American Forests' History Has Lessons for the Present

Article excerpt

"We need to find a new framework for working with other groups-businesspeople, labor unions, politicians. We need to learn new tactics and build strategic partnerships. It worked a century ago. It can work today."

In 1875, about a thousand concerned citizens gathered at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. There they formed the American Forestry Association (AFA), now known as american forests. Today, when there are literally hundreds of green organizations, it's difficult to appreciate what a departure this was at the time. But the foundation of this organization was, quite literally, revolutionary.

Keep in mind the context of 1875. It was the Gilded Age, a time of great conflict between people and nature-an age of robber barons making fortunes from steel, railroads, lumber mills, mines. The government promoted westward expansion. Manifest Destiny. The industrial revolution filled the landscape with machines that extracted natural resources from the land. In the decade before the American Forestry Association came to be, the mileage of the railroads doubled. The ability to transport timber by rail from forest to mill to market resulted in a devastating increase in the speed of logging and the resulting deforestation. Government officials and wealthy industrial leaders forged strong ties. The relevant federal agencies of the time-the General Land Office and the Department of the Interior-focused on turning land and resources into capital.

It was a difficult era for giving birth to what would be called the conservation movement. Most people felt that the forests were endless. Nowhere in the mission statement of any government department was the conservation of natural resources identified as a goal. Not one American school offered a degree in forestry. No one formally studied natural resource management. In their search for solutions, America's conservationists had to look to forest management practices that had been developed in 16th century Germany.

When the founders of this revolutionary organization called for changes in abusive timber practices, their calls initially fell on deaf ears. To gain traction for these ideas, the AFA reached out to industry, and government to try to form partnerships and find common ground. In an effort to bring these diverse groups together, the AFA formed the American Forest Congress (AFC). The AFC operated more like a conference of interested parties than a formal organization.

By the turn of the century, several AFA officers also held prominent government positions: The AFA's president, James Wilson, headed the Department of Agriculture. Gifford Pinchot, chairman of the AFA executive committee, led the Division of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture.

Spurred on by these political advisors and a growing coalition of citizen groups, President Theodore Roosevelt agreed to address a 1905 joint meeting of AFA and AFC. …