Case No. 1

Forest Reserves

Timber harvesting in Montana prior to the Forest Reserve
(National Museum of Forest Service History)


Establishment of the Forest Reserves

In 1881, the Division of Forestry was established in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Franklin B. Hough was the first Chief or director. In 1889, a group representing the American Forestry Congress met with President Benjamin Harrison and asked him to help protect our country’s natural resources (Source 103).

In 1891, the U.S. Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act (Source 104), which allowed the President to set aside parts of government lands across the western United States as Forest Reserves.

Before President Harrison left office, he named the Yellowstone Reserve and an additional 14 other Reserves containing 13 million acres. The next President, Grover Cleveland added another five million acres bringing to a total of 18 million acres, including the Black Hills Forest Reserve in South Dakota (Source 105).

Excerpt of the 1889 meeting of the American Forestry Congress with President Benjamin Harrison. (National Museum of Forest Service History)

Excerpt of the 1889 meeting of the American Forestry Association with President Benjamin Harrison. (National Museum of Forest Service History)

A huge public outcry followed President Grover Cleveland’s February 22, 1897 proclamation establishing the Black Hills Forest Reserve. The Federal Government could not legally authorize the cutting of trees or grazing cattle on Forest Reserves, as people had done historically. The rules were often ignored and people continued to cut trees and run their cattle in the Forest Reserves. Their voices of protest were very loud (Newport 1965).

One newspaper, The Custer Weekly Chronicle said:

“The executive order…may be safely regarded as one of the most vital blows at civilization, so far as the Black Hills is concerned, that has ever been perpetrated by the ruler of any nation in the history of modern or ancient times.”

The Deadwood Pioneer Times, on February 25, 1897 wrote:

“It means, briefly interrupted and summed up, a death blow to our country.”

Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot on Forestry Commission, ca 1897.
(U.S. Forest Service)

Effort to Authorize Management of the Reserves

In 1896, the United States Secretary of the Interior, the man responsible for Reserves, asked the National Academy of Science to put together the National Forest Commission to study western timberlands. Charles Sargent, from Harvard University, was in charge of the commission and Gifford Pinchot, who was then just 31-years old was chosen to be secretary. The National Forest Commission recommended increasing the number and size of the Forest Reserves and also pushed for a close watch over the natural resources by the United States Congress. (Williams and Miller 2005) (Source 106)

Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot on National Forestry Commission, ca 1897.
(U.S. Forest Service)

Who was Gifford Pinchot?

Born in 1865 to a wealthy East Coast family, Pinchot would become a giant in the American conservation movement. He coined the term “conservation ethic” as applied to natural resources. His father, James, urged Pinchot to become a forester just before he started college at Yale University. After graduating from Yale, he studied forestry in France and returned to the United States to promote scientific forestry methods and the wise use of all natural resources to benefit the greater good. In the late 1800s Pinchot recognized that the current public laws allowed greedy, wasteful individuals across the U.S. to “massacre” our forestlands for their short term financial gains. Progressives such as Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt believed that powerful moneyed interests had grabbed far too much – and that reform of the federal government was necessary.

The Government needed to be it more expert, efficient, honest, and willing to stand up to the vested interests. Pinchot worked closely with President Theodore Roosevelt to establish many millions of acres of national forest reserves and would become the first Chief of the United States Forest Service (1905-1910). Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were very close friends with mutual respect – more than any other President and Forest Service Chief in our history. In later years Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania; however, he later would say “I have been a governor every now and then but I am a forester all the time”. Perhaps Pinchot’s most famous quote is: “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” (Breaking New Ground 1947). By the time Pinchot died in 1946, the American Conservation movement was well established due to his leadership and hard work.

The Commission also called for a permanent organization that would take care of these protected areas.

In May, 1897, just six months after the first part of the review was submitted, the Commission’s second report recommended that these Forest Reserve Lands “must be made to perform their part in the economy of the Nation”. In other words, the Forest Reserves must be managed to utilize their natural resources in order to support the economic needs of local communities and the country. The Commission also called for a permanent organization that would take care of these protected areas and the people who were in charge in the field would be exceptionally honest and dedicated to the protection of America’s natural resources.

In June, 1897, Senator Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota offered an amendment to a bill to fund the Government. The bill and the amendment were passed by Congress, and the Pettigrew Amendment became the Organic Administration Act of 1897, which provided the statutory or legal basis for the management of Forest Reserves.

Charles D. Walcott, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, in a speech before the American Forestry Congress in 1905 described Pettigrew’s role in passage of the Organic Administration Act of 1897. A January 11, 1905 letter from Senator Pettigrew to Walcott confirmed the accuracy of his description (Source 107, courtesy of Pettigrew Museum, Sioux Falls, SD). Previously, Pettigrew had sided with the miners and attacked President Cleveland’s new Forest Reserves. He eventually changed his mind and supported management of the Forest Reserves when Homestake Mining, changed their position. (Breaking New Ground 1947). Miners needed trees for fuel and boards for building and holding up their mine shafts.

Senator Pettigrew in a 1913 letter to Gifford Pinchot describes his involvement with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and the Organic Administration Act of 1897 (Source 107a).

1. From 1876 until the Black Hills Forest Reserve was created in 1897, Homestake loggers cut only the best trees on large parts of the forest with the help of laws that encouraged them to take advantage of an unlimited amount of timber available on the public lands. It was thought that the timber supply was endless.

2. When thoughts about conservation and a knowledge about a limited amount of natural resources available began to take hold across America, the Forest Reserves were established, but the Company continued to illegally harvest timber from the restricted lands.

3. Finally, Company leadership began to see the wisdom in the plan that the Forest Reserves had tried to enforce. They finally realized that the Homestake Mining Company would be much more successful, in the long run, if they obeyed the rules designed to support responsible forest management in their region (Clow 1998).

These three phases were time periods in the mining and timber industries that were full of disagreements, anger, frustration and finally of compromise and understanding.

Chapters in this Exhibit


Case No. 1 was the name given to an 1899 timber sale on U.S. Government land in the Black Hills Forest Reserve in South Dakota.

Forest Reserves

In 1891, the U.S. Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, which allowed the President to set aside parts of government lands across the western United States as Forest Reserves.

Homestake Mining Company

In 1897, Gifford Pinchot, the Chief of the Division of Forestry under the Department of Agriculture, convinced Homestake to apply to the Secretary of the Interior to purchase timber from the United States.

US Forest Service & Forest Products Industry

The Department of the Interior was responsible for management of the Forest Reserves until 1905 when Congress, supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, transferred the Forest Reserves to the Department of Agriculture’s new U.S. Forest Service.

Harvesting Technology & Science

Since 1900, the methods how trees are cut and the how foresters and other natural resource professionals apply science to manage the forest have changed drastically.


The total forested area of the US has been relatively stable since 1910, although the human population has more than tripled since then.

Funding for this exhibit is made possible by

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