13 B. Establishment of Federal Forest Reserves

Crater Lake National Park: Administrative History by Harlan D. Unrau and Stephen Mark, 1987


CHAPTER THREE: Crater Lake Administered By The General Land Office As Part Of The Cascade Range Forest Reserve: 1893-1902


During the 1870s and 1880s conservationists in the United States focused considerable energy on a movement to repeal the Timber Culture Act of 1873 and the Timber Cutting Act of 1878. At the forefront of this movement were conservationists interested in forestry such as Charles S. Sargent, John Muir, and Robert V. Johnson, aided by the General Land Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior and foresters in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Considerable fraud was associated with these laws, and as a result much valuable timber land was lost as it fell into the hands of large corporations and timber speculators. The two acts were ostensibly intended to provide for forest conservation. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 authorized any person who kept forty acres of timber land in good condition to acquire title to 160 acres. The minimum tree-growing requirement was reduced to ten acres in 1878. The Timber Cutting Act of 1878, on the other hand, allowed bona fide settlers and miners to cut timber on the public domain free of charge for their own use. [6]

In 1890 a committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with Thomas C. Mendenhall, Superintendent of the U.S. Coastal Geodetic Survey, as chairman, presented President Benjamin Harrison with a petition recommending that a commission be established to ”investigate the necessity of preserving certain parts of the present public forest as requisite for the maintenance of favorable water conditions.” The petition further urged that “pending such investigation all timber lands of the United States be withdrawn from sale and provision be made to protect the said lands from theft and ravages by fire, and to supply in a rational manner the local needs of wood and lumber until a permanent system of forest administration be had.” [7]

President Harrison and Secretry of the Interior John W. Noble endorsed the proposals. Provisions of the bill to accomplish these ends were drafted by Edward A. Bowers, a special agent and inspector in the General Land Office, with the advice of John Muir and Robert V. Johnson. Bowers’ bill was attached as a “rider” to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill and passed by Congress without debate. [8]

The Forest Reserve Act (26 Stat. 1095), signed into law by President Harrison on March 3, 1891, repealed the Timber Culture Act of 1873 and the Timber Cutting Act of 1878. Section 24 further provided:

That the President of the United States may, from time to time, set apart and reserve, in any state or territory having public land bearing forests, in any part of the public lands, wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations, and the President shall, by public proclamation, declare the establishment of such reservations, and the limits thereof. [9]

While the law did not define the objectives for setting aside the forest reservations the ostensible purposes, according to the House Committee on Public Lands, were the protection of “forest growth against destruction by fire and ax and preservation of forest conditions upon which water conditions and water flow” were dependent. The new policy was based on the perception “that a forest-cover on slopes and mountains must be maintained to regulate the flow of streams, to prevent erosion, and thereby to maintain favorable conditions in the plains below.” The policy of reserving forest land was thus “confined mainly to those localities in which agriculturists” were “dependent upon irrigation.” The overriding goal of the reserve policy was “to maintain favorable forest conditions, without, however, excluding the use of these reservations for other purposes.” [10]

During the next decade the Department of the Interior refined its policies concerning the objectives and management of forest reserves. By 1902 the objectives had been developed into a broad formal policy statement:

The object of setting land aside for forest reserves is —

1. To protect a growth of timber on land which is not fit to grow other crops and under conditions where no such protection is assured or can be supplied by private persons or local authorities.

2. To keep a growth of vegetation, especially of timber on mountain lands which would otherwise wash and gully. . . .

Forest reserves have been and are created from lands (nearly all mountain lands) unfit for agriculture for reasons of altitude and consequent climate usually reinforced by poverty or insufficiency of soil. These lands generally bear a stand of timber or indicate that they have borne such and are likely to be restocked with forests if protected. Where these mountain forests have not been reserved and have passed into private ownership their history has generally been that of the Northern pineries and other forest areas. They are culled over for whatever will pay the expense of exploitation, the cutting is careless and wasteful, the profits of the timberman small and to the district much smaller. Since this work of denudation is a temporary matter it does little for the permanent improvement of the locality, but leaves behind it the characteristic ruins of abandoned sawmills and the devastated, fire-scorched mountain lands robbed of their forest and fertility alike and doomed for years, in many cases for centuries, to remain as unsightly, barren wastes where the much-needed waters gather unhindered to rush from the mountains and be wasted. To avoid this permanent injury to districts where every drop of water is precious, and where the protective function of the mountain forests, therefore, is of the greatest importance, is the first object of the creation of forest reserves. To husband an immense wealth of timber, to regulate its use, to utilize only the growth of these mountain forests and thereby insure a continued supply of one of the most important materials, is the second object of the reserve policy. [11]

The Forest Reserve Act was hailed as the cornerstone of national conservation policy. It was later characterized by Gifford Pinchot as “the most important legislation in the history of Forestry in America.” [12] Benjamin H. Hibbard has commented on its effect in establishing a precedent that all of the public domain was not to be disposed of into private hands, thus reversing the previous course of federal land policy:

Without question the act permitting the withdrawal of public [forest] land from private entry was the most signal act yet performed by Congress in the direction of a national land policy. [13]

President Harrison utilized the new act at once, establishing the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve of 1,250,000 acres on March 30, 1891, as the first national forest reserve. During the remainder of his administration he withdrew some 13,416,710 acres of the public domain, chiefly in California, Oregon, and Wyoming, as forest reserves. [14]

While a great victory had been achieved, it was not yet complete for Congress had not yet granted the authority to protect, administer, and utilize the new forest reserves. Although lumbermen, miners, settlers, and stockmen could no longer obtain legal title to the land located in the national forest reserves, they continued to trespass on public forest land as they had in the past. [15] For instance, in his annual report for 1892 Interior Secretary Noble commented on the need for protection of the new reserves:

These forest reservations should receive protection, either by guards furnished from the Army, as has been done in the Yellowstone National Park, the Sequoia National Park, and elsewhere, or an appropriation should be made to pay custodians and watchmen, so that not only may depredations be detected, but fires, that consume so great a part of our timber, may be prevented. [16]

The problem of protecting the forest reserves was again discussed by Secretary of the Interior Hoke Smith in his annual report for 1893. He observed:

Numerous complaints have been received by the Department of stock men driving their sheep on these reserves, destroying the herbage and setting fire to the trees; and on the 23d of June, the Acting Commissioner of the General Land Office also called the attention of the Department to the necessity for protecting these reserves, urging that details from the Army be secured to look after the same, until Congress could make suitable provision.

Accordingly, the attention of the Secretary of War was directed to the facts in the case, and the request made that, if practicable, officers of the Army, with a suitable number of troops, be detailed to protect the several reservations.

The Acting Secretary of War declined, however, to make the details desired, basing his refusal upon an opinion of the Acting Judge-Advocate-General of the Army to the effect that the employment of troops in such cases and under the circumstances described by the Secretary of the Interior, not being expressly authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress, would be unlawful.

These reservations remain, therefore, by reason of such action, in the same condition, as far as protection is concerned, as unreserved public lands and are only afforded such protection from trespass and fire as can be furnished with the limited means at the command of the General Land Office. A bill, however, is now pending in Congress which provides adequate means for the protection and management, by details from the Army, etc., of these forest reservations; it has the hearty approval of the Department, and its early enactment as a law is desirable. [17]