The Industry of Forestry

Find out how the Forest Service has been greatly influenced by the timber industry.

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Profit: The Ends Of (and Means to) US Forestry

A Letter to Foresters

An exchange in the Society of American Forester’s (SAF) house publication in 1930 provides a useful entry point. A letter signed by seven SAF foresters, among them Gifford Pinchot, exhorted the profession to support a program of federal regulation of forests and expanded public ownership of forestlands. In the authors’ eyes, only such a program would be sufficient to halt “forest devastation” in the United States.  The journal simultaneously published four dissenting responses to the letter, each of which lays out in no uncertain terms the boundaries and purposes of US forest policy. Rufus C. Hall wrote: “There is enough to do for the cause of forestry . . . without wasting enthusiasm and energy in chasing the rainbow of federal regulation. It is well to face the fact that forestry will be effectively practiced by private owners only when and where forestry will pay them a reasonable return.” Royal S. Kellogg, director of the American Pulp and Paper Association (APPA) and a leading figure in the ranks of organized timber capital, derided the letter as propaganda unfit for discussion within a scientific organization such as the SAF. He proclaimed, “There can be no one solution and no one policy” for “the forest problem.” Rather, “There is and can be progress through study, research, and invention with the results intelligently applied in the light of ascertained economic conditions.”  F. W. Reed, a onetime USFS district ranger who later headed the Forestry Department of the National Lumber Manufacturers Association (NLMA, an umbrella organization of regional lumbermen’s trade associations and the heart of timber capital’s political activity; it later became the National Forest Products Association), argued that “the forester inevitably must look upon forestry as a business proposition, to be practiced with a due regard for financial profit, rather than a public cause to be striven for with something akin to a religious zeal.”

The final letter, by C. Stowell Smith, who also left the USFS to work as a private forester, spun an agricultural analogy. “When conditions change in farming,” Smith argued, “it simply means that the farmer must buckle down and revise his methods to suit what markets are available. If he cannot produce a profit on corn, maybe he can on rabbits . . . I have absolute faith in the forestry profession and its ability to take full advantage of its opportunities. But it, like the farmer, cannot afford to grow corn where rabbits are the profitable product.” While the analogy raises some vexing questions (what are foresters to grow if not trees?), the intended moral is clear: forest policy must serve the profitable production of trees for harvest. Of all the themes that emerged from the twentieth-century debates on forest policy, this one springs out the most clearly. Unpublished responses to the letter, some from foresters within the Forest Service to whom the letter was circulated prior to publication, also reflect how deeply the connection between forestry (and, with it, conservation more broadly) and profit ran in the minds of foresters. To take one example, a letter entitled “A Voice from the Wilderness” (ironic, since it parrots the line of many public foresters and the entire timber industry) argues that “forest construction will take place under dynamic, sane, thorough leadership of foresters who understand business, finance, and economics as well as silviculture and are able to bring profit from the work . . . It is not the duty of the foresters to stop forest devastation. It is our professional privilege to make forest construction profitable.”

Indeed, given the tone of the responses to the letter, one would think its authors were hostile to the idea that forestry should be a paying proposition. Some of them, notably Robert Marshall and Raphael Zon, likely did not think that profit should be the driving force behind forest management. However, among those the letter’s critics were scolding was the progenitor of the idea that forestry must pay: Gifford Pinchot. While Pinchot became a tireless battler for public regulation and ownership of the nation’s forestlands later in life, his shift away from optimism regarding the prospects of sustainable private forestry occurred only after he left the Forest Service. During his tenure as chief of the USFS, Pinchot was determined to adapt what he had learned about European forestry to the political economy of the United States. He argued forcibly that forestry in the United States would never take hold unless it could fit within the confines of an accumulative regime. Timber owners viewed European forestry as uselessly theoretical and unworkable within the different US market and political contexts. The Forest Service thus took it upon itself to make forestry “practical,” which is to say profitable. The struggle to make forestry – as opposed to “cut- and-run” timber harvesting – profitable, and thus attractive to private lumber- men, was the core mission of the fledgling Bureau of Forestry and its later incarnation as the United States Forest Service under Pinchot. His successors as chief of the USFS continued his efforts.

Will It Pay?

Pinchot had laid out his goals for US forestry even prior to taking the helm of the Division of Forestry. Employed at age twenty-six as manager of the forests on George W. Vanderbilt’s massive Biltmore estate, Pinchot wrote in Garden and Forestry that his work there “should do much to remove forestry from the anomalous and often illogical position into which the mistaken zeal of some of its friends have forced it, and to ground its roots in the solid Earth of business common sense . . . [My work] asserts a proposition which must ultimately lie at the base of forest preservation in this country: namely, that it is not necessary to destroy a forest to make it pay.”

Once Pinchot was ensconced in the offices of the Division of Forestry, he wasted little time before attempting to convince private landowners of the profitability of “conservative logging.” In the early years, most of the agency’s time and money were dedicated to servicing private lumbermen’s requests for working forestry plans. Circular 21, issued by the division only three months after Pinchot took office, offered the agency’s expertise to private operators who wanted to implement forestry on their land. For small owners, the Division of Forestry paid all costs. For large ones, the division paid its agents’ salaries, and the owner paid their expenses. J. Girvin Peters, a forest assistant with the division who assessed the program in 1904, described the agency’s terms of cooperation with owners as “extremely generous.” The idea behind the circular, according to Pinchot, was to “get down to the brass tacks of spreading the gospel of practical Forestry by creating practical examples in the woods.” In assessing the impact of Circular 21, which private timber owners both large and small took up to such an extent that it strained the capacity of the tiny agency, Pinchot claimed (somewhat grandiosely): “It wasn’t gilt-edged German Forestry by any means . . . But it did pay, it did stop forest devastation, and it did provide for a second crop.”

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