Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

National Forests in the Western United States: A Magnificent Start and More to Establish

Until the latter third of the nineteenth century, forests in the United States were considered inexhaustible—not renewable, but inexhaustible. But by the 1880s, with watersheds on public and private lands were being decimated by unrestrained logging and grazing, an emerging conservation movement was beginning to convince the public—and would eventually convince Congress—that something needed to be done.

Finally on March 30, 1891, Congress enacted the Forest Reserve Act, which allowed the president to proclaim national forests from lands in the federal public domain. President Benjamin Harrison (1889–1893), who signed the legislation, eventually proclaimed forest reserves totaling 13 million acres, including the nation’s first: Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve (today, mostly the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming).

President Grover Cleveland (1893–1897) created more forest reserves totaling 25.8 million gross acres (not all within the reserve boundary was federal public domain). President William McKinley (1897–1901) followed by proclaiming 7 million acres. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) established an additional 150 million acres of what would become known as national forests.

TR’s forest conservation is generally viewed as visionary and bold today, but it caused significant congressional consternation. In 1907, a rider to the Agriculture Appropriations Act pushed by Senator Charles W. Fulton (R-OR) ended the power granted by Congress to the president to proclaim national forests in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming. The legislation also renamed the forest reserves as national forests. President Theodore Roosevelt felt he couldn’t veto an entire appropriations bill, so he signed away the power he was granted by Congress and had used boldly and wisely. However, before signing the bill he proclaimed 16 million acres of new national forests in the states specifically referred to. (Later legislation limited the presidential power in other states.)

Senator Fulton was not amused by these “midnight forests” (so called because TR and the first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, put in some late nights mapping forests and drafting proclamations before TR signed and made the bill law). They included what today is known as the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon.

The National Forest System currently comprises 155 national forests, 59 purchase units, 20 national grasslands, 5 land utilization projects, 19 research and experimental areas, 37 other areas, and 1 national preserve. These add up to 232,875,640 gross acres; excluding all but federal public domain land, the acreage is 192,921,310. The lands are mostly in the American West, with the remainder in the American East and Alaska, with 145.5, 25.5, and 22 million acres respectively. Puerto Rico (but not Hawai’i) has a national forest. The Forest History Society offers a list of each and every national forest by name, date, and acreage.

Most of today’s National Forest System was carved out of the federal public domain. Other national forest lands—mostly, but not exclusively, in the American East—were established by buying back private timberlands. An earlier post to my Public Lands Blog, “National Forests in the Eastern United States: An Incomplete Legacy,” focused on the establishment of eastern national forests.

Table 1 shows each of the original thirty-three national forests proclaimed in Oregon, when it was established, under which administration (after TR, presidents couldn’t add more of the public domain to the National Forest System but could further divide, rename, and/or combine), its acreage, and its eventual disposition into the fifteen proclaimed national forests Oregon has today. National forests with hyphenated names (for example, Wallowa-Whitman, Fremont-Winema, Rogue River-Siskiyou) are separately proclaimed national forests administered as one.

Thanks, Benjamin, Grover, and, most especially, Teddy!

However, more forest lands should be included in the National Forest System. This includes 2.6-million acres of generally forested Bureau of Land Management holdings in western Oregon. It includes other generally-forested BLM lands in eastern Oregon, Montana, Alaska and elsewhere. It includes large amounts of private industrial and small private timberlands that could be acquired from willing sellers.