejumping was.

The jump was arranged by the American Forestry Association (now American Forests), which was hosting a luncheon at the National Press Club “honoring American business for its advertising support in the fight against forest fires through a public service campaign sponsored by the Advertising Council,” according to an August 1949 article in American Forests magazine. The Forest Service hoped the event would generate continued support for its fire prevention campaign and the smokejumper program. After landing, dozens of reporters swarmed to take photos of them and ask questions. Stratton recalled, “The questions were just crazy. What does it feel like? Do you jump right into the middle of the flames? Crazy stuff.”

Then the four men got into two convertibles and rode down Pennsylvania Avenue to the luncheon, where the smokejumpers gave plaques to business leaders on behalf of the Agriculture Department. The men were a big hit in Washington, especially Eggen, the only bachelor of the group. “Ed was the favorite of the women at the Agriculture Department,” Stratton remembered. “He was this big handsome guy with blond hair and a great smile. They pretty much had him surrounded the whole time we were in Washington.” Afterward, they quickly returned to Missoula and to work. Fire season was well underway.

Bill Hellman presents a plaque to Charles E. Wilson, president of General Electric, at the Salute to American Business Program. Looking on is Forest Service chief Lyle Watts. (American Forestry Association Photo Collection)

Some readers might recognize the name of Bill Hellman. Just six weeks later, Hellman would be one of 12 jumpers killed in the Mann Gulch fire, another, though unwelcome, first for the Forest Service smokejumpers.

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This is an expanded version of the review of Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, by Steve Olson, which first appeared in the April-May 2017 issue of American Scientist. 

When I visit environmental history–related locations, I typically bring back two reminders of the trip: photographs I’ve taken and rocks I’ve collected from the sites. When I returned from a trip to Wallace, Idaho, in 2009—a small, picturesque town located in the state’s panhandle and surrounded by national forests—I came home with rocks and a small vial of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens.

The vial measures about 1.75″ in length but contains a great deal of information and memory.

The rocks came from outside the abandoned mine where, in 1910, Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski and his men rode out one of the most famous wildfires in American history. Known as “the Big Burn,” the conflagration consumed 3 million acres in about 36 hours. Burning embers and ash fell upon Wallace, and fire consumed about half the town. The fire transformed the U.S. Forest Service, then only five years old; the lessons agency leadership drew from it—that more men, money, and material could prevent and possibly remove fire from the landscape—eventually became policy. The agency’s decision to fight and extinguish all wildfires, known as the “10 a.m. policy,” is one America is still dealing with because of the ecological impact removing fire from the landscape for half a century has had.

Seventy years later, another famous natural disaster coated the town in ash when Mount St. Helens, which sits in the middle of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southeastern Washington, erupted, sending some of its content miles into the air and drifting east towards Wallace and beyond. The vial I brought back contains some of that ash. The tiny container is a reminder that this disaster, too, transformed the Forest Service. It also transformed the U.S. Geological Survey.

The transformation began on March 20, 1980. After 123 years of dormancy, Mount St. Helens woke up. Seismometers had detected a 4.0 earthquake about a mile below the surface of the volcano, which is located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwestern Washington. In the days immediately following, more quakes were recorded, as many as 40 an hour. These weren’t aftershocks—it was a volcanic swarm. Business owners, loggers, and the media demanded to know when the volcano was going to blow. As Seattle-based journalist Steve Olson discusses in his book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (W.W. Norton, 2016), there was no easy answer: The science wasn’t there yet. But as Olson demonstrates, the lack of clear scientific guidance and an absence of straightforward jurisdictional relationships fostered government inaction at all levels, with disastrous results. Given recent seismic activity around Mount St. Helens (earthquake swarms were recorded in June and November of 2016, although these gave no indication of imminent danger), revisiting the events of 1980 seems especially timely.

Just after the March 20th quake, some immediate protective measures were taken. The Weyerhaeuser Company, which was harvesting some of the last old-growth timber on its land surrounding Mount St. Helens on land it had owned since 1900, evacuated its 300 employees, and the Washington Department of Emergency Services advised everyone within 15 miles of the volcano to leave the area. But within a week, restlessness set in. After all, livelihoods were at stake. Area law enforcement couldn’t keep U.S. Forest Service roads closed to the public indefinitely and, given Weyerhaeuser’s economic and political influence in the region, public safety officials dared not close roads on its land. Beyond that, law enforcement simply didn’t have the resources to staff all the roads that snaked their way through the forest and around the volcano and nearby Spirit Lake.

(more…)

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On October 17, 1916, the Pisgah National Forest was the first national forest established under the Weeks Act of 1911. Written by FHS historian Jamie Lewis, this post was originally published in the online version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on October 14, 2016, and in print on October 16 to mark the centennial.

“When people walk around this forest … at every step of the way, they’re encountering nature, some of which has been regenerated by the initiatives of those generations they know not—they know nothing about. And I think that that’s ultimately the greatest gift: that you’ve given to them beautiful, working landscapes and you don’t know where they came from.”

Historian Char Miller closes our new documentary film, America’s First Forest, by acknowledging those who labored to create the Pisgah National Forest, which celebrates its centennial on October 17. We chose that quote because it simultaneously summed up the Pisgah’s history and looked to its future by implicitly asking who would carry on the work of the early generations in managing this national forest.

Miller is right. The Pisgah is a gift from many people—some whose names are familiar but many whose names are not. Most have heard of George Vanderbilt, or his Biltmore Estate. His greatest gift, however, was not to himself but to the nation. He hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Biltmore’s grounds. Creator of New York’s Central Park and other urban green spaces, Olmsted saw in this project opportunity to give back to the nation, and through Vanderbilt a way to do so. In 1890, Vanderbilt needed a forester. America needed forestry. Olmsted advised hiring a professional forester who would demonstrate to America that one could cut trees and preserve the forest at the same time.

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, who then crafted the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the United States. Pinchot later gave back to the country in his own way: in 1905, he established the U.S. Forest Service, providing the nation with an institution to manage its national forests and grasslands. But before leaving Vanderbilt’s employ in 1895, Pinchot did two things: he facilitated Vanderbilt’s purchase of an additional 100,000 acres, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest, and he recommended hiring German forester Carl Schenck to implement his management plan.

Schenck’s “experimental” practices not only restored the forest but also improved its wildlife and fish habitat. This turned Pisgah Forest into a revenue source as well as a playground for its owner: a sustainably managed forest can provide all those things and more.

In 1898 Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School—the country’s first forestry school—to educate men wanting to become forest managers or owners. Many of the nearly 400 graduates also served in the Forest Service. The impact of Schenck’s gift is still seen on public and private forests today. Thankfully Congress preserved the school grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site.

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (FHS356)

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Photo taken in 1901 at Lookingglass Rock. (FHS356)

These men are not the only ones to thank for the Pisgah National Forest. In 1899 Asheville physician Chase Ambler mobilized citizens to protect the region’s scenery and climate. Pressured by conservation groups from the South and New England, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, which empowered the federal government to purchase private land for the Forest Service to manage. This legislative gift pleased not only preservationists like Ambler by protecting scenery and recreation areas, but also conservationists because the land remained available for logging and other extractive activities.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold Pisgah Forest for a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” the conservation legacy of her husband, and as a “contribution” to the American people. Pisgah Forest became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest, the first established under the Weeks Act, and Biltmore Forest School graduate Verne Rhoades became its first supervisor, in 1916.

But that is the past. The future of the Pisgah National Forest (and its neighbor the Nantahala) is being written now. The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a forest management plan to guide how it manages the forests for the next dozen or so years. At public meetings, the Forest Service has been hearing from citizens and groups like the Pisgah Conservancy to help it craft the forest’s future. Like Carl Schenck and Vern Rhoades before them, Pisgah’s current managers face great uncertainties, only now in the form of forest pests and disease, climate change, and a place so attractive that its visitors are “loving it to death.” Those who cherish the Pisgah for its “beautiful, working landscapes” can honor those who gave us that gift by continuing to sustainably manage it. That can ultimately be our greatest gift to future generations.

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo -- negative number 185843)

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo — negative number 185843)

 

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Austin Cary, one of the great unsung heroes of American forestry, was born this date in 1865 in East Machias, Maine. A Yankee through and through, he found professional success in the South, eventually becoming known as the “Father of Southern Forestry.” In 1961, twenty-five years after Cary’s passing, his biographer Roy R. White wrote of him:

In contrast with his more renowned contemporaries, Austin Cary was an obscure logging engineer in the Forest Service. Yet the story of the life and work of this latter-day Johnny Appleseed has reached legendary proportions in the southern pine country. Cary, a New England Yankee, dedicated himself to the awesome task of bringing forestry and conservation to a region reluctant to accept, and ill-equipped to practice, these innovations. His success places him in the forefront of noted American foresters and his character warrants a position peculiarly his own.

What makes Cary an intriguing historical figure was his unorthodox, nonconformist approach to life and work. He hailed from an old, well-to-do family whose wealth made him financially independent. By the time he graduated at the head of his class from Bowdoin College, where he majored in science with emphasis on botany and entomology and received the A.B. degree in 1887 and the M.S. in 1890, he was already known as a “lone wolf” comfortable tramping alone in the woods. Despite his refined upbringing, he was called blunt and tactless, and that was by his friends. The “dour New Englander” struggled in several different jobs before finding his niche, in part because of his personality. He moved from industry forester in New England to college instructor (Yale Forest School, 1904-1905; Harvard, 1905-1909), and then in 1910, to logging engineer in the U.S. Forest Service.

Between 1898 and 1910, Cary kept asking for a job with the Forest Service. Chief Gifford Pinchot refused to hire him, though, perhaps because of his personality, more likely because of philosophical differences. Cary strongly believed that private forestry, and providing economic incentive to private land owners to hold land and reforest it, was the nation’s best hope for conserving America’s forests, whereas Pinchot had staked his agency’s position on the federal government dominating land management. Only after Pinchot’s dismissal in 1910 did Cary get hired by the Forest Service—by Pinchot’s replacement and Cary’s former boss at Yale, Henry Graves, who supported Cary’s position to some extent.

Carl Schenck wrote of Austin Cary, here photographed in Florida in 1932, “[He] was as good with the axe as if he were a Canadian lumberjack.” (FHS Photo Collection)

After graduation in 1890, Cary worked on a freelance basis as a land cruiser and surveyor in northern New England, publishing his research findings on tree growth, cutting methods, entomology, and the life cycles of northern Maine trees. His writings gave him some connections and influence in industry. After he traveled abroad several times, particularly to the Black Forest of Germany, to study forestry practices and returned in 1898, he found work with the Berlin Mills Company in New Hampshire as the first company forester in North America. Thus began a lifelong battle to persuade industrial forestland owners to embrace and undertake long-range planning of cutting, planting, and land use. Opposition to such ideas in the North did not deter him, nor did it in the Pacific Northwest, where the Forest Service sent him in 1910. The timber barons had millions of acres of virgin forests they could cut; they saw no incentive to log conservatively and reforest afterwards.

Cary didn’t fit in there and relations deteriorated. Given the choice of assignments in 1917, Cary choose the South, where the Forest Service had little presence and he could create his own program. “Significantly,” White tells us, “he planned an appeal to southern landowners and operators, large and small. It would be necessary, he knew, to influence a people generally hostile to strangers, notoriously averse to change, and shackled by a near-feudal economy.” The “lone wolf” found a home in the southern woods, which were (and still are) largely privately owned and at the time in need of intervention. Though his title was that of logging engineer, he operated as a roving extension forester.

When he arrived, the South’s First Forest was nearly exhausted. “Into the void of southern forestry he intended to introduce forest practices which would assure a second timber growth on the barren, smoldering land,” wrote White, where fire was widely used. The Forest Service campaigned to eliminate it from southern forests; Cary defied them because he saw the ecological role fire played, and instead encouraged landowners to experiment with what are now called prescribed burns. Somehow this direct, straight-shooting Yankee won over Southern landowners. He was not allied with one large company and they didn’t really think of him as Forest Service; they were charmed by “his disrespect for propriety and authority” and his personality. Their conservatism matched his, and he became a staunch defender of their practices and land rights. This culminated in a bitter denunciation of the New Deal–era federal land acquisition in 1935, captured in an open letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that Forest Service officials initially tried to suppress. In the end, they decided it was less painful to suffer his opposition than to silence him, and allowed the letter to be published in the Journal of Forestry. Thumbing his nose at the ultimate authority was his last significant action before he retired in 1935.

“With a new forest turning the South green once again,” he decided to “‘bang around less…live more quietly'” and retired to Maine. He died on April 28, 1936. The well-managed private forestlands in both New England and the South are just a portion of his impressive legacy.

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You can read more about Austin Cary and his legacy in Roy White’s article “Austin Cary: The Father of Southern Forestry,” where all quotes in this article are from, and by exploring the many resources we have on him listed below:

The Austin Cary Photograph Collection contains images taken by Cary between 1918 and 1924 during his early years of working in the South for the Forest Service. The photographs document forestry and turpentining practices in the pine forests of the southeastern United States. We have a finding aid and online photo gallery.

Interviews with several foresters who discuss the positive influence of Cary reside in the “Development of Forestry in the Southern United States Oral History Interview 

A 1959 oral history interview with Charles A. Cary includes discussion of his family background and his uncle Austin Cary.

Some of Cary’s acidic nature is evident in his correspondence with Carl A. Schenck in this Journal of Forest History article.

We also have two folders’ worth of materials in our U.S. Forest Service History Collection.

His papers are housed at the University of Florida.

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Much like today’s celebrities, Hollywood stars of the Reforesters_of_America1920s never missed an opportunity to align themselves with a cause that everyone could get behind. In 1923, industry leaders joined with conservation leaders like Gifford Pinchot and William Greeley to establish the American Reforestation Association, which sought to leverage Hollywood’s PR machinery and the exploding popularity of films (as well as radio and print media) in order to educate Americans about the need for and importance of planting trees. Reforesting America became the obsession of Hollywood royalty like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

In honor of Arbor Day, we bring you Hollywood’s brightest stars circa 1925. The photos come from a promotional book published by the Association that year. Don’t you love how they dressed for the occasion? I know I put on my Sunday best for gardening.

 

The list below shows all the stars and starlets who appeared in the book.

The list above shows all the stars and starlets who appeared in the book.

To read the original captions, click on the photo.

Douglas Fairbanks plants a tree.

Swashbuckling star of the silver screen Douglas Fairbanks.

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Mary Pickford, the original “America’s Sweetheart,” was a cofounder of United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin.

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Comic legend Harold Lloyd, minus his trademark horn-rimmed glasses.

Harriet Hammond (spelled differently in the book) was a Max Sennett Bathing Beauty. You may know her from such films as "Gee Whiz!" and "By Golly."

Harriet Hammond (spelled differently in the book) was a Max Sennett Bathing Beauty. You may know her from such films as “Gee Whiz!” and “By Golly.” I know I always wear furs and heels when planting trees.

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Jackie Coogan, who later went on to play Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” television show, was one of the highest paid stars in film in 1923.

Actors from the "Our Gang" series helped out, too. Oh, those Little Rascals!

Actors from the “Our Gang” series helped out, too. Oh, those Little Rascals!

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