It was at George Vanderbilt's 7,000-acre Biltmore Forest Estate near Asheville, North Carolina (now part of the Pisgah National Forest) in the 1890s that young Gifford Pinchot first harbored ideas about "new forestry" - that is clearcutting vs. selective logging and leaving young trees standing during harvesting operations as seed sources for new trees. As recounted in Pinchot's autobiography Breaking New Ground:

The old way of lumbering at Biltmore, and everywhere else, was to cut all the young growth that would interfere with cheap and easy logging, and leave desolation and a firetrap behind. It was no easy matter to break this habit and train the loggers to respect all small trees of valuable species, no matter how much they stood in the way of chopper or sawyer To fell timber where it would do the least harm to the future of the forest was a new idea and required an entirely new point of view....we found that large trees surrounded by a dense growth of smaller trees could be logged with surprisingly little injury to the young growth, and that the added cost of taking care was small out of all proportion to the result. To establish this fact, which at first no lumberman would admit, was of immense importance to the success of Forestry in America (Pinchot 1947: 52).

Gifford Pinchot is often thought of as the founder of "scientific forestry" in the U.S. He also served as the first American born forester and first Chief of the USDA Forest Service (1905-1910). His concerns about forestry practices, dating from the beginning of applied forestry in the U.S., involved ecology, economics, and new training to overcome old ways of doing things. These are still of concern today.

The first major controversy involving clearcutting erupted in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State in the 1900-1903 period. At the time, Bernhard Fernow, who was chair of the new Cornell School of Forestry, intended to convert, by clearcutting, several parcels in the state-owned Cornell Demonstration Forest from a forest composed mostly of broadleaf trees to a forest of conifers. Opposition quickly mounted from owners of resort and summer home owners in the area - many of these owners were steel and oil magnates of the late 1800s. They were able to not only stop the harvesting, but also to close the forestry school, and establish the Adirondack State Park.

During the 1910s and 1920s, logging on private lands and on the national forests emphasized clearcutting as the most desirable method. As most logging operations were either railroad or river log drives, clearcutting was a decision that was of practical value for the operator. At the time, huge blocks of national forest timber, often whole watersheds, were sold to timber companies with the idea that extraction of the standing timber is a watershed would take decades. Since most of the operations started at the mouth of the watersheds, decades later, when the upper reaches were logged, the lower areas would have regrown with trees. But there were researchers, especially in the dry pine forests and elsewhere, who were advocating selective logging rather than clearcutting.