One hundred and thirty five years ago this September 10th, a group of citizens concerned about the rampant loss of forests and major damage to the land met in Chicago to found the organization today known as AMERICAN FORESTS. They were a committed and energetic group living in quite a different era.
It was 1875, the year before the centennial of the country's founding, and just three years following the establishment of the first national park, Yellowstone. The country's centennial celebration of independence and the Little Bighorn battle were both still 10 months away. The transcontinental railroad was a reality, and there were still buffalo hunts on the Western prairies.
In Washington, a major infrastructure modernization with sewers, sidewalks, and paving included the nation's first major publicly-funded street tree planting. The sixty thousand trees planted in the early 1870s were credited in an 1889 Harpers magazine as a major factor in Washington having become a place that "exceeds in beauty any city in the world."
In the Midwest, logging and timbering was in high gear. As the railroads pushed further and further into the West, and mining interest exploded, the lumber barons were more interested in moving on to the next juicy tract of forest than with how they would leave their most recently cut lands. It was against this backdrop that the American Forestry Association (AFA) was formed; at a time when there was no National Geographic Society, and John Muir had not yet organized his hiking and conservation society, the Sierra Club.
The organization's founder was physician John Aston Warder, an avid horticulturist. The group had as its goal the "protection of the existing forests of the country from unnecessary waste." At the time, there were no national or state forests, no American forestry schools or professional foresters, and little policy overseeing our most vital natural resource. According to forest historian Henry Clepper, the work they began in 1875 was a turning point in history that "inaugurated the conservation movement."
By 1882, the organization expanded its visibility and reach by organizing the First American Forest Congress as a forum to find common ground between conservation groups, industry, and government. It was an impressive gathering in Cincinnati that attracted 50,000 people to a tree planting in Eden Park, where trees were dedicated to honor statesmen and authors. We know of no other tree planting attended by so many people since.
By the time the AFA organized the Second American Forest Congress in January 1905, the organization had a strong presence in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Forest Congress with his plan to create a national forest system that would transfer forest management from the General Land Office and Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture's new Division of Forestry. He got their attention with a podium-pounding address in which he castigated timber barons who would "skin the land" without thought to its future condition. It was not long before Roosevelt's confidant, event organizer, and AFA board member Gifford Pinchot was named the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
Other notable events during this time include the organization's advocacy to preserve forests to become national parks (which led to the creation of the National Park System), the purchase of Calaveras Grove of Big Trees in California, the conveyance of Yosemite to the federal government from California, and later the creation of Grand Canyon National Park. …