Historian Char Miller Ruminates on SAF Birthday

By Guest Contributor on November 30, 2008

What do you give a professional organization on its 108th birthday? Warm wishes, I suppose. But in the case of the Society of American Foresters, formally founded on November 30, 1900, in the cramped office of its first president, Gifford Pinchot, it seems appropriate to offer up something a bit more meaningful than an air-kiss or a genial hurrah.

A more significant memento might be to recall the charge that SAF members received from the president of the United States during the society’s third year: “I believe that there is no body of men who have it in their power today to do a greater service to the country,” Theodore Roosevelt asserted, “than those engaged in the scientific study of, and practical application of, approved methods of forestry for the preservation of the woods of the United States.” His confidence in their contributions as foresters and citizens surely warmed his listeners’ hearts. But they and he understood that this generous praise, while not misplaced, was a tad premature.

The Society of American Foresters, after all, was but a toddler in age. The nation’s first forestry schools — Biltmore (1898), Cornell (1898), and Yale (1900) — had barely opened (and indeed Cornell already had closed!). The lumber industry wasn’t instituting forestry on the ground and the federal government’s small Bureau of Forestry had no public lands to manage. In 1903, it wasn’t clear that this fledgling profession would take off.

But it did, and did so because of expanding educational opportunities, increased work prospects following the U. S. Forest Service’s establishment in 1905, and practical experience gained in public and private woods. These first professionals confronted and surmounted many challenges: fire and pest infestations led to scientific breakthroughs; overgrazing prompted research into grasslands’ carrying capacity; burned-over and heavily logged property became sites for reforestation experiments.

Yet their every action seemed dogged with controversy. Debates erupted when in 1907 President Roosevelt created the National Forests and then rapidly increased their acreage; protests occurred after the Forest Service introduced fees to regulate grazing, logging, and mining. For all their youthful enthusiasm, foresters were understandably shellshocked.

Contention died down during the 1920s, but public and industrial foresters faced new tests, among them wildfires and increased recreation. The uptick in tourism in the west then was reinforced during the Depression as the Civilian Conservation Corps began building cabins, trails, and other amenities. In response to the growing demand for new housing, which like recreation accelerated after World War II, forest scientists developed more efficient uses of timber (think plywood), revolutionizing the construction industry. The varied human benefits that derived from their efforts gave professional foresters, as they headed off to that global conflict, the confidence that they had earned Theodore Roosevelt’s precocious praise.

That’s one more reason why, as SAF blows out its 108 birthday candles today, it should remember this history of its “great service” to the nation and recollect one of its most compelling lessons: change is the only constant.

Char Miller is visiting professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College, Claremont, CA, and author of Ground Work: Conservation in American Culture (Forest History Society, 2007); Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Island Press, 2004); and co-author with Rebecca Staebler of The Greatest Good: 100 Years of Forestry in America (Society of American Foresters, 2004).

0 responses to “Historian Char Miller Ruminates on SAF Birthday”

  1. Darrel L. Kenops says:

    Steve and Char-One important USFS birthday gift would be to rename the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. A former USDA Secretary John Block has made this suggestion to the incoming Administration. Many years ago Chief John R. McGuire forwared a similiar suggestion.

    In this era of the need to work across landscapes and with communities with people and natural resources the new USDA name would show respect to all the citizens served by USDA.

  2. Darrel – I like the name you propose. More reflective of their current role and highlights forestry in the mix. It will be interesting to see what happens in this regard. Efforts to explore the possibility of bringing the Forest Service over to the Department of the Interior surfaced again this past year as OMB conducted interviews with a variety of folk. At least one smart interviewee suggested that they were asking the wrong question. We need to first decide as a nation what we want from our public lands.