Wednesday, February 1, 2012

National Forest Oversight Transfered from Department of Interior to Agriculture [otd 02/01]

On February 1, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Act that transferred responsibility for America’s national forests from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The move resolved an issue that had roots that ran back more than a century.

U.S. Navy shipyard. Library of Congress.
When the U.S. became a new country, it had custody of vast expanses of land. At first only a tiny fraction of this acreage was held out of the “public domain” – the Federal government reserved some tracts of forest to insure supplies for naval shipbuilding

The Louisiana Purchase [blog, Oct 1] expanded the nation even more. Thus, in 1812, Congress authorized creation of the General Land Office to oversee the public domain. Under their auspices, huge amounts of land were sold outright to private interests, providing a steady revenue source for the government. In 1849, Congress created the Cabinet-level Department of the Interior, and made the Land Office part of it.

Of course, land sold to settlers became private property … and mostly farms. In 1862, Congress addressed the needs of this large agrarian constituency by authorizing an independent Department of Agriculture. The Department attained Cabinet-level status in 1889.

However, the early legal structure did not view timber utilization as part of farming. Not until 1881 did Agriculture even have a Division of Forestry. Of course, the public forests – over in Interior – were not part of their job. The Division’s foresters, along with responsible private lumbering interests, could only watch in horror as hit-and-run timber pirates, and private landowners, pillaged the public timberlands.

Finally, in 1891, Congress authorized the President to set aside forest reserves, where usage would be restricted and policed. Many reserves were quickly established, but a serious problem remained: The reserves were still public lands, and therefore under the General Land Office. Unfortunately, the Department of Interior had essentially no professional foresters of its own.

Only Agriculture’s Division of Forestry had such expertise, which they had developed to support the private timber industry. Thus, Interior “borrowed” experts from the Division, but that was not a viable long-term answer. Private interests as well as the academic community urged the government to transfer those duties to where the experts already existed.

Gifford Pinchot. Library of Congress.
Finally, as noted above, President Roosevelt made the necessary change. (The bureaucratic and political ins-and-outs of this history cannot be detailed in this short essay - see the Steen reference.)

Under the leadership of professional forester Gifford Pinchot, the Division, soon to be renamed the U. S. Forest Service, made great strides in managing and protecting our national forests.

Their approaches would become models for how Federal agencies handle various classes of public lands. This is clearly relevant to Idaho: About 60% of the state’s area belongs to the Federal government and is administered by the Forest Service or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
References: [Brit], [French]
Harold K. Steen, The U S. Forest Service: A History, University of Washington Press (1976).