HOW WE GOT WHERE WE ARE
Posted Aug 20, 2007
Last Updated Mar 19, 2008
HOW WE GOT WHERE WE ARE
The condition of American forests reflects thousands of years of human use, including nearly 400 years of use by people of European origin. A scan of our forest history provides considerable understanding of the controversies and the participants.
Before the Mayflower
To the precolonial native Americans, there was no forest controversy (except who could live and hunt where). In the east, the forest was home, all the world they knew, and they knew it intimately. With its intermixed waters, wetlands, meadows and garden plots, it was the source of everything they used. Beginning in early childhood, they learned from the adults around them how that world worked and how things were done -- how to function and live in the forest. They were taught by example and mythology, and while not everything they learned was literally true, it was effective and uncontested.
They didn't simply accept the forest as it was. They altered it where they wished, mainly with fire, for they had no practical metallurgy. In the neighborhood of their villages they burned the woods repeatedly, to clear away undergrowth and thin the trees. This provided better forage for game, and garden patches for their corn and squash. It reduced insects, created deadwood for fuel, and reduced cover for raiders from other tribes.
It also substantially modified the plant and animal communities.
Thus there were many locales where the forest was more or less open and parklike, with the continual invasion of tree seedlings repeatedly burned out. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies, was a prairie created and maintained by fire, home to bison and elk. Deliberate burning resulted in scattered but significant prairies in Ohio, Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, and accounted for the more extensive prairies of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.
In the southeast, burning by Indians resulted in large areas of relatively open pine forest, on lands that would otherwise have borne stands of mostly broadleaved trees.
Still, most of the country east of the Mississippi was more or less densely forested when the Mayflower unloaded the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock.
How Great Grampa Deadened Timber:
the Forest and the Pioneer Farmer
By colonial times, Europe had already developed a separation of economic and social functions and classes. Europeans included laborers, craftsmen, merchants, soldiers, bureaucrats, clerics...and above them all, aristocrats. But most Europeans earned their living by farming.
Before coming to America, many, perhaps most colonists had been tenant farmers and farm laborers -- farmers without land, seeking land without farmers. Many who'd been freeholders were refugees from oppressive governments, religious intolerance, and war. All of them knew not only labor and hardship, but controversy. Their basic wants were simple, and not controversial at all: land of their own to make a living on, and freedom from oppression. Shortly after the colonial period ended, the United States census of 1800 found 95 percent of the population living on farms.
The land the new colonist found was not at all like the cleared and orderly British or European countryside -- tidy landscapes whose fields and lanes were often lined with stone walls or hedges. Instead, most of it was unbroken forest described as "a hideous and desolate wilderness." Where it wasn't wilderness, earlier colonists already owned it.
Thus very often the newcomer became a pioneer, claiming wild land along the fringe of settlement, and clearing the forest on it.
In the process the pioneer changed. By hard-won experience he came to know more or less intimately, though seldom to love, the forest he cleared. His experience would color the American psyche, and contribute a new tradition, an American tradition, from which eventually and ironically would grow the wilderness movement.
Actually the land had to be more than cleared to gain title to it. In colonial times, the wilderness as far as the Mississippi had been claimed by governments of the various colonies, or given in royal grant to some entrepreneurial aristocrat. The would-be settler got it from the colony or grant holder, or sometimes simply "squatted" on a piece of unoccupied, out-of-the-way land without bothering to make a legal arrangement. After the revolution, much of the wilderness was ceded by the ex-colonies to the federal government, which set up simple procedures for claiming and establishing private ownership. This vast, federally owned "public domain" was viewed by government and citizen alike as a land pool, which should and would be transferred to private ownership as soon as there was demand for it, primarily for agriculture.
Indian claims were disdained, particularly after the Revolution. The Indian was not a Christian, and even when he was, was thought not to deserve the land because he hadn't "tamed and cleared it." (Actually, often he had, to a degree; it simply wasn't readily apparent to European eyes.) The rightness and logic of this seemed self-evident, given the mind-set of the time.
The pioneer who crossed the Appalachian Mountains into the wilderness of Ohio and Kentucky had no bulldozer; even the crosscut saw hadn't come to the forest yet, and wouldn't for years to come. His primary cutting tool was an ax, or for cutting roots, a mattock. With the help of the ax, he built a cabin, and cleared land to grow food for his family. Wild meat was shot with his muzzle-loading flintlock.
The newly arrived pioneer usually brought with him a cow or two, a bull, a yoke of oxen to pull his wagon, and perhaps some hogs and sheep. (If he planned to settle in a location where others had preceded him, he might look to buy some of these on site.) From the cattle came milk, meat, lard, leather, and replacements. The oxen not only pulled the wagon, they drew the plow, dragged fallen tree trunks together for burning, and (after the side roots were severed or had rotted) pulled stumps. The sheep provided wool, from which yarn was spun and clothing made by the pioneer wife. The hogs foraged in the forest for anything edible.
The years-long work of carving a farm from forest was strenuous and unrelenting. A practice known as "deadening timber" was commonly the first step. Trees were "ringed" with an ax -- a girdle chopped through the inner bark, the "phloem," all the way around, about waist high. This disconnected the roots from the flow of footstuffs and hormones manufactured in leaves. The pioneer didn't know just why it worked, but it worked; ringed trees died gradually over a season. At the same time using up the food energy stored in their roots; thus the ground wasn't strongly reclaimed by stump sprouts or root suckers.
The only shade was from the dead branches overhead, allowing grass to flourish for grazing. One might, in thinly occupied, "deadened" forest — even attempt a skimpy patch of corn in advance of actually clearing a field.
With this minimal base established, the hundreds of dead trees still had to be chopped down, most to be piled and burned, a long and strenuous project, though fence rails, firewood, and building timbers were made of some of it. Again with the ax as the main tool, supplemented by maul and wedges.
Wolves, bears, and "panthers" -- cougars -- were a threat to his livestock, and competitors for wild meat; he shot them when he met them, and tracked them down when he could. The forest was the supreme obstacle, and wilderness something to be tamed.
This attitude and system began in the Atlantic coastal states in the early 1600s and crept gradually westward. It took more than two centuries for serious settlement to reach the mid-continental prairie. The sweat produced was prodigious, and the resourcefulness and stoical can-do attitude developed, became an American trademark.
But at the same time, the pioneer farmer perpetually needed fence rails to keep livestock close to home and out of the crops, and from time to time building material, and of course, firewood for cooking, and to heat his cabin. Crude fireplaces are notoriously inefficient, and each year, more wood was burned for cooking and heating than had been used to build the house.
While to fence a rectangular 40-acre field required about 8,000 fence rails, all created with the ax, maul, and wedges.
As more and more land was cleared, the settlers reserved areas of forest, so-called "farm woodlots," to provide those needs -- a sort of early and limited forestry.
There were already differences of opinion, among pioneer Americans, on how best to live. Growing up in the forest on pioneer homesteads had given more than a few white youths a taste, and set of abilities for, something resembling an Indian kind of life, hunting and trapping in the wilderness. But such men had no dispute with the homesteader. There was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of true wilderness farther west, for example in Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Arkansas. Until those territories too were taken up, and the young hunters-trappers-explorers had to cross the Great Plains to reach the kind of wilderness they sought. Which of course they did.
Frenchies, Swedes, and Steam:
the Forest and the Builder
As America's population and towns grew, so did the need for lumber -- a need which could no longer be met by farmers working in their own neighborhood during the off-season. Now the forest came to be viewed as more than an obstacle; it became valued as a supply of lumber.
Railroads were being built, requiring great quantities of pilings and trestles for the innumerable bridges to cross the innumerable streams. And crossties; each mile of track required more than 2,500 of them, mostly 8+ feet long and 8 inches or more thick, cut and squared with (what else?) an ax. And they had to be replaced every five to seven years.
And fuel, always and forever fuel. Even in towns, most buildings were heated with wood. Many iron works used charcoal (carbonized wood) in making iron and steel. Coke (made from coal) only gradually displaced it. (As late as 1950, wood cut annually for fuel was second only to wood cut for lumber.)
Pine was the premium wood for building. More and more, crews of hired "chip choppers," "tie hacks," and "bull whackers" were sent into the backwoods, where they lived in rude camps, cutting the pine and dragging it to the mill or river.
That soon wasn't enough, because with increasing immigration, high birth rates, and geographic expansion, the demand for lumber and ties continued to grow. Not only were more and more skilled forest workers needed, but more efficient methods as well. A series of migrations and new equipment resulted -- the steam-powered sawmill, the French-Canadian axman, the crosscut saw, immigrants from the forests of Scandinavia, the steam donkey for loading and sometimes dragging logs, the logging railroad....
Business empires were burgeoning in almost every promising economic area, on the principles of laissez faire plus whatever government grants could be leveraged. The new merchant aristocrats may often have had other values as well, but power and profit were the driving forces; money and influence ruled the game. Their kingdoms included shipping, copper, steel, coal, railroads, oil, cattle, and flour.
And lumber. The "timber barons" included some of the more colorful (and uncouth) characters in American history, with large sawmills and huge tracts of virgin forest. At one point the view was voiced that "the pine in Michigan will last forever (hah!)," though at the same time, large-scale lumbering was already spreading into Wisconsin and even Minnesota.
In areas predominantly of pine, one could almost speak of clearcutting by counties. And when the loggers left, settlers moved in to clear farms, on land much of which was ill-suited to farming. They piled the logging debris (called "slash") and undergrowth and burned it (or simply broadcast-burned it, dispensing with the time and hard work of piling). And sometimes their fires escaped, "blew up." Occasionally, when warm dry autumn winds blew strongly, slash fires grew to be wildfires that ravaged extensive areas of cutovers and associated uncut forest, killing more than a few settlers.
In 1871, the Peshtigo fire charred 2,400 square miles in northeastern Wisconsin and adjacent Upper Michigan, killing 1,200-1,500 people. In northern Lower Michigan in 1881, a fire swept through slashings and forests from Lake Michigan all the way across the state to Lake Huron. As recently as 1918, the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire in Minnesota, and separate fires to the north which burned at the same time, swept another million-plus acres, killing more than 400 people. My mother, a young nurse, was in charge of a temporary morgue, in a roofless, burnt-out concrete-block building in the burned-down town of Moose Lake. The morgue held some 80 fire victims.
When the more accessible pine sawtimber was running low in the northern Lake States, some of the same timber companies moved south, where there were millions of acres of pine. And before long to the great virgin forests of the west coast.
At the same time, the belief was still general that the highest use of land was farming, and forest was looked at as an impediment. (Some far-sighted individuals had begun to speak and write their concern over the shrinkage of American forests and wildlife, but there was no great public controversy over it.) Farm families tended to be large, and many farmers' sons were looking for land of their own. Thus as recently as the 1920s, newly logged-off tracts of forest often were promptly colonized by farmers' sons and their wives, and even more by land-hungry immigrants. In fact, timber companies often subsidized farm settlement on their cut-over lands, setting up ethnic "colonies" so that neighbors would speak the same language actually and figuratively.
But by the end of the 1900s, belief in the inexhaustibility of virgin forest was dead. In New England and the Alleghenies, forests of old-field white pine, that had seeded in on abandoned colonial farms, had for years made up the menu for many sawmills and loggers in the Atlantic coastal states. And the next phase of American forest history was underway.
The Fourth Face on Mount Rushmore
A fact often overlooked is that limestone, once quarried, processed for cement, and used in construction, is gone as a resource. Unless and until the structure into which it is poured is torn down and the concrete recycled. And iron ore, once mined, smelted, and used in construction, is gone as a resource. Unless the structure is destroyed and its steel and iron recycled. Which seems possible, but to date I haven't heard of it happening.
But trees cut for lumber are commonly regrown, if the land isn't converted to other uses, and if the site isn't too degraded, which usually it isn't. Trees are composed of carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the sky via the soil, with small amounts of minerals and nitrogen also (mostly) from the soil. Fundamentally, trees are made of air and water, with DNA as the blueprint and soil as the footing, so to speak. Sunlight provides the power. Of course, you have to get suitable new stands started when you cut the old, but there are various ways to do that. Commonly nature takes care of it.
In Europe a few centuries ago, notably in Germany, France, and Switzerland, orderly systems were developed to manage the forests so the amount of wood harvested could be sustained continuously at something approaching the growth potential of the land.
In the latter part of the 1800s, this concept of sustained yield management was brought to America, and the notion of responsible forest and wildlife management began to take root here -- as a concept. Sometimes the ecological knowledge was lacking to apply it successfully, but more often it was the opportunity that was lacking; good old market economics and the existing tax structure didn't permit sustained yield management -- not while vast tracts of cheap virgin forest were available.
Nonetheless, a pragmatic conservationism developed which considered the envisioned needs of wood far into the future. This movement included men of action as well as vision: two German immigrants -- Carl Schurz and Bernhard Fernow -- and soon afterward, several Americans, notably Franklin Hough and Gifford Pinchot, entered onstage. And in addition, the man who gave it force, a man not only of action and vision, but of great energy and major political clout: the highly popular President Theodore Roosevelt -- now memorialized on Mount Rushmore, along with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. (And now Crazy Horse.)
Meanwhile, those vast tracts of virgin forest were shrinking, largely through fraud. Abbreviating and adapting from a college textbook:
The Timber and Stone Act of 1878, designed to transfer lands to individual farmers, resulted in a massive and fraudulent transfer of prime forest land to timber companies and loggers at a fraction of its potential value....
To get title to the land, the law required that the would-be land owner erect a dwelling on it, a 12 by 14 dwelling, and deceptions such as placing a 12 by 14-inch cabin on forest land in order to acquire title were common under the act. Sometimes a more scrupulous corporation would build a genuine log cabin...and haul it from claim to claim, or place it on the corner of four sections. Another swindle involved "bringing water to a tract"...an improvement required of homesteaders. A cupful would be sprinkled on the ground.... Some companies operated even more cheaply: their employees could pay a claim location fee, perhaps $16 per half-section (320 acres), and the company would then cut all the timber. Afterward, to avoid property taxes on the slash-covered ground, they would let the claims lapse.
The shrinkage aroused concern, and in 1891, President Benjamin Harrison, with congressional authorization, established the first national forest reserve, set aside from the public domain -- land that was still in federal ownership. Other reserves soon followed, notably from the pen of President Cleveland.
For the protection and management of the reserves, in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt assigned them to the newly established U.S. Forest Service, as what would become known as the National Forest System. At that time, all the National Forests were in the west, where almost all the remaining public domain lands were.
Creating grounds for serious, vigorous controversy, because numerous people were already using those lands, or demanding to use them, often in ways not compatible with forests or each other.
In the west, the lower elevations were mostly too dry for forest to grow. The great preponderance of forest was on mountain ranges or high plateaus, many of which contained, or were hoped to contain, valuable mineral deposits. Some was on Indian reservations. And there were extensive interspersed grasslands valuable for grazing, while numerous fertile valleys, with no trees to clear or stumps to grub, required mainly irrigation and hard work to provide crops.
Meanwhile, the government had made large grants of public domain lands to would-be railroad builders, as incentives, and sources of cash. Much of that grant land was on the plains or arid lands, but large grants of virgin timberlands were also made.
The pioneers west of the plains found conditions very different from those experienced by earlier pioneers back east. Homesteaders moved into grassy mountain valleys, staked homestead claims, then used the surrounding public domain pretty much as they pleased for domestic wood and grazing. They almost had to, to farm there. By law, most homesteads were 160 acres, plus or minus surveying errors, and in the mountain west, a family could seldom make a living on 160 acres.
Most of these valley homesteaders were cattlemen on a modest scale. Few would get rich, but they enjoyed independence with a minimum of interference. The work was hard, and they froze and sweated in season, but the life was generally satisfying. Their homesteads provided headquarters and hay meadows. Even their lowland winter range was commonly on public domain, and commonly their summer pastures were federally- owned grasslands in cooler, more moist high country, plus meadows interspersed through the forest, both more or less well-watered by snowmelt and summer showers. Some of the more open, sunny forests, notably of ponderosa pine, and aspen, had grass growing beneath the trees, and this too was grazed.
These settlers considered the use of federal land their right, and the general public found no fault with that. It was the attitude of the time.
Meanwhile, not only American populations were growing. Populations were booming in Europe too, and with them the market for wool. (There was no vinyl, no polyester, no synthetics of any sort, and wouldn't be for a long time to come. People wore woolens in the cool part of the year, and often year round, though cotton or linen were commonly worn in summer.) Thus large and small-scale sheep ranching had spilled across public domain lands, from the semi-arid basins all the way to the cold damp tundra meadows above timberline. Law enforcement was seldom adequate, and the competition between cattlemen and sheepmen for grazing sometimes became violent.
Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, recognized the woolgrowers as the best organized lobby in the West. He also knew that sheep eat tree seedlings, and that continued overgrazing destroys forest. "John Muir called them hoofed locusts," Pinchot commented, "and he was right." For a time, Pinchot campaigned to have grazing prohibited on National Forests, and when he backed down, it surprised a lot of people. His explanation was to the point: "We were faced with this simple choice: Shut out all grazing and lose the Forest Reserves, or let stock in under control (my emphasis), and save the Reserves for the Nation."
Some irrigators too disliked sheep. Under the casual herding practices of the time, too many sheep were left too long on one range, grazing the plants to the ground while breaking up the root systems with their sharp hooves. On heavily grazed ranges, particularly sheep ranges, rainstorms scoured off topsoil and cut rills and gullies, sending muddy torrents into the valley lands below. (Over time, however, with a combination of education, market changes, and growing Forest Service leverage, overgrazing would become less frequent and much less severe.)
In the West, water use was and is an important issue. In the East and Midwest it rained a lot, rivers were everywhere, and irrigation scarcely imagined. There was, it seemed then, water enough for everyone and every use. But in most of the West, precipitation was more seasonal and widely inadequate, most of it falling on the higher country as snow. In fact, most of it fell on the forests. Streams were typically small -- creeks, brooks -- and in many areas few or non-existent.
At the same time, considerable water was needed for irrigation, livestock, the growing new towns, and mining and refining. Thus in most districts there wasn't enough for everyone. Early arrivals dug canals and built (often ramshackle) pipelines, taking what there was. Later comers sometimes tried to pirate it. Thus a system of water law evolved, unlike anything imagined "back east" or in Europe -- law considered so vital, it was written into state constitutions.
The existence of so many prior and subsequent uses, claims, and demands: agriculture, timber, minerals, grazing, water...would put constant political pressures on the Forest Service, and on other agencies managing federal lands. The kinds of pressures and demands that, in a democracy, dictate compromise and political accommodation. They "come with the turf," so to speak. Compromises and accommodation that have often required managers of public lands to allow things they considered the lesser of evils, as already referred to in Pinchot's comments on sheep grazing.
Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, a new interest had germinated, one that would grow only slowly for more than half a century, then burgeon, becoming large and influential.
John Muir, His Descendants, and the
Concept of Wilderness Preservation
Wilderness preservation is a largely American expression of the European Romanticist philosophy. And the one man who, more than anyone else, gave birth and impetus to this American phenomenon was a one-time frontier farm boy named John Muir (1838-1914).
At age eleven, Muir emigrated with his family from rural Scotland to a backcountry Wisconsin homestead, eventually to become a remarkably far-ranging wilderness wanderer. By inclination neither warrior nor priest, he nonetheless fought and preached for wilderness preservation. He was a tolerant, humorous but determined visionary who would influence President Theodore Roosevelt and numerous others in the young conservation movement. Including, directly or indirectly, some in the fledgling U.S. Forest Service. He was co-founder and inspirational godfather of the Sierra Club, and its perennial president until his death in 1914, a death which by no means ended his influence.
Early on, growing awareness of wilderness shrinkage led to concern in the minds of some key Forest Service officers. There was still no significant public demand for wilderness preservation, but its chief supporters in the Forest Service pushed persistently. Initially they were Aldo Leopold, soon afterward Arthur Carhart, and later Bob Marshall. They found enough friendly ears at senior Forest Service management levels that "primitive areas" were designated, leading to establishment, in the National Forests, of what would become the Wilderness System. The first formal Wilderness Area was established in 1924 -- the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico's Mogollon Mountains.
But wilderness protection was based simply on departmental regulation. That was as far as Forest Service authorization provided. Thus the areas were vulnerable to hostile regional and local politics, for local populations still looked at wilderness as something to be tamed and roaded. They were also vulnerable to a strong faction within the Forest Service that considered commodity production the only proper purpose of National Forests. These commodities included water, grazing, leased sites for vacation homes, and especially timber, "rationally harvested." (Of which, more later.)
With the Congressional indulgences granted by the Mining Law of 1872, mining interests in particular threatened the Wilderness System. Under that law, mineral exploration was essentially uncontrolled and generally disruptive, often leading — certainly with past mining technology — to large-scale mining, with its roads, land clearing, blasting, open pits, "spoil banks," stream diversions and water pollution and played havoc with wilderness. And it troubled not just wilderness advocates, but water interests, and conservationists broadly.
The congressional Wilderness Act of 1964 was largely the result of lobbying by forest activists, notably the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, acting as a growing, newly significant counterforce to the timber, grazing, and mining lobbies. The Wilderness Act provided much greater security, and more rapid expansion, of the Wilderness System, but by no means did it end the conflicts. (The subject of wilderness and the conflicts surrounding it will be looked at much more thoroughly in a later chapter.)
The Wilderness Act was a major, and to many a surprising victory, It was also the beginning of an era.
The Era of Activism
The era of activism can be said to have started with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, and the Wilderness Act of 1964 was its first landmark victory. Numerous important acts followed, more or less growing out of activist pressures. Particularly notable were the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the National Forest Management Act of 1974. The basic features of the Endangered Species Act are known to most people, at least loosely, and will be discussed in more detail later. At this point it's enough to say that it has restricted management options on private as well as federal and state lands.
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 is less well known to the general public, compared to the Wilderness and Endangered Species Acts. It grew directly out of a seminal court action by citizen groups against clearcutting on the Monangahela National Forest in West Virginia. The district court found against the Forest Service, and the appeals court found against the Forest Service appeal. Then a district court in Alaska halted clearcutting there, too, citing the Monangahela ruling.
Whether or not clearcutting was an appropriate cutting system, the Forest Service had indicted itself by its arrogant response to the citizen groups, and to the first district court ruling. Now it found itself in serious difficulties, because the court ruling was that clearcutting was in violation of the original legislation authorizing the Forest Service to manage the National Forests. A ruling that by hindsight was correct.
The result was new authorizing legislation, the National Forest Management Act of 1976. And this one was written not by the Forest Service alone, but in conference with the House Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; the timber industries; and activist organizations. It still granted the Forest Service considerable leeway in its management prescriptions, but it established important restrictions on agency autonomy: It required each forest to prepare and get approval for, a management plan prepared by interdisciplinary teams of specialists, not simply by foresters. It included language intended to guarantee protection of environments and wildlife. And most importantly, it required procedures and rules for public input, public review, and public appeals before that plan could be approved.
One result was 1200 administrative appeals by activists, and 1800 lawsuits, making it clear that the public not only had to be heard, but had to be heeded. The Forest Service found itself facing, and having to adjust to a whole new reality.
Over the next 15 years, many of the "interdisciplinary specialists" moved up the organizational ladder, while many of the agency's old guard retired. In 1993, a biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, was appointed Chief of the Forest Service -- the first chief who was not a forester. In fact, he had early been involved in research on the ecology of the northern spotted owl. How well he administered the agency is arguable -- he was caught between two adamant, mutually hostile power groups -- but he was a landmark, a symbol of change.
And that's as far as I've gotten in preparing a complete draft. The rest is a skeleton draft I haven't looked at since 1996, with here and there a preliminary chapter more or less fleshed out. I have a lot of material toward chapters on the recent history and current state of Federal land management by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, but I expect those chapters to require travel and research, which will require a book contract, with a cash advance from a publisher or subsidizer.
So by all means let me know what you think of the project thus far. If you know of a publisher to approach, or a literary agent who deals with projects like this one—or anyone else in a position to support it, let me know. Or let them know of the project.