In 2009, Oregon saw the smallest timber harvest since the great depression, and make no mistake, the impact of this decrease is taking a toll. In late August, Swanson announced it would close its Glendale, Oregon sawmill, a move that will affect 55 workers. In addition to the state of the housing market and competition from Canada, Swanson vice president Chuck Wert, cited the lack of timber coming out of federal forest lands as a reason for the closure. "We have no idea what kind of a long-term program for timber there's going to be. So it's virtually impossible to plan around a federal timber supply."
Since I’ve recently finished reading the book, The Big Burn, by award-winning journalist and natural resource writer Timothy Egan, I thought it might be interesting to look at the early historical record concerning timber harvests in national forests.
The Big Burn describes the largest forest fire in American history, the 1910 blaze in Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington that burned nearly 3.2 million acres—roughly the size of Connecticut—in approximately 36 hours.
The book also tells the story of Gifford Pinchot, America’s “first forester.” A believer in scientific forestry, Pinchot would help create the Society for American Foresters and start an endowment at Yale for a Forestry School. His life’s work, however, was to conserve the nation’s forests. Pinchot believed strongly in managing the nation’s forest reserves for use and renewal and for the long-term benefit of all Americans. He often referred to the nation’s forests as “working forests.” According to Timothy Egan, “there for the ages, but also not tree museums.”
Politics would eventually work in Pinchot’s favor. Close friend and confidant, Teddy Roosevelt became Governor of New York, then Vice President. During Roosevelt’s stint as Vice President, President McKinley named Pinchot chief of the Division of Forestry, a title that came with “no land to manage, no oversight and no authority,” according to Egan. Then, in September 1901, President McKinley was shot. He would not survive. At 42, Teddy Roosevelt was President.
By 1905, after the hugely popular Roosevelt had been re-elected by record-breaking margins, the Forestry Division was renamed the US Forest Service. With Pinchot at its head, the agency was responsible for 60 million acres of forest reserves and had been given a small budget to hire rangers.
Most of the work done by the early forest rangers was boundary work—scouting and mapping new forests so that Roosevelt could use his executive powers to declare them reserves. This continued until 1907, when political enemies of Roosevelt and Pinchot in the Senate tacked an amendment to a spending bill that discontinued presidential authority to create additional national parks without Congressional approval. The bill passed.
Instead of being demoralized by these events, however, Pinchot saw an opportunity. Egan writes: “Pinchot had an idea. Why not use the seven-day window [before Roosevelt had to sign the bill] to put as much land into the national forest system as possible? Just go full bore and do in a week’s time what they might normally do over the course of four years. Roosevelt loved [the idea].” At the end of the week, 16 million additional acres had been added to the national forest system, which now approached 180 million acres.
While the Forest Service still existed, its meager budget prevented rangers from enforcing good management practices, including moderate harvests and replanting. When Taft succeeded Roosevelt, the budget cuts continued. Eventually, Taft did what he promised Roosevelt he would never do: he began eliminating acres from the national forest system. In January 2010, tired of Pinchot’s outspoken defense of conservation at his expense, the President fired Pinchot.
By late summer, the lack of Congressional support for the Forest Service was about to take its toll on Western forests and towns. An extremely dry spring and summer in Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington was turning the forest to fuel. Sparks were flying from the new railroad cars delivering thousands of new residents via the new railroad line running from Milwaukee to the Puget Sound. Massive thunder storms were igniting fires as well. Estimates put the number of fires active in Montana and Idaho at the beginning of August at somewhere between 1,700 and 3,000. The small, underfunded staff of the area’s ranger stations was not equipped to handle the fires.
On August 20, 1910, an immense windstorm coming out of western Washington fanned the flames, eventually causing a convergence of the smaller fires. The result in 36 hours time was the largest forest fire in American history, burning nearly 3.2 million acres and leaving 86 people—most of them firefighters—dead. Early estimates put the lost value of timber at $1 billion, enough timber to supply the whole nation for 15 years, according to Egan.
Pinchot and Roosevelt quickly placed the blame on Capitol Hill. Their enemies, however, blamed them for the fire—if they had not prevented the whole cloth harvesting of western forests, the fire would never have happened. The American people, in reaction to the Big Burn, sided with the conservationists and refused to return Taft to the White House.
Shortly thereafter the newly Democratic Congress completed the vision of Roosevelt and Pinchot, both Republicans. Not only did they pass legislation making it possible for the government to purchase land in other parts of the country to add to the national forest system, funding for the Forest Service doubled.
Their triumph was short-lived, however. Soon after the 1910 fire, the Forest Service turned its attention almost entirely to firefighting. Under its new chief, Bill Greeley (the top of the first class of graduates from the Yale School of Forestry), things changed. Greeley saw the national forests as a resource to serve a growing nation and believed that industry was best positioned to manage the forests. The policy of maximizing timber output would continue for many years to come.
Even if there were disagreements between conservationist and timber output, it's important to remember that both Roosevelt and Pinchot continued to believe in the wise use of America's forests. Here's an excerpt from a speech that Roosevelt delivered to the Society of American Foresters (it should be noted that Pinchot wrote or collaborated on most of Roosevelt's speeches on the topic of conservation):
"And now, first and foremost, you can never afford to forget for a moment what is the object of our forest policy. That object is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful, though that is good in itself; nor because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness, though that, too, is good in itself; but the primary object of our forest policy, as of the land policy of the United States, is the making of prosperous homes. It is part of the traditional policy of home making in our country. Every other consideration comes as secondary....You yourselves have got to keep this practical object before your minds; to remember that a forest which contributes nothing to the wealth, progress or safety of the country is of no interest to the Government, and should be of little interest to the forester. Your attention must be directed to the preservation of the forests, not as an end in itself, but as the means of preserving and increasing the prosperity of the nation."
Next month, in Part Two of this series, we’ll look at the period leading up to and and follwoing the WWII period, when the US government was faced with two problems, accomodating the housing needs of the baby boom generation and fighting the Cold War with a strong US economy. Forest Service policy was pivotal agency in helping the US solve these problems.
Note: Picture courtesy of the US Forest Service This historic photo by R.H. McKay shows the fire aftermath in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest in Idaho near the Little North Fork of the St. Regis River.