A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two

By Paul W. Hirt | Go to book overview

2
Historical Antecedents: The Development of Forest Policy before World War Two

When they created the national forests a century ago, Americans were putting wisdom to work. The rapid development of the West in the nineteenth century had been an impressive affair, but it was not universally regarded as an unmitigated success. Particularly troubling to some was the careless, almost frenzied, exploitation of natural resources by commercial enterprises that followed on the heels of the industrial revolution. For centuries, Euro- Americans had felt that the continent's natural resources were inexhaustible and this instilled a laissez-faire attitude on the part of western speculators and resources developers. In such an intellectual climate, wastefulness became a hallmark of American economic activity. The faith that additional undeveloped land -- and profits -- lay beyond every horizon led to a migratory entrepreneurial spirit that in turn produced transitory economic booms followed by busts. This boom/bust pattern of development was repeated in endless variations throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially when the primary economic activity involved the harvesting of some biological or geological resource that nature had provided freely and abundantly. In the case of commercial exploitation of forestlands, a great deal of wealth could be created in a relatively short time by cutting down and marketing logs from America's vast, centuries-old forests. But the bustling communities that developed around logging operations only lasted as long as the sustaining resource held out. When the forests were gone, the companies moved on, leaving behind economically depressed communities with devastated landscapes.1 During the bust phase of the lumbering economy in the Great Lakes states in the 1890s, Wisconsin established a special Board

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