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The Deep History of Forest Conservation on American Public Lands

The nascent conservation stirrings of the Euro American colonists in America can be traced to concerns about the loss of forest resources, in particular timber, which fueled the development of land. As early as 1626 when Plymouth Colony, fearing “inconveniences” that were likely to arise if any community should experience a lack of timber, declared that no man should sell or transport any timber out of the colony without the approval of governor and council. This was, perhaps, the first Anglo American conservation statue. Inherent within this statue were two principals that would evolve into modern conservation doctrines: 1) that there was a limitation to the timber resources of the Colonies; and 2) that the welfare of the Colonies was dependent on the sustainability of this resource. This is also a tacit recognition of public resources which would eventually lead to recognizing public lands. By the beginning of the 18th century, the British Empire stepped into control of North American timber by reserving certain species and sizes of trees for the exclusive use of the British Navy for ship masts.

After Independence, the need for quality timber to construct and maintain navy ships for the United States lead to a series of acts to protect and reserve public domain lands and purchase private property to increase and create a sustainable resource of timber for the young nation. In 1817 an act authorized the Secretary of the Navy to impose a fine for cutting oak or red cedar from selected tracts of reserved timber producing lands. By an 1831 act, this idea was expanded to include reserves of timber, all types of timber, and from “any other lands” belonging to the United States. This created the impetus to mange timber reserves across all of the public lands. This focus on timber as a strategic naval resources diminished rapidly after the Civil War with an emphasis on metal ships. Concurrently, the settlement of the vast portions of the American West and Midwest were placing an ever-escalating demand on timber resources.

In the West one of the first sets of regulations to prevent indiscriminate destruction of wood and timber were in Mexican California in 1845. The General Assembly of the “State of Deseret,” the Mormon settlement that would eventually become Utah, passed an ordinance in 1851 to imposed a penalty on anyone who should waste, burn, or other destroy timber in the mountains. In the 1870s, a growing number of US government officers began expressing concerns about the wanton destruction of timber resources on public lands, particularly in the Rocky Mountains and on the Pacific Coast. Ironically, despite these early concerns about forest resources on public lands, the western states flexed their Senatorial powers to resist federal oversight of what they consider were the states’ exclusive “rights” to forest resources on American Public lands within their boundaries. A majority-backed bill introduced in the 1876 “For the preservation of forests of the national domain” was stopped and buried by these Western Senators. To the contrary, the Free Timber Act of 1878, granted free timber to vitally any purpose on “mining lands” in the Western States. This unleashed a food-gate of timber resource exploitation, fraud, and abuse, including abuses of the General Mining Law of 1872 Mining Law Act and the Homestead Act of 1862. These abuses would eventually lead to the proclamation of 13 new Forest Reservers by President Cleveland in 1897.

By the end of the 19th century, management of the Forest Reserves was scattered and fell under the auspicious of Land Office within the Department of Interior for administration and protection, the Geological Service for surveying and defining boundaries, and the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture for technical research and resource monitoring. The Land Office, lacking trained foresters and having no basis for timber resource management, could do little for the reserves beyond controlling trespass and fire suppression. As John Ise wrote (The United States Forest Policy 1920): “This policy of merely guarding the forest reserves, without providing for their use— a policy of ‘locking up’ a valuable resource— was certain to cause great hostility to the reserves…; yet it was the only policy the Land Office knew.”

The remedy for this problem was advanced by President Roosevelt at the urging of Gifford Pinchot in 1901— to transfer the entire care of the Forest Reserves to the Division of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture. Two bills introduced into Congress with majority support to accomplish this transfer were shot down primarily by western states opposition. “One consideration which doubtless had a great deal of weight with some western men—the fact that the Department of Agriculture was known to favor considerable restriction on grazing in forest reserves” (John Ise, The United States Forest Policy 1920).

This western opposition to the transfer of Forest Reserves from the Land Office to the Department of the Agriculture flipped in 1903 when the grazing policy within the Department of the Interior became “too vigorous to suit some of the western men, and it seemed to be thought that a change could at least make matters no worse… [concurrently with] the Department of Agriculture, under Pinchot’s influence, was turning to a more liberal policy in grazing matters” (John Ise, The United States Forest Policy 1920).

The Act of Congress of Feb. 1, 1905 (33 Stat. 626) provided for the transfer of Forest Reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Immediately after the transfer, a charge for grazing in Forest Reserves was implemented to help pay for the costs of administration for the reserves.