In the summer of 1874 – not quite 11 years after he won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Battle of Gettysburg and less than two years before he was killed in the Battle of Little Big Horn – Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer led an expeditionary force of 1,200 on a 1,200 mile trek through the Black Hills.
Apart from confirmation of the presence of gold in the Black Hills, the expedition’s most enduring historical contribution was an extensive set of photographs taken by pioneer photographer William H. Illingworth. Seventy-three of his glass negatives survive today, and provide contemporary forest observers with a startling record of the difference between Black Hills forests then and now. Most apparent is the fact that there are far more trees in Black Hill’s forests today than there were in 1874. The photographs, taken before logging began, also bear witness to a long history of fire, though none show grassy savannas punctuated by groves of large ponderosa pines, a setting often associated with fire-dependent ecosystems.
Between 1874—when gold was discovered near Custer City—and 1898, the year before Case No. 1 was sold to the Homestake Mining Company, miners and town builders harvested 1.5 billion board feet of timber from the Black Hills. They paid nothing for what they took. In fact, in 1878 a Congress anxious to aid the mining industry—which it viewed as a key player in western economic development—passed the Free Timber Act allowing miners to take from public land whatever timber they needed for their mining operations. The only restrictions: trees less than eight inches in diameter could not be cut and tree tops had to be disposed of to prevent forest fires. While these restrictions suggest the federal government had a passing interest in forest conservation, unregulated logging continued until February 1897 when President Grover Cleveland created the nearly one million acre Black Hills Forest Reserve, outlawing logging and, in effect, mining, which could not continue without timber.
President Cleveland created this reserve—and 12 others—at the urging of the National Forestry Commission, a group appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, which had been asked by the government to prepare a “rational forest policy” for the United States. Several commission members visited the Black Hills and concluded that minus quick action its forests would soon disappear altogether to the detriment of government hopes for settling the West. In fact, as early as 1892, one Department of Agriculture field agent predicted that “it will be no wonder if in a short time the dark pine forest is gone and the name ‘Black Hills’ has become meaningless.”
Predictably, President Cleveland’s action outraged miners and townspeople alike. In its February 27, 1897 issue, the Custer Weekly Chronicle declared, “The executive order…may be safely regarded as one of the most vital blows at civilization, so far as the Black Hills is concerned, that has ever been perpetrated by the ruler of any nation in the history of modern or ancient times.”
Not all of the commission members agreed with Cleveland’s order. Most notably, Gifford Pinchot, one of the era’s leading conservationists and an early advocate for science-based forestry, had misgivings about the philosophical underpinnings of forest preservation. He favored adoption of management principles developed in Europe at least a century earlier: efficiency, rational planning, scientific management and continuous production based on removal of old timber in order to encourage growth in the most desired tree species.
In June 1897, barely four months after Cleveland created the no-harvest reserves Congress bowed to western economic interests, ratifying the Organic Administration Act. Most significantly, the Act declared that the reserves existed “…to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.” It also gave the Secretary of the Interior the power to make regulations under which mining, lumbering and grazing interests could use public forests.
That fall, Pinchot toured the Black Hills, and in a history making November 3 meeting, convinced Homestake Mining Company officials they should side with him in his quest to bring science-based management to the reserves. Mindful of how quickly its economic fortunes had been changed by Cleveland’s order, company officials agreed to submit a formal request to the Secretary to purchase timber under terms spelled out in the Organic Act. It was a huge victory for the opportunistic Pinchot, who a year later was named Chief of Interior’s Bureau of Forestry.
Three months later, in February 1898, Homestake Mining filed its formal written request to purchase timber from the federal government, but it would be another year and a half before the application was approved, the sale volume estimated and the deal sealed. Nevertheless, Pinchot’s timing had been perfect. Here was a brutalized forest in desperate need of scientific management, and here was a company that needed a long-term timber source in order to maintain its immensely profitable mining operation. It could ill-afford to further anger a conservation-minded citizenry that feared the nation might soon run out of timber.
“There is no other forest in the United States in which practical forestry is more urgently needed, or in which results of such importance may be more easily achieved,” Pinchot wrote in a later report. “Upon its preservation depends the timber to supply a great and rapidly growing mining industry.”
Logging on Case No. 1—the first ever government-regulated timber sale—began just before Christmas 1899. Homestake paid $14,967.32 for about 15 million board feet of live and dead timber. Even then, it was an inconsequential sum for one of America’s largest mining companies, but getting the wood proved to be quite another matter. It took an army of horse loggers about eight years to complete eight separate contracts, one for each section from which timber was harvested. In all, about 2,000 acres scattered across 5,100 acres were logged.
About 5000 board feet of timber was removed from each acre—in trees up to 30 inches in diameter. Initially, the government allowed loggers to remove all trees larger than eight inches in diameter, but required that two larger trees be left on each acre as a seed source. But midway through the first year of harvest, the minimum diameter for trees harvested was increased to 14 inches which—counting seed trees— meant that about 500 board feet of standing timber were left on each acre. Clearly, the government’s forest officers—those charged with enforcing the logging contract—saw themselves as managers of a forest they believed could produce timber in perpetuity. A 1924 Forest Service survey suggests their instincts were correct. It revealed per acre volume had already increased 441 percent, to 2,600 board feet per acre.
In the years since, portions of Case No. 1 have been separately harvested five times: a CCC thinning in the 1930s, a post and pole thinning in the 1960s and actual timber sales in 1977, 1989 and 1990. In a 1968 ceremony, the Forest Service commemorated the two billionth board foot removed from the Black Hills National Forest by harvesting a 203 yearold ponderosa pine from the Case No. 1 site near Nemo. The occasion marked the fourth time the Nemo site had been thinned since Case No. 1 crews left the tree behind in 1899. Reporters who attended the ceremony seemed to grasp its significance—and the role Pinchot had played in insisting that a well-regulated forestry program could serve the nation’s economic interests while conserving its forest reserves.
“With harvest of the two billionth board foot, the Black Hills will have produced as much or more wood than there was estimated to have been standing when logging started here,” the Rapid City Journal noted in its June 23, 1968 edition. “Case No. 1 is more than history. The old sale area has been a proving ground for forest management. Here the basic precepts of careful logging were first laid out.”
Apart from representing a vast improvement over the hell bent free timber era, Case No. 1 became the economic cornerstone for dozens of still prosperous communities in rural South Dakota and Wyoming. Though it would be another 90 years before economic and ecological sustainability were seen as interdependent, Pinchot and his colleagues believed that if they managed the forest—making certain a new forest replaced the one that was harvested—they could also sustain the communities that purchased and milled federal timber.
Today, dozens of major federal laws and thousands of regulations—the Case No. 1 legacy—govern when, where and how logging occurs or if it can occur at all. In fact, many foresters now believe the regulatory process has become so cumbersome that it is counterproductive. Even more worrisome are the numerous proposals now before Congress that, if adopted, would outlaw timber management in National Forests. Before trading a century of success in forestry for a set of environmental unknowns, Congress ought to revisit the principles embodied in Case No. 1:
- The nation’s timber supply is not inexhaustible.
- A well-regulated forestry program can serve the nation’s economic interests while conserving its forest reserves.
- For conservation to succeed it must first be turned into an economic asset.
Based on what we saw in the Black Hills, these principles are as valid today as they were when Pinchot and the Homestake Mining Company came to terms with each other a century ago.