The American Tree Farm System

On June 12, 1941, the nation’s first tree farm was dedicated near Montesano, Washington. Owned by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, the 120,000-acre Clemons Tree Farm launched a nationwide movement. Over the next few decades the American Tree Farm System would expand across all 50 states. To see when the first tree farm was certified in each state, view the “American Tree Farm System Timeline.”

The American Tree Farm System Records

The Forest History Society is the official archives for the American Tree Farm System. The American Tree Farm System Collection features organizational records, historic documents, publications, photographs, films, and more. The collection helps tell the important history of tree farming in the United States.

History of the American Tree Farm System

Tenth Anniversary of Clemons Tree Farm. Left to right: Wilson Compton, Mrs. Charles H. Clemons, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr., Col. William B. Greeley.

To test their fire control and reforestation theories, the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company set aside 120,000 acres near Montesano, Washington, for experimentation in 1940. On June 12, 1941, that tract of land was dedicated as the first official tree farm. Named for local logger Charles H. Clemons, the Clemons Tree Farm became the first in a succession of privately owned forest lands certified for growing trees as a crop and practicing forest management on a sustainable basis. The resulting tree farm program was quickly adopted around the country. By the end of 1941, the National Lumber Manufacturers Association (NLMA) set up a national tree farm program and charged its subsidiary, the American Forest Product Industries (AFPI), with managing the program.

In 1946, AFPI became an independent organization and retained the tree farm program. Over the next seventy years, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) would be overseen by several organizations that succeeded AFPI: the American Forest Institute (1968–1986), the American Forest Council (1986–1993), and the American Forest Foundation, or AFF (1993–present).

The American Tree Farm System was established in response to the twin threats of forest fires and government regulation of private forestlands. For decades, high tax rates on forestland gave timberland owners little incentive to hold on to the lands and reforest them after logging. Rather, it was cheaper to buy timberlands, log them, and then walk away and default on the taxes.

By the 1930s, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot and other foresters were demanding that the federal government take over private timberlands as the best way to assure a future timber supply. By the eve of World War II, the debate over who could best manage private forestlands had reached an impasse.

Enter the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Prior to 1940, most commercial-grade timber came from industry-owned lands. While fire was a concern on all forestlands, Weyerhaeuser took an active interest in changing public attitudes about fire prevention. Heavy recreational use on its tracts in Grays Harbor County and elsewhere had long posed a fire hazard to reforestation efforts. To deal with the threat, by the summer of 1941 Weyerhaeuser had constructed an infrastructure of lookout towers, telephone lines, and roads. Then to publicize the importance of preventing fires, the company invited the public to tour the forest they now called a “tree farm” and held a dedication ceremony attended by five hundred people and the governor of Washington.

From its inception, the tree farm program focused on fire prevention outreach and support for self-regulation of privately owned forestland. Although the NMLA established in 1941 what it called a national tree farm program, regional associations and some state organizations set their own standards for tree farm certification. The lack of national standards eventually proved problematic. By the late 1960s and continuing for the next two decades, the American Tree Farm System remained at risk of collapse due to insufficient funding and inattentive leadership. Internal debates emerged about whether it was a communications program or a forest productivity program. Ultimately the ATFS defined itself as both.

After many years of struggle and retrenchment, in the 1990s the American Tree Farm System emerged as a truly national program with universally accepted national codes and standards. Today, the ATFS certification program serves as an international standard. The AFTS in the early 2000s decided to focus exclusively on family forest owners. At the time of its seventieth anniversary in 2011, the program’s rolls listed 88,000 family forest owners practicing sustainable management on 26 million acres of forest land.

For a chronology of events, view the “American Tree Farm System Timeline.”

The American Tree Farm System Records

The Floeter sisters admire the new sign on the 637-acre West Coast Tree Farm owned by their parents near Vernonia, Oregon.

In 2010, the Forest History Society received 24 cartons of archival documents from the American Tree Farm System. The collection includes important historical materials, inspection and certification records, correspondence, and early press clippings. Also included are publications such as Tree Farmer magazine and Green America, records of various awards, such as regional and national Tree Farmer of the Year and Inspector of the Year, minutes from annual conventions and committee meetings, and records from educational initiatives such as Project Learning Tree. In addition, the collection features numerous photographs and slides of ATFS events and activities, as well as films of educational programming, and public service announcements by famous tree farmers such as actress Andie MacDowell, musician Chuck Leavell, President Jimmy Carter, and actor Andy Griffith.

In addition to the American Tree Farm System Records, the Forest History Society also houses complementary collections from organizations such as the American Forest Product Industries (AFPI), the American Forest Institute (AFI), American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), the National Forest Products Association (NFPA), and the National Lumber Manufacturers Association (NLMA).

Additional Resources

Archival Finding Aids:

Blog Posts:

Articles:

Photographs

The Forest History Society maintains a large collection of photographs, slides, negatives, plates, and films. Many of the images have been digitized and are accessible via an online searchable database.

A selection of Tree Farm-related images can be viewed in the following galleries:

A selection of images from the “Keep Green” movement can be viewed in the following galleries:

For more information on historic photos, visit the FHS Photograph Collection page, browse other sample photo galleries by subject, or search the FHS Image Database.

Films

The American Tree Farm System Collection contains a significant number of films in a variety of formats. These include various types of educational programming, as well as public service announcements by famous tree farmers including actor Andy Griffith, actress Andie MacDowell, musician Chuck Leavell, and President Jimmy Carter. Using a 2012 grant from the American Forest Foundation, the Forest History Society sent a selection of these films to a professional sound engineering studio for digital conversion. Digital copies will allow researchers easier access to the films while helping conserve the originals. Clips will also be periodically highlighted on the FHS YouTube Channel. Below you will find a 1970s-era spot featuring Andy Griffith talking about being a member of the American Tree Farm System, and working with forester Quentin Bell to practice sound forest management on his tree farm in Dare County, North Carolina.

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