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date: 21 July 2017

Forests and Logging in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Humans have utilized American forests for a wide variety of uses from the pre-Columbian period to the present. Native Americans heavily shaped forests to serve their needs, helping to create fire ecologies in many forests. English settlers harvested these forests for trade, to clear land, and for domestic purposes. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century rapidly expanded the rate of logging. By the Civil War, many areas of the Northeast were logged out. Post–Civil War forests in the Great Lakes states, the South, and then the Pacific Northwest fell with increasing speed to feed the insatiable demands of the American economy, facilitated by rapid technological innovation that allowed for growing cuts. By the late 19th century, growing concerns about the future of American timber supplies spurred the conservation movement, personified by forester Gifford Pinchot and the creation of the U.S. Forest Service with Pinchot as its head in 1905. After World War II, the Forest Service worked closely with the timber industry to cut wide swaths of the nation’s last virgin forests. These gargantuan harvests led to the growth of the environmental movement. Beginning in the 1970s, environmentalists began to use legal means to halt logging in the ancient forests, and the listing of the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act was the final blow to most logging on Forest Service lands in the Northwest. Yet not only does the timber industry remain a major employer in forested parts of the nation today, but alternative forest economies have also developed around more sustainable industries such as tourism.

Keywords: forests, environmentalism, Industrial Revolution, logging, Gifford Pinchot, U.S. Forest Service, wilderness

Early American Forests

Humans began impacting the North American forest when Native Americans migrated from the Arctic after the end of the last Ice Age. By at least 5000 bc, Native Americans were domesticating plants in forested bottomlands through the eastern woodlands of the future United States. Corn arrived from Mesoamerica between 800 and 1000 ad, creating the first full-fledged agricultural economies in the forest. Native peoples used the forest for food, medicine, building materials, and firewood. The rise of Cahokia, a city of at least 10,000 people across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri, required 800,000 wall posts to support its housing alone. Lacking any domestic animals and relying upon human and water labor, the Cahokian peoples managed to deforest the surrounding area, contributing to its collapse between 1050 and 1150, an early example of the tenuousness of human settlement in a deforested environment. Native Americans brought complex fire regimes into the forests. In many regions, tribes burned the forest to encourage the hunting of deer, elk, and turkey, as well as to clear land for their agricultural fields. By the time Europeans appeared on the eastern seaboard in the late 16th century, they encountered a fire-adapted landscape created by indigenous peoples to serve their own purposes; often these lands lacked available wood supplies for Europeans for several miles inland.

English colonists integrated the forests into the European mercantilist economy as it developed in the 17th century. New England forests provided plentiful resources for the English, including white pine for ship masts, oak for barrel staves, pitch pine for the pitch, tar, and turpentine needed by the colonial shipping industry, as well as wood for farm implements and local trade. Settlers also used the forests as commons, setting their pigs and cattle wild in the forest. Forests provided material for houses, fences, and barns. By the early 18th century, logging for these activities had locally significant environmental impacts, including drying soils, erosion, and wildlife extirpation. Cutting the forests in Virginia and Maryland opened land for valuable tobacco plantations, stoking the fires to dry the tobacco and providing the barrels to ship the crop to England. Farmers cleared one to two acres of forest a year for fuel, and while many attempted to create a long-term woodlot, as farms became split between multiple children and with the market economy demanding greater specialization by the 18th century, these woodlots eventually fell to the axe as well.

The forests had significant and shifting cultural and theological meanings for Europeans. Puritans viewed the forest with great foreboding, seeing it as a dreadful wilderness. North American forests did have fearsome beasts for European settlers, ranging from bears and wolves to ticks and snakes. But the forest also took on an important religious significance. Despite Native American forest clearing and fire ecology that created a relatively open forest, William Bradford described it as a “hideous & desolate wilderness.” Puritans believed that by clearing the forest they did God’s work of turning waste into industry. That Native Americans could use the forests to attack European settlements and return to their homes with white captives added to the horror Puritans felt toward the trees. But as New England turned into farms and pushed native peoples aside and as Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century transitioned into of the romanticism of the early 19th century, new conceptions of the forests as temples of God and of sublime beauty developed. Forests continued to play an important role in Americans’ religious life. By the early 19th century, Methodists used the forests for their camp meetings, alternatively constructing ideas of the forest as a natural cathedral, a devotional retreat, or a frightening wilderness to be tamed.

Slaves did much of the work in the South to clear the forests. They cleared land, girdled trees, and ignited the piles of vegetation. Slaves used forests for their own purposes: to flee masters, to hunt, to gather plants, as religious spaces. With few places for escaped slaves to run, the forests and swamps often proved the most effective places to hide. Some slaves managed to survive in the forests for months before capture, and a few efforts were made to establish long-term independent communities of escaped slaves. Slaves often supplemented their meager diets through gathering plants in the forest. A few skilled hunters had relative freedom from the toil of the cotton planation in the forests hunting for plantation families. Forest edges provided spaces for slaves to gather raspberries and elderberries, while nuts could be gathered in the deeper hardwood forests, and plants throughout the forest provided medicine.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution started a new era in the transformation of American forests. Water-powered sawmills processed more wood at higher levels of uniformity; steam-powered mills after 1803 only increased production. The development of the steamship, burning wood for fuel, meant significant deforestation along major rivers by the mid-19th century, and the requirements of heating homes in eastern cities severely stressed local supplies and led to the steady transition to coal as a major energy source after 1815. The spread of railroads across the American landscape after the 1830s vastly increased the nation’s hunger for wood. In the 1870s alone, over 49 million acres of timber were cleared from American forests. The railroad tie market decimated stands of high-quality wood such as white oak and chestnut in Appalachia. Many forests of the eastern United States were little more than patches of isolated trees by the Civil War. Underlying all of this was an attitude in both frontiersmen and capitalists that clearing the forests was a sign of progress, as God had given the nation’s resources to the American people for personal profit and national economic growth. These attitudes made ideas of conservation unthinkable to the vast majority of 19th-century Americans.

Lone voices of concern appeared fairly early. James Fenimore Cooper’s lament for deforested Cooperstown in his 1823 novel The Pioneers is one example, as are the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Maine’s white pine stands faced depletion by the 1840s, and New England was largely deforested by the time of the Civil War. This led George Perkins Marsh to write his pathbreaking book Man and Nature in 1864. Originally from Vermont, Marsh, a diplomat stationed in Italy, reflected on New England’s deforestation and what it meant for the nation. Bemoaning the nation’s waste of forests, Marsh challenged the ubiquitous idea that the forests were inexhaustible, arguing that people were part of nature, not separate from it. He wrote of the need to preserve the ecological balance of nature and considered the land the one stable force in American life. He examined Italian history and connected deforestation and the destructive agriculture that followed as key to the decline of the Roman Empire. Frederick Starr’s essay “American Forests: Their Destruction and Preservation” followed in 1865, building on Marsh’s thesis to discuss deforestation in Europe and the Middle East as a warning to the United States. But these books had limited influence at the time of publication. Until the 1880s, those calling for the protection of American forests remained isolated.

The nation’s booming post–Civil War industrial economy required a tremendous amount of wood, and industrialists turned to the white pine forests of the Great Lakes states. The increased European-American settlement of the Great Plains, an area largely without trees, meant that the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were logged, floated to Chicago for processing, and then shipped to states such as Nebraska and Kansas, where a rapidly expanding population needed wood for homes, railroad ties, and fuel. In 1870 alone, approximately 195,000 acres of timber were harvested to supply railroad ties. Deforestation rapidly followed. The Great Lakes states produced 9 billion board feet of timber in 1890, but only 1 billion thirty years later. The resultant cutover became a cautionary tale for future forestry projects. The industry left ghost towns in its wake, with thousands of residents leaving the area after the timber was gone. Fires fed by the dead slash left by timber companies tore through the region. The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 in Wisconsin killed at least 1,500 people, the deadliest fire in American history. The timber companies, seeking additional profit, then sold deforested land to farmers, advertising in Scandinavia to convince people to immigrate. Those who purchased this land found themselves burdened with unproductive, stump-strewn land with poor soil. Poverty resulted. Not until the 1930s did the Great Lakes states begin replanting the cutover to produce a new timber crop.

Southern forests faced a similar fate. Ranging from east Texas to Georgia, the South’s yellow pine forests started to replace the white pine as the dominant tree in American markets as part of New South industrialization. Farmers began increasing their income by selling off their trees soon after the Civil War. By 1875, Nashville mills already produced 22.5 million board feet of timber. Beginning in the 1880s, northern lumber companies opened new operations through the South. Between 1881 and 1888, logging companies purchased over 5 million acres of southern land, of which over two-thirds was purchased by northern investors. They ruthlessly cut the forests with efficient mills that produced over 100,000 board feet of timber per day. In 1870, the South produced 11 percent of the nation’s lumber. That number jumped to 45 percent in 1910. In 1900, nearly 20 percent of southern wage earners in manufacturing worked for the timber industry. Thousands of them, largely African Americans, worked in the turpentine industry, tapping pines for their resin. Logging camps themselves were often biracial, with black workers making up one-third of timber and sawmill workers. By the early 20th century this intensive logging left a barren, ecologically scarred land with few long-term economic prospects.

The final frontier in American forestry was the Pacific Northwest, where trees of epic size awaited. From 1850 to 1890, the Northwest’s forests had primarily served a local market, but also California and the Pacific basin, with timber shipments going to Hawaii, China, and Australia. The Minnesota timber baron Frederick Weyerhaeuser started the Northwest timber rush when he purchased 900,000 acres of forest in southwestern Washington in 1900. With the arrival of transcontinental railroads to the Northwest, the region quickly became the nation’s key timber supplier. Both timber companies and loggers moved in large numbers from the Great Lakes and Southern cutover to the Northwest. Washington was the nation’s largest timber producer by 1910, only to be surpassed by Oregon in 1938. Northwestern timber provided the nation’s almost insatiable demand for wood, which jumped from 20 billion board feet in 1880 to nearly 46 billion board feet in 1910.


As the forests fell at an ever more rapid rate, the lone voices bemoaning the future of American timber supplies began multiplying. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz called for a plan to conserve forests in 1877. Charles Sprague Sargent’s 1879 survey of American forests noted the rapid forest depletion and called for the preservation of forest land from settlement, alarming policymakers about the forests’ future. Elite organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club developed to create hunting and fishing laws to preserve elite access to wildlife, adding to the nascent conservation movement. The establishment of Forest and Stream in 1873 gave conservationists a publication to connect with each other and build toward policy changes; its long-time editor George Bird Grinnell became the major force behind the creation of Glacier National Park. Grinnell used its pages to educate readers on new developments in European forest conservation.

Elites like Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt began lobbying leading officials in Washington over the need for conserving timber. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 had allowed individuals to file timber claims. Logging companies used this law to find people they could pay to file claims and then transfer the lands to corporate hands. This perversion of the law increased control over valuable private lands and alarmed many who saw the last great stands of West Coast timber fall to the saw. By the end of the first Cleveland administration, significant support for action had developed in Washington, D.C., with the creation of the Division of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture in 1881, led by Franklin Hough. This advanced during the Harrison administration. Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, giving the president the power to reserve land from the public domain, setting the precedent of federally led forest conservation. The Organic Act of 1897 built on this, allowing the Secretary of the Interior “to make rules and regulations for the protections of the reserves.” Bernard Fernow was named head of the Division of Forestry in 1886 and served there until 1898. Fernow, who criticized the laissez-faire attitude of the Gilded Age economy that threatened natural resources, believed in the development of the nation through resource conservation, with the federal government taking the lead. The appointment of Fernow marked a new era of federal land policy, moving it away from its history of disposing of public lands to a new one of shepherding resources for the national good.

Most important was the development of Gifford Pinchot into the nation’s preeminent voice on forest conservation. Appointed by William McKinley to replace Fernow as the head of the Division of Forestry in 1898, Pinchot used his position not only to focus policy toward the efficient use of the nation’s forests but also to publicize the dire straits of forestry. Pinchot’s father, one of the few Americans concerned about the state of American forests, suggested that his son study forestry in college, an unknown field in the United States. Studying European forest methods and then serving as resident forester for the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in the North Carolina mountains for three years, Pinchot believed that mature trees should be cut for production, which would encourage growth of new trees for future generations. For Pinchot, the forests had a national goal to serve: providing the nation’s timber in the present and the future. This was a genuinely nationalistic goal, intended to preserve American timber for American uses. He stated, “What we wanted was American foresters trained by Americans in American ways for the work ahead in American forests.”1 This required the sustainable use of timber, as well as controlled grazing and other economic uses for the forests. Planning for the future was a new frontier in the timber industry, and Pinchot’s ideas faced opposition from private industry. However, Pinchot had a powerful ally when Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House in 1901. Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1905 to manage the forest reserves and named Pinchot as its head. In 1905, 60 units of the forest reserves covered 56 million acres. By 1910, 150 national forests included 172 million acres. Most of the national forests were in the public lands of the West, but early attempts were made to create forests in the East as well. The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, which allowed for the acquisition of land for the national forests to preserve watersheds and to create a matching system of federal and state money to fight forest fires, meant that the Forest Service began purchasing small pieces of land in Appalachian states. North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest became the first in the East in 1916, and several more developed by 1937, but inholdings remain significant to the present. By the end of 1930, the government had acquired over 4 million acres of land in southern Appalachia. Pinchot remained both influential and controversial well past his dismissal as USFS head in 1910, after he criticized Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger, who he believed was opposed to the conservation movement, over using his position in the cabinet to benefit his mineral speculating friends. Pinchot accused his successors of being in cahoots with the timber industry and claimed, often accurately, that Americans forests remained in grave danger.

Pinchot’s belief in the doctrine of efficiency may have brought principles of sustainable forestry to the nation’s consciousness, but they also contributed to long-term forestry problems. Pinchot saw old-growth forest as a problem that foresters could solve. He and his growing legion of followers believed that old growth was decadent, decaying every moment past peak growth into unusable timber. Thus, the Forest Service’s prime goal must be chopping down those trees and replanting them with fast-growing trees. As the historian Nancy Langston has written, “Foresters saw old growth not as a great resource but as a parasite, taking up land that should be growing trees.”2 Pinchot and his followers saw nothing valuable in the forest outside of how it advanced economic growth. This approach to the management of public lands became sharply defined during the battle over Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park, when Pinchot rejected Sierra Club head John Muir’s call to save the cathedrals of nature by crying, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Pinchot’s doctrine of efficiency also required complete fire suppression. Many of the nation’s forests had developed through complex fire ecology, whether through lightning strikes or through Native Americans burning the forest to increase game supplies. Seeing fire as an enemy destroying the nation’s natural resources, Pinchot and his followers pushed for policy for its complete suppression. Enormous conflagrations like those that devastated the forests of eastern Washington and Idaho in 1910 and the Tillamook Burn of western Oregon in 1933 reinforced that fire destroyed prime timber. The Weeks Act’s provision providing federal financial support for fire suppression began the era of firefighting as federal policy. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 then committed the Department of Agriculture to cooperative work with states for fire suppression, as well as to reforestation and water resources management. The fire suppression campaign reached popular culture through the Smokey Bear and Keep America Green campaigns, the former developing in 1945 and then receiving a mascot in 1950 after an orphaned bear cub was discovered in the aftermath of a fire in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest; the latter developed at the state level in the early 1940s and nationally in 1944. This had an enormous impact on the forests. Acreage burned in fires dropped by over 90 percent between 1931 and the 1960s. But long-term forest ecological stability would be sacrificed as the forests became dense thickets of small trees susceptible to conflagrations.

New forestry methods also developed in the early 20th century to harvest the forests efficiently. Clearcutting, the process of stripping all trees off a piece of land, proved profitable, efficient, and ecologically devastating. But clearcutting made economic sense and became the favored method of most foresters and timber companies by the 1920s. With most economically productive forests still in private hands in the early decades after the creation of the Forest Service, the government could do little to moderate the harvest. Large-scale harvesting of western Washington’s vast forests did not begin in earnest until the 1890s. By the 1930s, many areas around Grays Harbor were entirely deforested, with communities disappearing from the map. Despite criticism over its ruthless methods and the young trees it fells, clearcutting remains the primary method of forest harvesting to the present.

The work in these forests was tremendously dangerous. Loggers often labored in isolation from communities, in camps deep in the forest. The Industrial Workers of the World organized workers in the Pacific Northwest and to a lesser extent in the South, where they fought against atrocious living conditions that included contagious disease, adulterated food, substandard housing, unsafe workplaces, and a lack of sanitary facilities. By 1917, widespread IWW-led strikes threatened U.S. timber production during World War I, forcing the federal government to intervene in the industry, creating the Spruce Production Division, a division of logger-soldiers, and the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, a military-led organization of civilian loggers that required workers to join to work, in order to get the timber cut for airplane production, which effectively eliminated the IWW and crushed the union effort. The 1930s saw successful unionization of the timber industry in the Northwest, and to a lesser extent in other parts of the United States. The Great Depression decimated the timber industry. In 1924, the U.S. produced 41 billion board feet of lumber. In 1932, that declined to just over 10 billion feet. In 1923, 495,586 people were employed in Northwest logging camps and sawmills while in 1932, only 124,997 were. Wages fell from an average of $19.34 a week in 1929 to $8.40 in March 1933. The CIO-affiliated International Woodworkers of America (IWA) became the nation’s largest timber worker union, while the AFL-affiliated United Brotherhood of Carpenters represented tens of thousands of loggers. The IWA, although riven with internal strife over communist leadership in its early years, developed its own forestry policy by 1938, charging the timber industry with destroying jobs by overcutting the forest, calling for government regulation of the forest and the banning of clearcutting in favor of selective cutting, and, in 1945, hiring a professional forester to run its research division with the aim of passing a federal law creating broad government regulations over private forestry. The bill never achieved a congressional vote, but the IWA retained a strong pro-environmental agenda until 1987 that included support for wilderness and alliances with environmentalists.

The IWA built on the debates happening within the Forest Service during these years to influence its forestry program. After Pinchot’s firing, the agency worked closely with timber operators, leading Pinchot to charge that the agency was in the pocket of the same timber interests whose destructive forestry created the need for it in the first place. By the 1930s, influential foresters such as Robert Marshall began to question clearcutting and the alliance between government and corporations. Ferdinand Silcox brought a very different attitude to his tenure (1933–1939) as chief of the Forest Service, reflective of the environmental crises of the Great Depression. The growing belief that overproduction and community destruction due to clearcutting were at the heart of the timber industry’s problems spurred an internal debate within the Forest Service, one where Silcox fell strongly on the side of reformers, outraging timber operators used to a compliant agency. Sustained yield management became a growing movement within the USFS. Silcox’s Forest Service saw the Great Lakes cutover as an object lesson at a time when new federal attention was paid to the rapidly declining stands of forests in the Pacific Northwest after Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 Northwest trip. Roosevelt urged new legislation to encourage reforestation and an increase in the USFS’s holdings. This led to the Joint Congressional Committee on Forestry in the early 1940s, which Silcox influenced to push for national forest planning. While many Forest Service officials bemoaned this new era of conflict with the timber industry, Silcox’s position well-represented the new era of land management during the Great Depression. As the nation entered World War II, the loggerheads between the USFS and timber industry over forest management remained unresolved.

World War II ended the Great Depression and brought the timber market soaring back to life. To supply wood for national defense, the national forests became a major supplier of wood for the first time, with the cut rising 238 percent between 1939 and 1945. This was driven not only by government policy but also because large timber companies had largely deforested their own land and now had to rely on national forest lands. The tensions between the Forest Service and industry began to fade as well after the death of Silcox in 1939 and the promotion of Lyle Watts to the agency’s head. Watts remained critical of the timber industry’s forestry practices, but during the war the agency worked closely with companies to get the necessary wood for the war effort. But the principles of sustained yield forestry animating that debate remained strong in the agency. The USFS attempted to enforce truly sustainable timber operations after World War II. The 1944 Sustained-Yield Forest Act directed the Forest Service and other relevant agencies to sign long-term contracts with individual companies in order to stabilize communities and reduce the overproduction that had long plagued the industry. But when the USFS implemented the act in 1946, making a deal with the Simpson Timber Company in Washington for a 100-year contract for long-term forest management, opposition exploded from labor unions, conservationists, and especially from small operators who felt themselves being pushed out of the timber industry through this government-sanctioned monopoly. The sustained-unit idea quickly wilted in the face of this pressure after producing only five agreements.

Postwar Forests and the Rise of Environmentalism

The nation’s forest needs and forest production grew rapidly after World War II, and the forests had to provide it, sustained yield units or no. Producing timber to solve the postwar housing crisis meant a major increase in production off the national forests. As the benefits to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) grew by supporting the nation’s booming economy, the principle of multiple-use that dominated the agency’s early decades transformed into an almost singular focus on timber production. Between 1946 and 1969, timber harvests on USFS land expanded from 2.47 billion to 11.9 billion board feet. In the Flathead National Forest alone, the allowable cut rose from 40 million board feet to 200 million between 1945 and 1969. Congressional appropriations for national forest roads, providing the transportation network for companies to harvest the ancient forests, rose from $13.3 million in 1950 to $24.3 million in 1953. The appointment of Richard McArdle to USFS chief in 1952 sealed the alliance between public and private interests for maximum cutting on the forests. McArdle opposed the New Deal foresters’ attempts to regulate timber policy on private land and worked both to increase appropriations for the Forest Service and to use the agency’s power to serve timber companies providing the building material for the Cold War era. The Forest Service’s internal culture changed with growing harvests, emphasizing silviculture and engineering for logging roads instead of the multiple-use emphasis of the prewar agency.

The postwar period also saw the rapid growth in the use of the forests for recreation, even as the Forest Service increasingly viewed this as a minor part of its mandate. Between 1945 and 1955, annual visits to national forests increased from 16 million to 40 million. Fishing license sales rose 43 percent and hunting licenses 30 percent between 1948 and 1958. This helped lead to a growing environment movement as Americans found their recreation spaces flattened through clearcutting. Environmentalists flexed their nascent muscles with the Sierra Club–led campaign against the building of Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument in 1956 and Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962. Forest policy would soon gain the attention of this new movement. Battles to protect roadless areas heated up in the 1950s. Federally designated wilderness had its roots in the Forest Service, when forest supervisor Aldo Leopold wrote a wilderness plan in 1922 for the headwaters of Gila River that would ban almost all human development. Leopold’s supervisor enacted this in 1924 under a ten-year experiment, creating a precedent for larger and more official wilderness designations.

But as the postwar forest harvests grew rapidly, calls for a more comprehensive plan to protect wilderness largely came from activists outside the agency. As this movement grew, the Forest Service sought to develop roadless tracts in order to maintain its control over the land, outraging environmentalists by removing 53,000 acres of low-elevation timber from the Three Sisters Primitive Area in the 1950s for this purpose. Local conservation groups worked with larger organizations like the Wilderness Society to pass a wilderness bill, which Lyndon Johnson signed in 1964. But this was only the first round in the battle over the ancient forests. The Forest Service undertook the Roadless Area Review (RARE) in 1971, identifying and classifying all roadless areas on national forests that could potentially become federally protected wilderness. When the USFS recommended only 16 of 255 roadless areas in Oregon and Washington for protection, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund sued the agency, and the out-of-court settlement mandated new reviews of all the roadless areas. In 1977, the USFS undertook that second review. RARE II intended to find permanent solutions to the issue, ending the lawsuits bogging down logging and providing the timber industry clarity on its future. But in 1979, the Carter Administration announced its decision to protect only 15.4 million of the 62 million acres of roadless lands in the national forests. Environmentalists again filed suit, and a 1982 Ninth Circuit Court decision ruled the RARE II environmental impact statement inadequate. The future of roadless areas remained in limbo.3

A second legal change that transformed the timber industry occurred in 1974, when the Izaak Walton League won a lawsuit challenging USFS clearcutting practices in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. The ruling in that case was that the agency had violated the Organic Act of 1897 by allowing clearcutting, as the law gave federal authority to log only “dead, matured or large growths of trees” that had been “marked or designated.” This threw forest policy into chaos because it challenged the main silvicultural practice in use for decades. Congress responded by superseding the Organic Act with the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which codified USFS control over forest management and explicitly legalized clearcutting. But it also required each national forest unit to develop environmental impact statements with public comment periods, a significant victory for environmentalists. RARE II and public comment periods gave environmentalists tools to challenge the industry-government cooperation that had left the Northwest’s last old-growth forests in peril.

The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) required the Forest Service to maintain “viable populations” of native species, mandating the agency to manage for endangered species populations for the first time. In the 1970s, biologists noticed declining populations of the northern spotted owl, a species that requires old-growth forests as its habitat. At the same time, old-growth timber harvest grew rapidly during the Reagan administration, leading greens to increasingly desperate measures to save the last ancient forests in the Northwest. In 1985, environmental organizations appealed to the Department of Agriculture to fulfill its duties under the NFMA, but in 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to list the owl under the Endangered Species Act. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund then filed the first lawsuit to force federal land agencies to protect the northern spotted owl. In 1991, a court ruled that the Forest Service had violated the NFMA by not properly managing the spotted owl and ordered all logging on potential owl habitat closed until the USFS instituted a plan that would protect the bird. This immediately halted nearly all logging in old-growth forests. President Bill Clinton implemented the Northwest Forest Plan to bring these battles to a solution in 1994, which created sharply lower timber yields in the forest, a major victory for environmentalists.

Contemporary Forests

The protection of spotted owl habitat led to the end of the national forests as the nation’s primary repository of timber production. In 1987, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) sold 5.3 billion board feet of timber for harvest. By 1995, that dropped to 0.4 billion board feet. But despite popular media narratives, the timber industry was already in deep decline in the Northwest. Automation cost 13,000 timber jobs in Oregon alone between 1976 and 1986. The transformation of the Northwest timber industry devastated long-standing traditions of logging culture that challenged the region’s working-class residents, dividing rural counties between old and new residents and timber workers and environmentalists, while undermining county budgets dependent upon timber sales. Meanwhile, Northwest-based companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific began investing heavily in southern pine forest plantations, once again making that region a major supplier. Overall timber production has also declined sharply in recent years, from 50,928 million board feet in 2007 to 30,229 million board feet in 2009, rising only to 35,162 million board feet in 2012. Of this, slightly more than 60 percent of all forest products in recent years originated from eastern forests, largely in southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana, even as Oregon and Washington remain the largest producers by state.

The long-term impact of forestry based upon the doctrine of efficiency that began with Pinchot has had enormous ramifications upon forests today. A century of fire suppression has wreaked havoc on American forests today. Instead of the relatively thin forests with minimal underbrush that marks many western forests when fires naturally burn, today they have dense tree coverage that allows fires to rage uncontrollably, often to the point of sterilizing the soil because of the tremendous heat generated. The Forest Service and other agencies have engaged in controlled burns to attempt to alleviate these problems, but with underfunded budgets and enormous acreage to manage, they can make only small advancements. Moreover, the disastrous National Park Service controlled burn at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico in 2000 that rapidly spread out of control and burned 48,000 acres, largely in the Santa Fe National Forest, threatening high-security areas at Los Alamos National Laboratory, brought the ability of federal agencies to manage the forests under question. The risk of fire has increased with the rise in insect and tree diseases in recent years. Major tree diseases imported from Asia and Europe first transformed American forests with the arrival of the chestnut blight. The chestnut was a central species in eastern hardwood forests, constituting up to 20 percent of the forest in southern Appalachia and representing an even more vital role in wildlife food stocks. First reported in New York in 1904, the blight, imported with Japanese chestnut nursery stock, effectively eliminated the chestnut by 1940, and attempts to create genetically modified chestnut to reintroduce today remain in the testing stages. Bark beetles have devastated the lodgepole pine forests of the northern Rockies with the lack of cold winters in this climate change–impacted world, drastically transforming that region’s ecosystem almost overnight, threatening an entire ecosystem. The woody adelgid has infested 90 percent of eastern hemlock forests, threatening to wipe out a critical species, while the emerald ash borer has done the same to the ash. Sudden oak death threatens to wipe out the tanoak in California.

New problems face forest management as well. The growing desire for vacation and retirement homes in the forest has led to a boom in housing starts just outside of national forests, often contributing to wildlife habitat fragmentation and increased costs for firefighting. Thefts of hardwood trees on private lands plague areas of Appalachia. Forests also today serve as cover for drug operations, especially large marijuana operations in southern Oregon and northern California that have overwhelmed limited Forest Service law enforcement budgets, diverted water supplies, and use mountains of toxic chemicals to protect the plants, leading to the decline of Pacific fisher populations in California because of their ingestion of rat poison.

Yet there remains a vibrant human culture in the forests today. Timber communities still survive in forests from Oregon to Georgia and Maine. Mushroom and ginseng gathering have brought economic value to the understory in forests around the nation. In many places, there is far greater economic value in standing forests than cutting them. Tourism has created important new economic activity in many logging towns. Oakridge, Oregon, long a symbol for the economic collapse of logging towns, has become a national destination for mountain biking. Ultimately, American forests today do serve the original multiple-use mission of the Forest Service, albeit with much Forest Service land now managed for recreation, water, and habitat, while private forests provide much of the nation’s timber needs.

Discussion of the Literature

Although forests played a critical role in American development, historiographical debates on the subject are less robust for the period before 1900. Studies of forests in early America include William Cronon’s groundbreaking environmental history Changes in the Land, exploring both indigenous and English impacts upon the landscape.4 Historians such as Mart Stewart and geographers such as Michael Williams have built upon Cronon to provide an increasingly detailed understanding of forestry in early America.5 James Willard Hurst’s comprehensive legal history of the Wisconsin timber industry has much to tell historians about the nuts and bolts of the 19th-century timber industry.6 Cronon’s chapter on timber in his magisterial Nature’s Metropolis shaped historians’ understandings of American forests and their relationship to industrial capitalism, as did work on southern forests by scholars such as Ronald Lewis.7 Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Social Change, was a pathbreaking book on forest history and is still critical for our understanding of the 19th- and early-20th-century Pacific Northwest.8

A voluminous literature exists on the development of the conservation movement and the rise of the Forest Service. Histories by Samuel P. Hays, David Clary, William Robbins, Harold Steen, and others between the 1960s and 1980s explore the history of the Forest Service, the relationship between the Forest Service and the timber industry, and the ideology behind the early-20th-century conservation movement.9 Char Miller’s Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism provides the most comprehensive biography of that key figure in American forest history. Paul Hirt’s A Conspiracy of Optimism and Nancy Langston’s Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares were published in the mid-1990s; deeply influenced by the contemporary political campaigns over forest policy, both provide critical histories of Forest Service mismanagement of western forests.

A related major theme in forest history is the political battles to save ancient forests since the mid-20th century. Early historical works on these issues built connections between contemporary battles and the past, such as Susan Schrepfer’s exploration of the fight to save California’s redwoods.10 Historians William Cronon and Richard White provided critical challenges to the preconceptions of the wilderness movement in Cronon’s Uncommon Ground.11 Excellent new works continue to come out on the impact of environmentalism on forest policy, including James Morton Turner’s The Promise of Wilderness, an extensive discussion of the wilderness movement since 1964, and Darren Speece’s Defending Giants, chronicling the battle to save the Headwaters forest in northern California.12

An emerging historiography on forest workers has also developed. William Robbins’s work on Coos Bay, Oregon, and Carlos Schwantes’s chronicles on work in the West are among the foundational works for this literature.13 In recent years, William P. Jones’s discussion of African American loggers in the South and Erik Loomis’s examination of how loggers used their unions to advance their own environmental agendas have moved this literature forward.14 Two recent books provide histories of Latinos in the American timber industry, a growing segment of workers since the 1960s: Brinda Sarathy’s Pineros and Mario Jimenez Sifuentez’s Of Forests and Fields.15

Primary Sources

Major archival repositories for forest history are located around the nation. The Forest History Society, located in Durham, North Carolina, has done more than any institution to publicize forest history. Its oral history collection of timber operators and Forest Service officials extends back to people working in the early 20th century. It also holds major archival collections, including that of the American Forestry Association, the Society of American Foresters, the American Forest Institute, and the Weyerhaeuser Company, as well as huge photographic collections. This is the first place any student of forest history should look.

The papers of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are at the National Archives repositories in Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland, with those of the different regions of the agencies at National Archives branch offices scattered across the country, particularly in Seattle and Denver. Enormous forestry collections also exist at Yale University, the home of the nation’s most important school of forestry for over a century. The Denver Public Library has developed an outstanding collection of archival materials on conservation, much of it useful for scholars of forestry. Among key individuals in the history of forestry, Gifford Pinchot’s papers are at the Library of Congress, Robert Marshall’s papers are at the University of California, and Aldo Leopold’s papers are at the University of Wisconsin. The University of Washington holds rich collections for forestry in the Pacific Northwest. The University of Oregon holds the papers of the International Woodworkers of America, the largest timber union in American history. Usefully, the journal Environmental History reports on new archival collections open to the public, and students of the field should routinely consult those listings.

Further Reading

Clary, David A.Timber and the Forest Service. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.Find this resource:

Cox, Thomas R.Mills and Markets: A History of the Pacific Coast Lumber Industry to 1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974.Find this resource:

Cox, Thomas R., Robert S. Maxwell, Phillip Drennon Thomas, and Joseph J. Malone. This Well-Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests from Colonial Times to the Present. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.Find this resource:

Ficken, Robert E.The Forested Land: A History of Lumbering in Western Washington. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Hays, Samuel P.Wars in the Woods: The Rise of Ecological Forestry in America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Hirt, Paul. A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Hurst, James Willard. Law and Economic Growth: The Legal History of the Lumber Industry in Wisconsin, 1836–1915. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Jones, William P.The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Judd, Richard W.Aroostook: A Century of Logging in Northern Maine. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Langston, Nancy. Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Loomis, Erik. Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Marsh, Kevin. Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Miller, Char, ed. American Forests: Nature, Culture, and Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.Find this resource:

Pyne, Stephen. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Robbins, William. American Forestry: A History of National, State, and Private Cooperation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Sarathy, Brinda. Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Steen, Harold K.The U.S. Forest Service: A History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.Find this resource:

White, Richard. Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Case of Island County, Washington. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980.Find this resource:

White, Richard. “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Edited by William Cronon, 171–185. New York: Norton, 1995.Find this resource:

Williams, Michael. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.Find this resource:


(1.) Quoted in George A. Gonzalez, Corporate Power and the Environment: The Political Economy of U.S. Environmental Policy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 32.

(2.) Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 260.

(3.) Erik Loomis, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 215–216.

(4.) William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).

(5.) Mart A. Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1860–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); and Michael Williams, Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

(6.) James Willard Hurst, Law and Economic Growth: The Legal History of the Lumber Industry in Wisconsin, 1836–1915. Rev. ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

(7.) William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); and Ronald L. Lewis, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

(8.) Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980).

(9.) Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959); David Clary, Timber and the Forest Service (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986); William G. Robbins, American Forestry: A History of National, State, and Private Cooperation (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985); William G. Robbins, Lumberjacks and Legislators: Political Economy of the U.S. Lumber Industry, 1890–1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982); and Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service: A History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976).

(10.) Susan R. Schrepfer, The Fight to Save the Redwoods: A History of Environmental Reform, 1917–1978 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983).

(11.) William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

(12.) James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012); and Darren Speece, Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

(13.) William G. Robbins, Hard Times in Paradise: Coos Bay, Oregon, 1850–1986 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); and Carlos Schwantes, Hard Traveling: A Portrait of Work Life in the Pacific Northwest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

(14.) William P. Jones, The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005); and Erik Loomis, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

(15.) Brinda Sarathy, Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012); and Mario Jimenez Sifuentez, Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016).