Essay: A New Profession Takes Seed


Following the Civil War, America experienced a period of great transition. Rapid industrialization, the growth of cities, and a sharp rise in immigration altered the face of the nation. Additionally, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 contributed to a substantial wave of westward expansion. Tired of life in crowded cities many people rushed to buy land in the relatively unpopulated West. Most Americans of the late 19th century were so preoccupied with the development of the nation that few people considered how such drastic changes would affect the environment. Believing that forests were inexhaustible, Americans cleared millions of acres of timbered land to make room for railroads, farmland, and urban settlements. By the beginning of the 20th century a new movement had begun which helped bring attention to the destruction of U.S. forests. During the Progressive Era (roughly 1900-1920) many private citizens, unhappy with how progress had affected society and the environment, lobbied for social change through government action. Besides a desire for government intervention, progressives also believed educated professionals, trained in the applications of science, technology, and reason could apply such knowledge to solve the problems plaguing the industrial American society. Inevitably, this period of reform helped launch a new profession dedicated to the protection and management of the nation's forests.

The Warnings

Figure 1: Cutover and abandoned forest land in northern Michigan at the beginning of the 20th century. Forest History Society photo.

Although few in number some people did warn that hasty and widespread development would hurt the environment. One of the earliest to sound the alarm, George Perkins Marsh, predicted in his 1864 book Man and Nature that the massive clearing of forests would permanently damage the beauty of the American landscape. Marsh's words of caution helped to spark more widespread anxiety about the effects of progress on American forests. Some experts began to challenge the widely believed perception of forest inexhaustibility and instead forecasted a timber famine if the volume of trees cut nationally continued to exceed forest growth. Scientists like Bernhard Fernow gathered data, compiled reports, and testified before Congress urging government protection of forests. Another vital leader of the early conservation movement, Gifford Pinchot, proposed an active solution to the problem.

Convinced forests needed regulation, Pinchot embarked on a mission to prove to the American public that wise and efficient use of forests could reverse the damage and ultimately produce a balance between development and the welfare of U.S. forests. All in all, due in great part to the efforts of a small group of private citizens, by the 1890s the federal government seemed convinced that the exploitation of American woodlands demanded action.

The Government Intervenes

By 1900, the government had transferred over 1 billion acres of public land to private citizens. Impressed by the arguments of early conservationists, government officials decided to reverse this long-standing federal land policy of selling public lands for private ownership. In 1891, Congress approved the Forest Reserve Act (also called The Creative Act); the legislation gave the President the power to establish forest reserves prohibited from sale to the public. Between 1893 -1897, Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland declared nearly 40 million acres of land "reserved," but it was not until the passage of the Organic Act in 1897 that the purpose of the reserves was defined. According to the law, the intention of the forest reservations was "to improve and protect the forest within the reservation, or for securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States." The Organic Act provided the first policy of guidance for the management of forest reserves.

The Birth of Forestry Schools in the United States

Figure 2: Advertisements for forestry schools as listed in the February 1910 issue of American Forestry.

With the purpose of forest reserves defined by the government, a need arose to train people to manage the vast tracts of public land. In the fall of 1898, Carl Alwin Schenck, a German forester recruited by George Vanderbilt to manage his extensive forest on Biltmore Estate, near Asheville, North Carolina, opened the first American school of forestry. At the two-year Biltmore Forest School (in operation between 1898 and 1913), students spent time both in the classroom and in Vanderbilt's nearby forest learning how to become foresters. Although seen as a step in the right direction, not everyone agreed that Schenck's practical approach to forestry (emphasis on fieldwork) adequately prepared individuals for a career in the field. One of the more outspoken critics, Pinchot, supported the popular progressive thinking of the time that emphasized scientific training. Believing that a theory-oriented curriculum rich in the physical sciences served as the best way to produce "experts" capable of handling the complex nature of forestry, the Pinchot family endowed $150,000 to Yale in 1900 for the establishment of a forestry school at the university. Besides receiving instruction about preventing wildfires and preventing timber theft, the graduate program at Yale stressed a scientific management of forests that required a variety of duties such as the tracking and measuring of forest growth.

By 1915, 13 colleges awarded degrees in forestry - a number that rose to 23 by the beginning of the Second World War and continued to increase throughout the 20th century. Today, 48 American universities offer specific training in forestry, including a well-rounded education to train students for the challenges associated with a forestry career. There also are 26 technical schools across the U.S. and Canada, usually offering two-year associate degrees, that focus on forest technology and fieldwork.

In the Name of Service

After the passage of the Organic Act in 1897, the General Land Office (GLO) of the federal government created a forestry unit to supervise the newly established forest reserves. Originally called the Division of Forestry, foresters employed by the agency had the reputation of being lazy and unreliable since many of the early appointments were the result of political favoritism rather than merit. Dissatisfied with both the corruption present in the agency and the lack of scientific management being used, Gifford Pinchot solicited the help of his friend President Teddy Roosevelt to improve the reputation of the forestry unit. Roosevelt, a renowned conservationist (during his presidency he added 148 million acres to the already sizable forest reserves) and believer that government should work for social change, approved Pinchot's suggestion of shifting the Division of Forestry from the supervision of the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Congress also authorized the change, paving the way for the establishment of a new government sponsored forestry unit. In order to clarify its mission, Pinchot, the first chief of the agency, selected the name Forest Service because he believed public service should be the ultimate goal of foresters. Likewise, two years later, Pinchot proposed that forest reserves be called national forests to signify that the land remained available for public use. Besides the name changes, the Forest Service differed from its predecessor in other important ways. First, a forester could only gain employment in the government agency after passing comprehensive field and written service exams. Second, in addition to fighting fires, employees of the Forest Service also mapped the national forests, protected the lands from game poachers and unlawful grazing or clearing, provided trail access, and administered cattle and sheep grazing permits. No longer viewed as incompetent, foresters of the early 20th century rightfully earned the reputation as custodians of the national forests.

Industry Conserves

Although often overlooked, in addition to the government and private citizens, industry also played a significant role in the conservation movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Mining, railroad, and lumber companies who previously thought little about clearing vast tracts of forested lands for profit, began to reevaluate their business tactics when it became clear timber was not an unlimited resource. With the guidance of foresters, industrial leaders soon came to see that conservation could be an economic asset. Initially opposed to the change in federal policy that sought to safeguard American forests, numerous private companies voluntarily eliminated wasteful lumbering practices when they realized long-term planning and efficient use of the land best served their fiscal interests. Their efforts, combined with the efforts of federal and state governments, concerned individuals, and professional foresters, eventually helped to begin the restoration of the American landscape.

Evolution of the Forest Service

Figure 3: Typical early-day Forest Ranger in the southwest, Jim H. Sizer (shown here in 1910), who served as Ranger and Assistant Supervisor from 1909 to 1943 at Apache and Tonto National Forests. Forest History Society photo.

The first era of the Forest Service (1905-1942), the custodial era, focused on the consolidation and protection of national forests. Shielding the nation's forests from timber thieves and preventing forest fires were high priorities during the first few decades of the 20th century. Moreover, in an attempt to ensure foresters possessed the skills necessary to manage forests, Forest Service leaders decided in the 1930s to no longer appoint employees at the professional level if they lacked formal academic training in forestry.

The second era of the Forest Service (1942-1969), commodity-production, had its roots in the Second World War. The high demand for wood during the fighting and the subsequent postwar baby boom prompted the Forest Service to shift away from its custodial approach to a policy of supplying the public with natural resources such as timber when the need arose. The postwar period also signaled a change in image for foresters working for the government. Formerly equated with riding on horseback, fighting fires, and a rugged appearance, foresters of the 1950s and 1960s drove green pick-up trucks, wore hardhats, and inspected road construction sites and timber sales.

As time transpired the public helped shape the direction of the Forest Service once again. With more money, leisure time, and transportation options than ever before, the middle class that emerged during the years following WWII looked for new places to vacation and recreate. Rather than further restricting national forests from public use, many Americans demanded increased access to the land for camping, fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. Additionally, the environmental movement of the 1970s and the resulting momentum to conserve natural resources provoked the Forest Service to reconsider its policies. The third era of the Forest Service (1970-present), often referred to as the environmental era, reflected this change in thinking. Hoping to strike a balance between competing interests, the Forest Service adopted a more holistic approach to manage the forest environment. In promoting the efficient use of products from the forest while simultaneously protecting wildlife, fish, outdoor recreation, and the beauty of the American landscape, Forest Service employees aim to serve both people and the environment.

Today and Tomorrow

Figure 4: Employment trends of the U.S. Forest Service. Statistics obtained from Centennial Mini-Histories of the Forest Service, 1992, except 2002 which is an estimate from the U.S. Forest Service website.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service employs over 30,000 people. With an increase in the amount of land to be managed throughout the century, in addition to the growing complexities of the profession, the workforce of the Forest Service gradually has increased. The people now employed by the Forest Service also differ noticeably from a few decades ago. Due in great part to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans and women now work as professional foresters for the government with greater ease than earlier in the 20th century. Moreover, once considered a profession that required a "jack-of-all-trades," modern forestry has become a diversified line of work that requires specialization in fields such as forest genetics, entomology, ecology, and bioengineering. In 2005, the Forest Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. Although many changes have occurred throughout this period and it is impossible to predict the future of the agency, one matter remains certain. Regardless of the how the Forest Service transforms during the next 100 years, it will always be required to balance the needs and desires of many different kinds of forest users.

Not Just the Government

Even though many foresters work for the federal, state, or local government, countless other opportunities for employment also exist. Private industries, such as manufacturers of paper and wood products, often hire foresters to develop strategies that encourage the rapid growth of trees balanced with a concern for the environment. Individual forestland owners frequently employ foresters as consultants to provide advice on matters like harvesting timber and forest and wildlife management. Foresters can also find work as researchers, educators, computer programmers, geneticists, or as directors of community projects that require knowledge of forest management and good public relations skills. All in all, individuals choosing forestry for a career are sure to find a great variety of employment opportunities.


Within a short period of time forestry went from being nonexistent in the United States to a respected career option. By the turn of the 20th century many people no longer viewed natural resources as boundless and demanded that the government intervene to protect forests and wildlife species. Symbolizing the prevalent progressive thought of the era, early conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Bernhard Fernow, identified the problem at hand and recommended scientific management as the solution. Universities soon began to offer specific curricula to train foresters and the government responded to public pressure by passing legislation to establish national forests and creating the U.S. Forest Service to manage the vast expanse of land. Thanks to the actions of concerned citizens, private landowners, the forest industry, and government officials, efforts have been made to provide the needed supply of timber while still protecting wildlife and the beauty of the forested landscape.