The ground hog’s reaction to its shadow on February 2, 1905, would not have interested even the most superstitious foresters under Gifford Pinchot in the U.S. Department of Agriculture because their spring had already arrived. One day before President Theodore Roosevelt had signed a bill that transferred jurisdiction of the forest reserves (renamed national forests in 1907) from the General Land Office in the Department of the Interior to the Bureau of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture.
The transfer of more than 63 million acres of forest reserves and 500 former employees from the Department of the Interior capped a seven-year campaign by Gifford Pinchot, then head of the Bureau of Forestry. Gifford Pinchot, a dynamic and inspired leader, became the forester–he hated the term chief–of the USDA Division of Forestry in 1898. Three years later the division was elevated to bureau status.
Viewed from the perspective of 100 years of Forest Service history, it might appear to have been a foregone conclusion that the federal forest reserves would be turned over to the only federal bureau with a trained corps of professional foresters, that had been on staff in the Department of Agriculture since 1876. But as Steve Pyne points out in his Fire in America (1982) book, there was no inevitable progression which led up to the Transfer Act of 1905 (33 Stat. 628). On the contrary, the constellation of forces would seem to have pointed in another direction.
At the turn of the century, forestry was still a young field in America and the preservation and use of timber supplies, for which foresters were specially trained, were the main goals of the early forest conservation movement. The reserves had originally been created to protect watersheds and until the second decade of the twentieth century grazing rather than lumbering was the dominant industry on the national forests. Moreover, other technical agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey in the Department of the Interior, had more experience–especially mapping, mineral, vegetation, and landform surveys–since getting the nod from Congress in the Organic Act of 1897 to undertake such work on the forest reserves. The USGS, even without the trained foresters, would have, arguably, been better prepared to assume the management of the forest reserves.
With these factors working against Gifford Pinchot, it must be concluded that his success was largely the result of his own efforts. His close friendship with President Roosevelt was, of course, indispensable. So too was his tireless work in fostering public awareness of professional forestry and convincing legislators, loggers, ranchers, and conservationists that his bureau, composed of college-educated professionals and self-trained westerners, such as grazing chief Albert F. Potter, could do a better job of managing the forests.
Pinchot pursued his goal of transferring the forest reserves from Interior to Agriculture with such single-mined devotion that he, who was normally a faithful diarist, made no entries from the fall of 1903, when a transfer bill was introduced in Congress, to the summer of 1905. His health also suffered from the effects of overwork. In early 1905, he wrote in a letter that he was “pretty near the edge of what I can do and stand it. I weigh less just now than at any time for the last ten years. My digestion is out of order and I find I have to be a little careful.”
Originally written by Dennis Roth, then national historian for the Forest Service, on February 24, 1980. Revised on January 8, 2003, by Gerald Williams, national historian.
Pinchot’s efforts on behalf of the transfer culminated in a gathering of the American Forest Congress in Washington, D.C., on January 2-6, 1905. The Forest Congress, which Pinchot had been instrumental in organizing, was presided over by Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson and counted among its participants many important figures from industry and politics. The Forest Congress issued a statement calling for the transfer which, in the words of Pinchot, “gave the final push that drove the transfer through...”
The Transfer Act of 1905 was the first independent forestry bill to become law, previously forestry legislation having come as amendments to other bills, and as such marked a definite coming-of-age in the development of American forest policy. In addition to transferring the jurisdiction of the reserves, the Transfer Act provided that (1) all receipts from the forest reserves for a period of five years would be placed in a special fund to be expended for the protection, administration, improvement, and extension of the reserves; (2) forest supervisors and rangers should be appointed, when practicable, from the states or territories in which the reserves were located; and (3) rights of way for dams, ditches, flumes, etc., across the reserves for various purposes be granted under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior and subject to state laws.
On the same day, Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson issued two documents that also helped to set the future course of federal forest policy. Wilson’s General Order No. 84 introduced for the first time the designation “service” into the department lexicon. The Secretary’s General Order (see below) was rediscovered through the combined efforts of Frank Harmon of the Forest Service History Section (now retired), former Forest Service Chief Richard McArdle, and Douglas Helms of the National Archives, now chief historian with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service:
In consequence of the passage of an Act providing for the transfer of forest reserves from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, approved February 1, 1905, there is hereby established a “Service” in the Bureau of Forestry to be designated and known as “The Forest Service”, which Service shall consist of persons transferred to the Department of Agriculture according to the provisions of that Act and of all persons who may be appointed thereto in compliance with civil-service rules by the Secretary of Agriculture, and shall by under the direction of the Forester and Chief of that Bureau.
On the other hand, Secretary Wilson’s memo dated February 1, 1905 (see attached), to Gifford Pinchot, which was actually written by Pinchot and his assistant Frederick Olmsted, is probably the best-known of all documents in American forest history. Here Pinchot set forth his conservationist credo and implicitly justified his choice of a new name for his bureau.
In the administration of the forest reserves it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people; and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies. All the resources of forest reserves are for use, and this use must be brought about in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner, under such restrictions only as will in-sure the permanence of these resources. The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advance in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore in-dispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of this Department for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value...In the management of each reserve local questions will be decided upon local grounds; the dominant industry will be considered first, but with as little restriction to minor industries as may be possible; sudden changes in industrial conditions will be avoided by gradual adjustment after due notice; and where conflicting interests must be reconciled the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.
One month later (March 3), the annual Agricultural Appropriations Act removed the last vestiges of the old system when it replaced “Bureau of Forestry” with “Forest Service” and authorized the Forest Service to “make arrests for the violations of laws and regulations relating to the forest reserves and national parks [the National Park Service was established 11 years later],” and to participate “in the enforcement of the laws of the State or Territories in the prevention and extinguishment of forest fires and the protection of fish and game.
Congress took another important step on March 3, when it repealed the Lieu-Land Clause that had been added to the “Organic Act of 1897.” Under that clause, individuals or companies could exchange land of low value they owned or claimed inside the boundaries of forest reserves for land of equal area and much greater value on the remaining public domain outside the forest boundaries.
the settler or owner thereof may, if he desires to do so, relinquish the tract to the Government, and may select in lieu thereof a tract of vacant lands open to settlement not exceeding the area the tract covered by his claim or patent; and no charge shall be made in such cases for making the entry of record or issuing the patent to cover the tract selected...
This provision, although intended to assist the isolated homesteader, would soon lead to massive land frauds in the West. The problem came about, mostly, because of the two words "or owner" in the act. This set up a situation in which legal owners of the land claims (e.g. timber and railroad companies) could in essence exchange land within the reserve boundary (even though they may not be living on the land) for even richer land outside the boundary for free. Pinchot wrote "We who were working for the Pettigrew Amendment [the Organic Act] knew this lieu land provision to be dangerous, but how dangerous it was we had, and we could have had, no idea.”
Under the guise of conservation, railroads and land speculators lobbied for establishing new forest reserves in areas where they owned land so they could reap the windfall profits almost guaranteed them by the Lieu-Land Clause. Consequently, government officials were often reluctant to press for the creation of new forest reserves, knowing that such actions might bring illicit gain to these sudden converts to the cause of conservationism. With the repeal of the Lieu-Land Clause, forest reserve policy could again proceed without the taint of scandal.
After the signing of the Transfer Act, the Forest Service faced two main tasks in the first year of its existence: (1) to improve the quality of forest personnel, many of whom were incompetent political appointees under the General Land Office regime; and (2) to replace the overly-centralized routine of the Land Office with a decentralized administration that was more attuned to meeting the needs of people who depended on the reserves’ resources.
Pinchot had already prepared the groundwork for professionalizing the Bureau of Forestry when he prevailed on President Roosevelt to include its personnel within the Civil Service System. On December 17, 1904, Roosevelt issued an order which stipulated that “no person be hereafter appointed, employed, promoted, or transferred in said service until he passes an examination therewith...” Soon after the transfer, Pinchot devised a practical ranger examination that could test the mettle of any westerner and was sure to weed out incompetent employees that had become fixtures of the General Land Office forest ranger force, who were all political appointees. As stated in the 1905 Use Book, the new Forest Service rangers would have to fit a different mold:
To be eligible as ranger of any grade the applicant must be, first of all, thoroughly sound and able-bodied, capable of enduring hardships and of performing severe labor under trying conditions. Invalids seeking light out-of-door employment need not apply. No one may expect to pass the examination who is not already able to take care of himself and his horses in regions remote from settlement and supplies. He must be able to build trails and cabins and to pack in provisions without assistance. He must know something of surveying, estimating, and scaling timber, lumbering, and the live-stock business. On some reserves the ranger must be a specialist in one or more of these lines of work. Thorough familiarity with the region in which he seeks employment, including its geography and its forest and industrial conditions, is usually demanded, although lack of this may be supplied by experience in other similar regions.
The examination of applicants is along the practical lines indicated above, and actual demonstration, by performance, is required. Experience, not book education, is sought, although ability to make simple maps and write intelligent reports upon ordinary reserve business is essential. Where boats, saddle horses, or pack horses are necessary in the performance of their duty, rangers are required to own and maintain them. The entire time of rangers must be given to the service. Engagement in any other occupation or employment is not permitted.
Although most of the ranger and forest supervisor position were held by practical westerners, who received their forestry training on-the-ground, the Forest Service also needed more professional foresters to work as forest inspectors and assistants. Pinchot, who never doubted that the forest reserves would eventually be transferred to his Bureau of Forestry, had anticipated this need as early as 1900 when he prevailed on his father to provide funding to start a school of forestry at Gifford Pinchot’s alma mater Yale. Soon after, the Bureau of Forestry began employing student assistants from the new Yale and Cornell Forest Schools in what was probably the first government program for summer interns. Most of the interns helped to devise working plans for private woodland owners, thereby gaining much practical experience and absorbing the “applied idealism” (in the words of Arthur Ringland) imparted by Pinchot.
Thus, when the forest reserves were transferred, the interns, after passing a civil service examination, were ready for work as full-fledged forest assistants. However, many were new to the West, having done most of their interning east of the Mississippi. They also had to overcome their tenderfoot backgrounds, as the story told by Arthur C. Ringland illustrates:
Well, I did find a way to make friends with stockmen, sheepmen, and nesters. Thanks to the officers of Fort Stanton, an old cavalry post them administered by the Public Health Service, I early acquired a certain notoriety. I had a bull terrier, Patsy, who often rode with me. Carelessly on day I boasted of his prowess in fighting a badger [a burrowing animal well-known to put up a strong fight when cornered]. As a result, I was challenged and asked to bring Patsy to Fort Stanton for a fight. At the mess [dinner] that night the waiter asked solicitously if he should feed Pasty before the fight, and I told him to wait until afterwards.
And so the fight was arranged just behind the row of the officer’s quarters. Quite a crown gathered. I heard afterwards that even the ladies of the post peeked from behind drawn curtains. I brought Patsy out and held him on a leash while a rope perhaps thirty feet long was attached to a box holding the badger, as I thought. In the meantime, numerous bets were being made and carried away by the prevailing spirit of sportsmanship, I bet a month’s pay – $83.33 – that my dog would run the badger off the post.
When all was ready, I was given the rope, and at the drop of the referee’s hat, I unleashed Patsy with one hand and pulled the rope to spill the box with the other. Whether the game is still played in the West, I do not know; but old-timers will know what happened: with my pull of the rope–an it was a good one–out rolled a utensil that still competes in some parts of the country with the products of the Crane Company!
Chastened by this incident, and the good-natured kidding which dogged him for several months thereafter, Ringland quickly began to learn the ways of the West. Three years later, he was appointed the first district forester for the new Southwestern District–now called Southwestern Region–that oversaw the management of the national forests in Arizona and New Mexico.
The Forest Service’s attempt to bring the administration of the national forests closer to the people of the West was embodied in the agency’s first manual of procedure at became effective on July 1, 1905, called The Use of the National Forest Reserves (or simply the Use Book) by Pinchot because he wanted to emphasize that the forest reserves were open “to all persons for all lawful purposes.” The Use Book was written by a committee of headquarters and field officers headed by Frederick E. Olmsted. It was a small sized (4½” X 7"), hardback, with dark green covers that would fit in the shirt pocket and therefore could be carried into the field on horseback. The slim 142-page book contained 97 pages of instructions, regulations, and law, plus an appendix of recent legal decisions and an index.
The Use Book had three notable advantages over the earlier General Land Office Forest Reserve Manual from 1902: (1) it delegated more authority to forest supervisors and rangers and enabled them to make many decisions locally without going through a great deal of red tape by having decisions made or confirmed from Washington, DC; (2) it was written in simple language that was understandable both to foresters and the public alike; and (3) it repeatedly reminded the forest officers that they were “the servants of the people” and that they “must answer all inquiries concerning reserve methods fully and cheerfully, and be at least as prompt and courteous in the conduct of reserve business as they would in private business.” The Use Book was revised yearly until around 1910, when separate functions, such as timber and grazing, produced their own subsets of the Use Book.
During the next few years, the Forest Service’s success in hiring good people and in giving them the authority to manage the reserves helped to dissipate much of the western resentment which had accompanied their creation and in making the agency a model of efficiency in the federal government.
Department of Agriculture,
Office of the Secretary,
February 1, 1905.
The President has attached his signature to the fol-lowing Act:
"An Act Providing for the transfer of forest reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agri-culture.
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Represen-tatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture shall, from and after the passage of this Act, execute or cause to be executed all laws affecting public lands theretofore or hereafter reserved under provisions of section twenty four of the Act entitled 'An Act to repeal the timber culture laws, and for other purposes,' approved March third, eighteen hundred and ninety one, and Acts supplemental to and amendatory thereof, after such lands have been so reserved, excepting such laws as affect the surveying, prospecting, locating, appropriating, entering, relinquishing, reconveying, certifying, or patenting of any such lands.
"Sec. 2. That pulp wood or wood pulp manufactured from timber in the district of Alaska may be exported there-from.
"Sec. 3. That forest supervisors and rangers shall be selected, when practicable, from qualified citizens of the States or Territories in which the said reserves, respectively, are situated.
"Sec. 4. That rights of way for the construction and maintenance of dams, reservoirs, water plants, ditches, flumes, pipes, tunnels, and canals, within and across the forest reserves of the United States, are hereby granted to citizens and corporations of the United States for municipal or mining purposes, and for the purposes of the milling and reduction of ores, during the period of their beneficial use, under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the Secretary
of the Interior and subject to the laws of the State or Territory in which said reserves are respectively situated.
"Sec. 5. That all money received from the sale of any products or the use of any land or resources of said forest reserves shall be covered into the Treasury of the United States, and for a period of five years from the passage of this Act shall constitute a special fund available, until expended, as the Secretary of Agriculture may direct, for the protection, administration, improvement, and extension of Federal forest reserves.
"Approved, February 1, 1905."
By this Act the administration of the Federal forest reserves is transferred to this Department. Its provisions will be carried out through the Forest Service, under your immediate supervision. You have already tentatively nego-tiated the transfer with the Commissioner of the General Land Office, whose powers and duties thus transferred I assign to you. Until otherwise instructed, you will submit to me for approval all questions of organization, sales, permits, and privileges, except such as are entrusted by the present regulations to field officers on the ground. All officers of the forest reserve service transferred will be subject to your instructions and will report directly to you. You will at once issue to them the necessary notice to this effect.
In order to facilitate the prompt transaction of business upon the forest reserves and to give effect to the general policy outlined below, you are instructed to recom-mend at the earliest practicable date whatever changes may
be necessary in the rules and regulations governing the res-erves, so that I may, in accordance with the provisions of the above Act, delegate to you and to forest reserve officers in the field, so much of my authority as may be essential to the prompt transaction of business, and to the administration of the reserves in accordance with local needs. Until such revision is made, the present rules and regulations will remain in force, except those relating to the receipt and transmittal of moneys, in which case Special Fiscal Agents of this Department will perform the duties heretofore rendered by the Receivers of Local Land Offices in accordance with existing laws and regulations. The Chief of Records, Bureau of Forestry, is hereby designated a Special Fiscal Agent, and you will direct him at once to execute and submit for my approval a bond for Twenty Thousand Dollars.
On December 17, 1904, the President signed the fol-lowing order:
"In the exercise of the power vested in the President by section 1753 of the Revised Statutes and acts amendatory thereof:
"IT IS ORDERED, That all persons employed in the field and in the District of Columbia in the 'protection and admin-istration of Forestry Reserves in or under the General Land Office of the Interior Department' be classified and the civil service act and rules applied thereto, and that no person be hereafter appointed, employed, promoted, or transferred in said service until he passes an examination in conformity therewith, unless specifically exempted thereunder. This order shall apply to all officers and employees, except persons employed merely as laborers, and persons whose appointments are confirmed by the Senate."
This order classifies the whole forest reserve Service, now transferred, and places it under the Civil Service Law.
In the administration of the forest reserves it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people; and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies. All the resources of forest reserves are for use, and this use must be brought about in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner, under such restrictions only as will insure the permanence of these resources. The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advance in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore indispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of this Department for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value. You will see to it that the water, wood, and forage of the reserves are conserved and wisely used for the benefit of the home-builder first of all; upon whom depends the best permanent use of lands and resources alike.
The continued prosperity of the agricultural, lumbering, min-ing, and live-stock interests is directly dependent upon a permanent and accessible supply of water, wood, and forage, as well as upon the present and future use of these resources under businesslike regulations, enforced with promptness, effectiveness, and common sense. In the management of each reserve local questions will be decided upon local grounds; the dominant industry will be considered first, but with as little restriction to minor industries as may be possible; sudden changes in industrial conditions will be avoided by gradual adjustment after due notice; and where conflicting interests must be reconciled the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.
These general principles will govern in the protection and use of the water supply, in the disposal of timber and wood, in the use of the range, and in all other matters connected with the management of the reserves. They can be successfully applied only when the administration of each reserve is left very largely in the hands of the local officers, under the eye of thoroughly trained and competent inspectors.