April 15, 1920: Greeley Named Forest Service Chief

By James Lewis on April 15, 2009

When William B. Greeley was appointed as the third chief of the U.S. Forest Service on April 15, 1920, he was already embroiled in a fight over the future of American forestry and private forests. Greeley’s lengthy and distinguished Forest Service career is largely defined by a controversy that — once it was resolved — assured the continued existence of private forests and meant that the United States would not have nationalized forests, as many were advocating in the 1920s and 1930s. In short, the resolution affirmed with whom the Forest Service would do business and what that business was.

Who is William B. Greeley? After reading George T. Morgan Jr.’s biographical study — the first and still the only one of Greeley — I feel like I still don’t know. Sixty-seven pages. That’s all Morgan used to discuss the life and work of Greeley. He moves so swiftly in covering Greeley’s seventy-six years that he doesn’t bother telling us when he was born or when he died. He hits the highlights of his subject’s life but does so in a hagiographic treatment of the forester. To better understand Greeley — and his impact on the Forest Service and forest land management — it’s time for someone to undertake a new examination of this pivotal figure in public and private forestry history.

Born in Oswego, New York, on September 6, 1879, Greeley’s family moved to California when he was eleven. After graduating from the University of California, he went to the Yale School of Forestry, where he made an impression on the school’s dean and his future boss, Henry Graves, before graduating at the top of his class with a master’s degree in forestry in 1904. (Greeley would be the first of several Forest Service chiefs trained at Yale.) He joined the Forest Service that year and quickly rose through the agency’s ranks, making district (what is now regional) forester in the northern Rockies within four years. As he had done with ranchers as a supervisor on the Sequoia National Forest, in District (now Region) 1, he also cooperated with local lumbermen on issues important to them. The Big Blowup of 1910 in Idaho and Montana taught Greeley and others that fire protection and suppression were absolutely necessary to protecting America’s timber. He wrote about the evils of light burning as part of the broader federal campaign to stamp out forest fires and began pushing for private, state, and federal cooperation to deal with the fire “menace.” In time, he would help construct the federal fire policy with which we are in many ways still grappling.

William B. Greeley, USFS chief, 1920-28

No, it's not Harry Potter. It's Forest Service chief William Greeley, who served from 1920 to 1928.

Transferred to Washington in 1911 as chief of the Branch of Forest Management (or Silviculture), Greeley found himself in an ideal position to further develop his ideas about public-private cooperation. In 1917, he argued in his landmark report Some Public and Economic Aspects of the Lumber Industry that lumbermen were overcutting not out of malicious intent or greed, but because of necessity: his research showed severe competition, overinvestment, and inappropriate tax laws forced their hands.

His call for federal cooperation with the states and the timber industry brought on the enmity of Gifford Pinchot, Greeley’s former boss and someone whom Greeley held in high personal regard. Pinchot and his followers in the Society of American Foresters favored imposing federal regulation over cutting on private land in order to prevent further forest destruction and would brook no descent in the matter. Greeley became an anathema and soon “lost caste in the Temple of Conservation,” as he described it years later in Forests and Men, his history of the first fifty years of forest conservation in the U.S. Still, he never wavered from his position even when the attacks against him turned personal.

For the next several years the two men locked horns over the cooperation-versus-regulation issue, with only a brief respite while Greeley served with the Forest Engineers during World War I. Given the rank of major in 1917 and later promoted to lieutenant colonel, Greeley served under and then succeeded Graves as commander of forestry operations for the American Expeditionary Forces in France, overseeing 21,000 troops and 95 sawmills. His primary responsibility: to provide wood for the Americans by procuring the necessary timber stands from the French, who very much wanted to continue their conservative forestry practices whilst in the middle of a war. The job required great skill in negotiating with his reluctant French counterparts, something he had learned while District Forester and would soon put to great use in Washington. He served with distinction and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order by England and was named a chevalier of the Legion of Honor by France before heading home; in 1923 he received the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S. War Department. (You can read excerpts from his wartime diaries here.) He returned home to the Forest Service in 1919 and picked up where he had left off.

Named to succeed Chief Henry Graves in 1920, Greeley continued the fight that Pinchot characterized as “a clear-cut issue…. [They] must act either with foresters for the public interest, or with lumbermen for a special interest…. The field is cleared for action and the lines are plainly drawn. He who is not for forestry is against it.” At stake was nothing less than the mission and purpose of professional forestry in America. Morgan does a good job of tracking the often rancorous debate and political machinations on Capitol Hill. It took four years, but Greeley won out over Pinchot with the passage of the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924. The law firmly established the cooperative federal-public relationship as the heart of forest policy in the United States by providing for federal-state cooperation in fire control, reforestation, and farm forestry extension. In contrast to this section, Morgan barely mentions Greeley’s other legislative triumph and important landmark in Forest Service and forest policy history — the McSweeney-McNary Act of 1928, which secured the agency’s research program. Nor does he discuss the expansion of the National Forest System in the east under the Weeks Act, passage of which in 1911 in part triggered the debate that defined much of Greeley’s tenure as chief.

From there, the biography takes a quick tour through Greeley’s important work as secretary-manager of the West Coast Lumbermen’s Association, an influential position he held for the eighteen years following his service as Forest Service chief. From his office in Seattle, Greeley was able to affect change in forestry practices on private land and continue fighting for greater public-private cooperation. In fact, the issue of federal control of private forests remained a hot topic through the 1930s and was finally settled after the war. After his retirement in 1946 (which is where Morgan stops his biography), Greeley became active in planning and financing his alma mater’s development program in order to meet post-war challenges. He was posthumously honored by Yale for his efforts with the naming of the William B. Greeley Memorial Laboratory. He died November 30, 1955.

What Morgan has provided is a substantial outline and chronology of Greeley’s work in forestry. But this expanded master’s thesis doesn’t go much beyond that. Since its publication (by the Forest History Society) nearly a half-century ago, so much has been written on the various topics and issues Greeley faced in his career that a new, much more complete biography would be welcomed — and is needed.

The cover of Morgan's biography came from a series of ads produced in the 1960s by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Click on the image to see the ad.

The cover art for Morgan's biography came from a series of ads produced in the 1950s by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Click on the image to see the ad.

Something that explores, for example, Greeley’s experiences at Yale under Graves’s tutelage — what did he do, learn, and see? What did Graves see in his student that led him to label Greeley “a special star” and aid his rise in the agency? What of his efforts before and during the Big Blowup in 1910 that shaped his thinking about public-private cooperation as well as fire in the landscape? What drove him to take on Pinchot and much of the forestry profession over the issue of regulating private forestry? What did he learn during his two years of working with the French government during the war that he might have applied as chief? How did he feel about Robert Stuart — his former subordinate in Silviculture, his successor as chief, and a Pinchot acolyte — siding against him in the debate? What about an analysis of his many publications? Nothing is said of his thirty-four years as director of the American Forestry Association. Surely he could influence the issues from that post as well.

Those are just a few questions some intrepid scholar can start with to begin a new examination of Greeley and the policies he crafted during his fifteen years in Washington and eighteen in the Pacific Northwest, and to reflect on his impact and legacy. His personal papers are housed at the University of Oregon and his Forest Service papers (along with Graves’s) are at the National Archives; Graves’s personal papers are at Yale, and Pinchot’s are in the Library of Congress. The American Forestry Association (now American Forests) papers are housed here at FHS.

In sum, sixty-seven pages is rather scant for discussing William B. Greeley, a critical historical figure who had such a enormous impact on forestry and forest policy in America. Foresters today are still working within the frameworks he helped construct a century ago. Having a better understanding of how and why those frameworks were built may help guide us in the future as cooperation becomes even more critical to dealing with public-private land management issues.