Our National Forests

Stories from America's Most Important Public Lands


By Greg M. Peters

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“An inspiring reminder of the incredible resource that is our public lands.” —Brendan Leonard, author of The Camping Life and Surviving the Great Outdoors
Across 193 million acres of forests, mountains, deserts, watersheds, and grasslands, national forests provide a multitude of uses as diverse as America itself. They welcome 170 million visitors each year to hike, bike, paddle, ski, fish, and hunt. But “the people’s lands” offer more than just recreation. Lost habitats are recovered, timber is harvested, and endangered wildlife is protected as part of the Forest Service’s enduring mission.
In Our National Forests, Greg Peters gives an inside look at America’s most important public lands and the people committed to protecting them and ensuring access for all. From the Forest Service growing millions of seedlings in the West each year, to their efforts to save the hellbender salamander in Appalachia, the story spans the breadth of the country and its diverse ecology. And people are at the center, whether the dedicated Forest Service members or the everyday citizens who support and tend to the protected lands near their homes.
This complete look at America’s national forests—their triumphs, challenges, controversies, and vital programs—is a must-read for everyone interested in the history of America's most important public lands.


Even in the early days of national forest recreation, parking was a hassle, as seen in this 1935 photo on the Mount Baker National Forest in Washington State.

A mountain biker descends a trail through the red-rock topography of Utah’s Dixie National Forest.

The birthplace of modern forestry, Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests cover more than one million acres of western North Carolina.



The Story of Eastern National Forests

ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF MICHIGAN’S Upper Peninsula, adjacent to the Wisconsin state line, a forest of towering white pine and eastern hemlock, fragrant balsam fir, and sprawling sugar maple and paper birch trees rises tall and stately from a thick carpet of leaves and needles. Black bears, moose, and even timber wolves haunt the shores of more than thirty lakes that lie nestled in the thick woods. Bald eagles shriek from snags, loons sing their mournful melodies on crystal-clear waters, and otters scamper up and down rocky banks. It’s as wild a landscape as one can find in the continental states.

This ancient forest is part of the Sylvania Wilderness Area, a roughly 20,000-acre parcel of land managed by the Ottawa National Forest, which itself covers just under 1 million acres of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. To the casual observer exploring the Ottawa’s lakes, rivers, and forests, the trees of Sylvania might not look that different from any others within the Forest’s boundaries. But other stands are largely second- or even third-growth forests and barely 100 years old. The trees in Sylvania are much, much older, and that makes them rare in this part of the world.

The Sylvania Wilderness Area on the Ottawa National Forest is one of a few examples of old-growth forest left in the Great Lakes region.

Michigan’s vast forests once provided an almost incomprehensible amount of lumber to domestic and international markets. In 1869, Michigan alone produced 1.7 billion board feet of white pine, nearly 30 percent of the country’s entire production that year (board feet is a measurement of volume and equals a piece of lumber 12 × 12 × 1 inches). Ten years later, that output doubled to more than 3 billion board feet and roughly 50 percent of the nation’s production. But Michigan’s forests were not inexhaustible—in 1904, the state only produced 1 billion board feet, and by 1931, it produced a scant 67,000 board feet of lumber, an amount that barely registered in the national total.

Logs from Michigan’s once-vast forests stacked high and ready for hauling to the mill.

As private lumber interests ravaged Michigan’s forests, they pocketed profits and externalized costs, both social and ecological. Lumbermen took the best trees and left those that were too small to produce seeds, or, if they did reproduce, didn’t grow particularly well. Wildfires ripped through the cutover stands, sterilizing the soil and killing off any grasses and shrubs that remained after the sawyers had done their work. Lumber jobs disappeared along with the white pine stands. In some spots, homesteaders tried to farm amid the stumps, but farming methods used at the time further depleted the soil and farmers quickly abandoned their homesteads.

The forests of Michigan’s neighbor, Wisconsin, fared no better. That state’s booming timber industry first focused on softwood trees like pine, shipping them off to communities where mills and factories turned them into doors, windowsills, and furniture. Once the best trees were cut, lumbermen returned to harvest the smaller trees. Eventually, they turned to the state’s hardwood, and those trees fell and were shipped to furniture makers, cabinet factories, and tanneries. After the forests were cleared and the fires came through, homesteaders attempted to turn the depleted lands into farms, but like their neighbors in Michigan, they, too, quit their doomed efforts.

In New Hampshire and Maine, timber was one of the first resources that settlers exploited. The British Navy prized the tall straight pines that grew throughout the region for ship masts and felled the best of them. Then settlers cleared the thick pine and hardwood forests for their farms. These uses obviously impacted the forests, but small-scale, family farms could only clear so many trees each year, and even the mighty British Navy’s need for ship masts wasn’t infinite. Things changed in the late 1800s as industrial timber companies arrived and with them intensive harvesting methods. In short order, once-forested hills were stripped of their sylvan cover all over New England. And just like in Michigan and Wisconsin, wildfire followed, including an 84,000-acre blaze that roared through New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Once the forests were cleared, farmers attempted, and largely failed, to turn cutover lands into productive farms.

Farther south, rail lines crept ever deeper into the mountains of Appalachia. Railroads needed lumber and they facilitated logging and mining—together the three industries ravenously consumed the timber of central and southern Appalachia. In 1908, the Secretary of State issued a report noting that 86 percent of southern Appalachian acreage was either cleared of trees, in some stage of regrowth after having been recently cleared, or covered in young second-growth forests. That same report also noted that 50 percent of timberlands in the region were owned by large companies, primarily timber and mining companies. It also mentioned that “practically all of it, whether cut or not” had been burned.

In the coastal plains of the southeast, longleaf pines were the prize. This remarkably useful tree grew in vast stands from Maryland to Florida, providing habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife. But demand for turpentine, resin, and lumber nearly eliminated the stately longleaf from the continent—just 3 percent of the tree’s historical range is represented today in a few remaining stands that cling on in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Across the East and Midwest, the industrial depletion of forests followed similar patterns: first the best trees were cut, then any that remained. After the timber companies moved on to the next stand, fires baked the soil and killed the grasses and shrubs. Spring rains and snowmelt no longer percolated into the ground—instead water rushed downslope, inundating streams and creeks. Dirt, no longer held in place by forests, streamed from the denuded land, fouling rivers and killing aquatic life. Floods ravaged downstream communities and turned once-navigable rivers into impassable torrents. Disease soon followed and sickened the towns’ most vulnerable.

It can be hard to visualize just how ravaged our eastern forests once were. Much of this landscape is forested today, and the forests feel old. But many of them have only stood for a hundred years or so. In my native state of Maine, it’s not uncommon to see old rock walls cutting through a thick, shady forest, relics of farms long abandoned.

Today, many eastern and Midwestern areas like the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont are covered in thick forests.

The rare, old-growth trees in the Sylvania Wilderness Area, were, ironically, preserved by a rich lumberman. In 1895, as Michigan and Wisconsin’s forest industries were starting their long decline, Wisconsin timber baron A. D. Johnston purchased eighty acres of land just over the state border. Johnston wanted to cut the large pines that grew in this remote corner of Michigan, but after actually seeing the forest, he decided to preserve it. He brought his wealthy friends—other timber barons, auto industry executives, and iron magnates—to visit, and they bought neighboring properties, eventually forming the Sylvania Club. Lodges and cabins sprung up on the shores of the larger lakes in the area and the members hunted, fished, hiked, and entertained other affluent and connected friends, including Dwight Eisenhower, Lawrence Welk, and Bing Crosby. The very name of the club comes from the Latin word for woods, sylva. One can’t but wonder if the club’s founders, many of them beneficiaries of rampant industrial logging, saw the irony in the name they chose for their northwoods Shangri-La.

Loons are a common sight on the Sylvania Wilderness Area and throughout national forests around the country.

In 1966, the Forest Service purchased Sylvania from the owners and added it to the Ottawa National Forest. Recognizing the value such an old-growth forest offered for recreation and research, they removed the cabins and lodges. According to the small nonprofit group Friends of Sylvania, the forest there is one of two remaining tracts of old growth in the entire Great Lakes region.

That the agency could purchase Sylvania at all, and that there was an Ottawa National Forest to which it could add this incredible parcel, was no small thing.


When we think of public lands today, we think of national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management lands, and state or county lands that have specified boundaries. You’re either on public land or you’re on private land (and likely trespassing). While the management and purpose of these public lands may be different, most of them (especially the ones under federal management) have one thing in common: they were carved out of what was once called the “public domain.”

Following the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase, the horrific, bloody conquest of Native Americans, and other historical events, the United States found itself the “owner” of billions of acres of land—which it called the public domain. Much of this land was given to newly created states, sold off to speculators and industry, given to soldiers in lieu of pay, granted to homesteaders, and otherwise privatized. Abraham Lincoln, for example, gave the railroads huge swaths of the West in an effort to speed settlement. Over time, some of these lands became national forests, wildlife reserves, and national parks.

There are still public domain lands today, and most are managed by the BLM, though the Forest Service manages some as well. Should a modern-day prospector find gold, silver, copper, or other hard rock mineral deposits on such land, he or she could file a claim, work that claim for a period of time, and eventually come to own it.

Eventually, Congress provided frameworks for managing national parks, national forests, or wildlife refuges, but laws governing the use of private lands were scarce throughout much of US history. If owners wanted to clear-cut their land, there was nothing to prevent them from doing so. If a prospector wanted to reroute a stream to develop a mining claim, he simply rerouted the stream. Even today, only a few federal laws, like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the very recent Waters of the United States law, restrict what private landowners can do with their land. As long as those practices don’t violate local ordinances, jeopardize an endangered species, or foul a stream covered under the Clean Water Act or the Waters law, landowners can essentially do whatever they want with their property.

The authority of the federal government to create forest reserves (precursors to national forests) from the public domain was first codified in the General Revision Act of 1891. The bill, signed by President Benjamin Harrison, included the following one-sentence amendment: “The President of the United States may, from time to time, set apart and reserve, in any state or territory having public land bearing forests, in any part of the public lands, wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations.”

Harrison acted quickly after signing the act, designating more than 1.2 million acres of land around Yellowstone National Park as the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve (now part of the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests) in September of 1891. By the end of his term, he’d set aside more than 13 million acres of forest reserves in the West. But the act didn’t include any administrative or management framework for the reserves, and illegal timber harvests, illegal mining, rampant poaching, and other abuses continued.

It wasn’t until 1897 when Congress passed the Forest Service Organic Administration Act that a framework for administering and managing the federal forest reserves materialized. The primary goals of the Organic Act were to prevent precisely what was happening to private timberlands in the East and Midwest—the wholesale depletion of forests by mining and timber companies, the destruction of forests by wildfire, and, perhaps most importantly in the relatively arid West, the degradation of water that flowed from the high-elevation, forested watersheds to the communities and farmers that needed it downstream. The act’s language is plain: “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”

Here, for the first time, we see the connection between water and forests and, more specifically, between federally managed forest land and downstream water supplies. Gifford Pinchot reinforced the idea when he penned A Primer of Forestry in 1905, explaining, “A forest, large or small, may render its service in many ways. It may reach its highest usefulness by standing as a safeguard against floods, winds, snow slides, moving sands, or especially against the dearth of water in the streams.”

Historian Char Miller, in an article about Pinchot published by the Yale School of the Environment (formerly the Yale Forest School, which Pinchot founded in 1900), notes that “in the West there was an articulation from the bottom up and from the top down that landscapes like the mountain ranges of the West were essentially valuable more for water than for timber. Timber was great, but water was absolutely essential, and in the arid parts of the West this was even more important.”

In 1905, the Forest Service was born, with Pinchot as its first chief. But the concept of federally managed forests was not universally embraced by many of the era’s politicians, especially those from western states where the reserves were located. They felt that the best use of these public domain lands would be realized by private interests. Logging and mining would create jobs and prosperity, homesteaders would build farms and towns, and the United States would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They viewed the lands as practically inexhaustible and argued that the federal government had no role to play in managing them. So what if one forest was stripped of its trees? Another lay just over the horizon.

Even today, fringe elements in the West reject the federal government’s right to manage (or as they say own) land at all. Cliven Bundy, a rancher in Nevada who refuses to recognize that the federal government can charge him (as it does every rancher who uses public lands) for grazing his cattle on BLM land, is the best-known leader of these radical groups. He owes the government more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and led an armed standoff with BLM officials in 2014 when they attempted to remove his cattle from public land. Unfortunately, the government prosecutors botched the case against Bundy, and he has yet to be held accountable for his actions. If anything, he and his acolytes have been emboldened. His son, Ammon Bundy, organized an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, in 2016, protesting the arrest of Oregon ranchers who intentionally set fire to BLM lands (and who, it should be noted, declined his “help”).

Of course, these voices effectively lost the battle—today we have, and cherish, a vast array of lands managed by the federal government—but they tried their best to limit the government’s ability to set aside land from the public domain. In 1907, just two years after the Forest Service was established, Oregon senator Charles Fulton added an amendment to the annual agricultural appropriations bill that prohibited the president from establishing new forest reserves in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming. The amendment also revoked the president’s authority to unilaterally create forest reserves anywhere, instead resting that power solely with Congress, and it changed the name of these tracts of land from forest reserves to national forests (a change that Pinchot supported as it helped clarify that the forests were to be actively managed and used as opposed to just reserved). President Roosevelt was effectively forced to sign the bill, but in a bit of political gamesmanship, he and Pinchot worked furiously in the days leading up to the bill’s signing to establish sixteen million acres of forest reserves in the very states the Fulton Amendment declared off limits.

Florida’s Ocala National Forest was one of the first forests established east of the Mississippi River.

By 1910, the National Forest System had grown to more than 162 million acres, 115 million of which were established by Roosevelt. But national forests were still largely a western phenomenon. Roosevelt did designate national forests in the East, carving out of the public domain Florida’s Ocala National Forest in 1908 and Minnesota’s Superior National Forest in 1909, and what would become the Chippewa National Forest in 1902 from lands originally ceded to the Ojibwe people—but even with these additions, the vast majority of the federal forest acreage was located in the West. Eventually, of course, the East and Midwest would boast dozens of national forests. Today, they cover significant parts of the Appalachian Mountains from New Hampshire’s wind-scoured White Mountains to the dark hollows of Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, and they include tracts farther west, from Michigan’s lake-studded forests to the dry pinelands of eastern Texas. Their inclusion in the National Forest System hinged on the role they played in regulating water, an argument successfully leveraged by a politician from Massachusetts named John Weeks.


Weeks was born in New Hampshire but moved to Massachusetts, where he founded a successful Boston-based financial firm in 1888. Like many wealthy businessmen, Weeks moved into politics and was elected to Congress in 1905 as a Republican. He had grown up near the White Mountains in New Hampshire and owned a summer home there. During his vacations, he witnessed the damage that unrestrained logging had caused in New Hampshire and was inspired to seek solutions. His chance came in 1907 when he was appointed to the House Committee on Agriculture. His primary focus on the committee was to craft a bill that could gain support from his fellow conservatives and establish eastern forests.

The concept of establishing national forests in the East wasn’t new, but it hadn’t gained much support in Congress. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, a growing environmental movement in the United States had decried the wanton waste and destruction of natural resources that defined the times. The creation of western forest reserves was, in part, an effort to prevent the destruction so evident in the East and Midwest from despoiling the West.

Advocates of federal management pointed to Michigan’s ravaged forests, New Hampshire’s denuded mountains, and the fouled rivers of Appalachia as cautionary tales of what might befall western landscapes without federal management. With the Organic Act, the early environmental movement won a decisive victory—many of the West’s vast forests would be managed (for better or worse) by the federal government in order to prevent clear-cutting and destructive fires, and to provide water for downstream communities. But the East’s forests were private and subject to whatever uses their owners determined.

That didn’t mean eastern forests were simply abandoned to the worst impulses of early American industry. Groups like the Appalachian National Park Association and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests had been lobbying Congress to create federally managed lands in the East since the late 1890s. But they faced an uphill battle. Western politicians who supported conservation efforts feared losing funding to the new (as yet unestablished) eastern forests. Others felt that national forests should have never been established to begin with. Yet others felt that states should manage lands as they saw fit and federal management was unnecessary (another view still held in corners of the West today). According to the Forest History Society, more than forty bills to create eastern national forests were introduced between 1901 and 1911. None passed.

John Weeks was the architect of the act that paved the way for the federal government to purchase lands in the eastern United States for inclusion in the National Forest System.

One of the biggest barriers was the simple fact that the US government had no constitutional authority to purchase private lands and add them to the federal estate. The West’s forests were carved out of the public domain, but public domain lands in the East and Midwest were scant. Despite this, the movement made incremental progress throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1901, the Appalachian National Park Association, which was founded in 1899 in Asheville, North Carolina, convinced the North Carolina state government to allow the federal government to acquire lands for the establishment of forest reserves should it want to. South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia soon followed suit.

The cause of eastern forests was also taken up by groups like women’s gardening clubs and the American Forestry Association, which elevated the issue to a national audience through its monthly magazine. Eventually manufacturing associations that relied on lumber joined the cause, believing federal management of eastern forests would stabilize the volatile timber market.

Nature contributed to the cause in her own destructive way when an early spring storm sent floodwaters ripping down the Monongahela River in West Virginia in March 1907. The surging waters inundated Pittsburg and wrought more than $100 million in damages. The flooding was blamed squarely on deforestation.

The following year, Weeks introduced the first version of his bill, which made little headway in Congress. In July, he amended it, adding language that stipulated the purchased lands would be managed as forest reserves for the purpose of protecting navigable waterways. It was a critical change.

If the Organic Act of 1897 enshrined water provision as a key component of western forest reserves, the Weeks Act of 1911 elevated it to the primary purpose for the creation of eastern forests. Weeks’s logic was clever if a bit convoluted, and it centered on the role water played in interstate commerce. The Constitution didn’t give the federal government permission to purchase private lands, but the Commerce Clause gave it authority to regulate interstate trade. Trade at the time was facilitated by rivers, still major transportation corridors in the early twentieth century. In short, the argument was this: river travel facilitated interstate commerce; river travel was threatened by flooding; flooding was caused by deforestation; deforestation was caused by private industry operating without oversight on private lands; thus, protecting the forested watersheds of navigable rivers through federal management would prevent (or reduce) flooding, and that would ensure interstate commerce could continue unabated.

Deforestation caused a flood in 1907 that inundated Pittsburg.

Weeks, the former banker, had found the legal footing that would allow the federal government to purchase eastern lands for forest reserves. It was a massive victory for the American conservation movement and its legacy is felt by every person who hikes the White Mountain’s Presidential Range, summits North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, or paddles the tannin-stained lakes of the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan. Even more importantly, the Weeks Act is why tens of millions of urban residents in the East and Midwest can turn on their tap and get clean, fresh water at minimal cost.

The Weeks Act detailed how the government would evaluate and purchase private lands. A National Forest Reservation Commission was established and held its first meeting just days after President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act. The commission appointed purchase agents who would identify potential land, called a purchase unit, and submit it to the commission. Once the Geological Survey ensured the unit would, in fact, protect a navigable waterway, and the commission approved it, the government offered a fair-market price to willing sellers.

Other provisions in the act improved the cooperation between the Forest Service and states, largely focused on fire prevention. It also provided funding to states with forest protection programs, so they could better manage those lands. And it launched a program of restoration and rehabilitation that transformed the cutover, degraded lands of the East into the verdant, sprawling forests that exist today.

The first national forest established under the Weeks Act was the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. It has a fascinating history that charted the course for how most of the eastern national forests were eventually restored to ecological health.

In the 1880s, Gilded-Age capitalist George Vanderbilt began purchasing vast swaths of cutover forests in North Carolina to add to his opulent Biltmore Estate. The lands were in rough shape, and in 1892, Vanderbilt hired a young Gifford Pinchot to develop and implement the first real forest plan in the United States.

After he graduated from Yale in 1889, Pinchot determined that he would become a professional forester, despite the fact that such a profession didn’t really exist in the United States at the time. Lacking both lands to manage and real-world training in forest management, Pinchot travelled to Europe to study forestry in France, Germany, and Switzerland. When he returned to the United States in 1890, he was hired by Phelps, Dodge and Company to analyze the company’s timber holdings in Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, Pinchot was invited to join Bernhard Fernow, the head of the USDA’s Division of Forestry (a precursor to the Forest Service), on a mission to review forest lands in the Southeast. Fernow, a German immigrant trained in European forestry practices, was another leading figure in the establishment of the Forest Service.


  • “Provides new and fascinating information on the country’s large expanse of public lands.” —Travel Writers Magazine

    “Peters urges readers to act as citizen-agents to fight on behalf of these lands.” Landscape Architecture

    “Greg brings decades of lived and professional experience to bear in this outstanding narrative. With both historic and personal references in the sweeping arch of thoughtful natural resource management, this remarkable book offers a practical guide to encourage conscientious environmental stewardship for all to follow.” —James Edward Mills, author and National Geographic Explorer

    “This beautifully illustrated and gracefully written book demonstrates how vital these complex landscapes and their fraught place in US environmental culture are.” —Char Miller, Pomona College, author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands

    “In Greg Peters’s hands, the subject of the United States National Forests comes alive as a history of America, at turns humbling and tragic, but ultimately an inspiring reminder of the incredible resource that is our public lands.” —Brendan Leonard, author of The Camping Life and Surviving the Great Outdoors


On Sale
Nov 9, 2021
Page Count
280 pages
Timber Press

Greg M. Peters

Greg M. Peters

About the Author

Greg M. Peters is a freelance writer based in Missoula, Montana. Before writing full time as a freelancer, Greg was the director of communications at the National Forest Foundation where, among many other things, he edited the NFF’s magazine Your National Forests. His writing has appeared in National Parks magazine, High Country News, Down East magazine, Big Sky Journal, Outside Bozeman, and Adventure-Journal

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