This is the second part of Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, a series of essays tracing the history of the conservation movement in the United States, and its influence on the nation’s ever-shifting forest policy.

The series expands significantly on a half-day lecture Evergreen founder, Jim Petersen, delivered to a graduate-level forestry class at the University of Idaho in February 2017.

The term “felt necessities” is taken from The Common Law, a book of essays assembled in 1881 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which he explains the historic underpinnings of the nation’s legal system. President Theodore Roosevelt thought so much of Holmes’ essays that nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1902.

We hope you enjoy and learn from this series. Your comments or criticisms are most welcome. Felt Necessities will subsequently be available in book form.


In 1884, two years before Bernard Fernow was named Forestry Division Chief, Charles Sargent published his massive Report on the Forests of North America. It was the first scientific survey of forests in the United States and it catapulted him onto the stage where, 21 years later, the Division of Forestry would become the U.S. Forest Service.

Led by Sargent, Stiles, Gibbs and anthropologist George Bird Grinnell of Glacier National Park fame, the influential National Academy of Science and the American Forestry Association soon joined with Fernow in calling for the federal government to withdraw from public entry all its timberland, which it was opening to settlement in conformance with ideals and principles laid down by Thomas Jefferson.

Edward Bowers, a lawyer in the Interior Department’s General Land Office, helped Fernow draft the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, which authorized the President of the United States to establish Reserves as he saw fit. President Benjamin Harrison signed the Act into law on March 3, 1891. Twenty-seven days later, he authorized creation of the Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. It was the first of six Reserves Harrison approved over a two-year period.

But the 1891 law contained a near fatal flaw: it made no provision for managing the newly created Reserves. The flaw is in Section 24 of the Act. It reads as follows:

“That the President of the United States may, from time to time, set apart and reserve, in any State or Territory having public land bearing forests, in any part of the public lands wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations; and the President shall, by public proclamation, declare the establishment of such reservations and the limits thereof.”

In his autobiography, Breaking New Ground, Pinchot called Section 24 “the most important legislation in the history of forestry in America.” But for more than a century, no one knew for sure who wrote Section 24. Thanks to considerable digging by Ron Arnold, a Seattle lawyer and wise-use advocate, we now know that it was a self-effacing Indiana farmer and congressman named William Holman. Holman chaired the House Public Lands Committee and had headed an 1885 congressional committee charged with investigating federal funding for Indian schools and Yellowstone National Park.

Holman, a notorious cheapskate, and his entourage, from whom he demanded the same frugalities, spent more than three months touring federal lands that would eventually become parts of more than 50 western National Forests.  As a self-trained botanist who enjoyed planting exotic flowers and trees on his Indiana farm, Holman no doubt looked at the West’s great forests through different eyes than most of his House colleagues.

But Holman was also a Jefferson Democrat steeped in the agrarian ideal that public lands ought to be reserved for landless homesteaders, not big businesses, and certainly not the railroads. He no doubt saw Section 24 as the best means for keeping federal lands out of the hands of the monopolies he deplored. It did that for sure, but it also created vast “no use” areas which no settler could lawfully enter. It remained for the authors of the 1897 Organic Act to clarify congressional intent for managing western federal lands reserved after President Harrison signed the 1891 Forest Reserves Act.

As you have no doubt surmised by now, the felt necessities first expressed by George Perkins Marsh in Man and Nature in 1864, had traveled a long way by the time President Cleveland created 13 new Forest Reserves in 1897. But the journey was only beginning.

Eight years later, on February 1, 1905, President Roosevelt signed the Transfer Act, creating the U.S. Forest Service and – at the behest of his great friend Gifford Pinchot – transferring more than 80 million acres of federal forestland from the scandal-ridden Department of the Interior to the staid Department of Agriculture. Predictably, Pinchot, who had replaced Bernard Fernow as head of the federal government’s Division of Forestry in 1898, was named first chief of the Forest Service.

Here it is worth noting that the opportunistic Pinchot had begun to consolidate his political power in 1897, months before he replaced Fernow as head of the Division of Forestry. He traveled to South Dakota in the fall of 1897 for a historic November 3 meeting with officials representing the Homestake Mining Company. He somehow convinced them to support his campaign to bring sensible, science-based forestry to the Black Hills Forest Reserve. Whether for political gain, or because they believed Pinchot was right, Homestake management agreed to support the idea that growth and harvest ought to be balanced against another.

A cynic would say it was an easy call for Homestake given the productivity of the Black Hills and the fact that very little timber had been cut. Be that as it may, in the spring of 1898 Homestake applied for and received permission to purchase timber from the Black Hills Reserve. They bought 15 million board feet for the princely sum of $14, 967.32.

Not wanting to risk failure, Pinchot supervised sale preparation work and signed off on the Division’s plan for selectively logging 5,000 acres. It took Homestake hand-felling crews eight years to complete the contract. By then, Pinchot had wound down the Division of Forestry and completed his first year as Forest Service Chief.

On February 1, 1905, the day Pinchot was named Chief of the newly minted Forest Service, a letter bearing the signature of Agriculture Secretary, James Wilson, was hand delivered to the Chief’s office. Again, I suspect Pinchot wrote this letter to himself for political purposes.

In carefully chosen words, it is Pinchot – not Wilson – who spells out his expectations for the Forest Service. Here we see the agency’s first of many attempts at diplomatically balancing the impossible to balance felt necessities of well-bred eastern conservationists against those of ragtag westerners engaged in the more utilitarian work of settling land, building towns and starting small businesses in the midst of Public Domain vastness that, over the next few years, would prove too daunting for those who had accepted as fact Thomas Jefferson’s visionary ideals about land and settlement.

“In the administration of the forest reserves,” Wilson wrote, “it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people and not the temporary benefit of individuals or companies. All the resources of the forest reserves are for use, and this use must be brought about in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner, under such restrictions only as will insure the permanence of these resources.

“The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advance in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore indispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of the Department for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value.

“You will see to it that the water, wood and forage of the reserves are conserved and wisely used for the benefit of the home-builder first of all; upon whom depends the best permanent use of the lands and the resources alike. The continued prosperity of the agricultural, lumbering, mining and livestock interests is directly dependent upon a permanent and accessible supply of water, wood, and forage, as well as upon the present and future use of these resources under businesslike regulations, enforced with promptness, effectiveness and common sense.

Wilson’s instruction was several pages long, but it concluded with this felt necessity no

longer reflected in federal laws and regulations that strictly limit commercial access to natural resources held in National Forests:

“In the management of each reserve local questions will be decided upon local grounds; the dominant industry will be considered first, but with as little restriction to minor industries as may be possible; sudden changes in industrial conditions will be avoided by gradual adjustment after due notice; and where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”

With Secretary Wilson’s instructions on the record, the era of federal forestry in the United States begins with Pinchot in the lead and his hand-picked cadre of the Society of American Foresters close behind him, and the President of the United States urging them on in a way no President since has done.

In Pinchot’s Society of American Foresters, Roosevelt saw a strong forest policy advocate, an organization whose members were well-qualified to help him convince the American people that practicing good forestry in the Reserves was in their best long-term interests. Roosevelt saw developing a sound federal forest policy as the most important domestic challenge he and the nation faced. And he understood that, despite holding the bully pulpit, there was little he could do to promote sound forestry if the country rejected it out of hand.

“Keep in mind the fact that, in a government such as ours, it is out of the question to impose policy like this from without,” he told SAF members gathered at Pinchot’s Washington, D.C. home. “The policy, as a permanent policy can only come from the intelligent conviction of the people themselves that it is wise and useful; nay, indispensable.”

We see this truth in action in the western United States today. Our federally-owned forests are dying and burning in terrifying wildfires, yet our forest policies which favor preservation are out of synch with both the economic needs of rural timber communities and the environmental necessities imposed on us by Nature itself.

At the time Roosevelt was counseling SAF members, Western solons were still angry over the fact that President Cleveland had not consulted with them before more than doubling the size of western Reserves. But their anger was no match for Roosevelt’s, which unexpectedly spilled over in a January 1905 speech to lumber and mining barons attending the annual meeting of the American Forest Congress in Washington, D.C.

Among the luminaries in the audience: James J. Hill, who had built the Great Northern Railway from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington without government subsidy; T.J. Grier of South Dakota’s Homestake Mining Company, purchaser of the Division of Forestry’s first timber sale; and F.E. Weyerhaeuser, the youngest son of  Frederick Weyerhaeuser, who, with his partners had, in 1900, purchased 900,000 acres of timberland in western Washington from the land-grant-rich Northern Pacific Land Company for $5.4 million – a staggering sum of money and, at the time, the largest private land transaction in the nation’s history.

By the way, Hill also owned the Northern Pacific Railroad, which he had won control of in 1896. Hill and Weyerhaeuser did not have to travel far to consummate their deal. They were next door neighbors in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Although Roosevelt recognized that men like Hill and Weyerhaeuser had contributed much to the West’s economic development, he wasn’t the least bit happy with their logging excesses, which he viewed as contrary to what he and Pinchot were trying to do. He thus took to his bully pulpit to set them straight. Through clinched teeth, with fists shaking, he delivered a blistering tirade, most likely scripted by Pinchot.

“You all know, and especially those of you from the West, the individual whose idea of developing the country is to cut every stick of timber off it and then leave a barren desert for the homemaker who comes after him. That man is a curse and not a blessing to the country. The prop of the country must be the businessman who intends so to run his business that it will be profitable for his children after him.

“If the present rate of forest destruction continues, with nothing to offset it, a timber famine [a phrase Pinchot had coined earlier] in the future is inevitable. Fire, wasteful and destructive forms of lumbering, and the legitimate use, taken together, are destroying our forest resources far more rapidly than they are being replaced. I ask, with all the intensity that I am capable, that the men of the West will remember the sharp distinction I have just drawn between the man who skins the land and the man who develops the country. I am going with – and only with – the man who develops the country. I am against the land skinner every time!”

Roosevelt’s temper tantrum did have its milder moments, suggesting that he saw reason to believe his stormy relationship with lumberman had its silver lining.

“As all of you know, the forest resources of our country are already seriously depleted,” he told them. “They can be renewed and maintained only by the cooperation of the forester with the practical man of business in all his types, but above all, with the lumbermen. And the most striking and encouraging fact in the forest situation is that lumbermen are realizing that practical lumbering and practical forestry are allies, not enemies”

What we have here is Pinchot extending the olive branch to lumbermen by having the President of the United States tell them what he knew they would never accept from him. And while the political skids had already been greased, it would be another two weeks before President Roosevelt signed the Transfer Act and Pinchot became the First Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and 80 million acres in Forest Reserves became 13 National Forests.

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Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, Part 2
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Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, Part 2
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On February 1, 1905, the day Pinchot was named Chief of the newly minted Forest Service, a letter bearing the signature of Agriculture Secretary, James Wilson, was hand delivered to the Chief’s office. Again, I suspect Pinchot wrote this letter to himself for political purposes.
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Evergreen Magazine
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