Forest Reserve Act (1891)


A codification of land laws that created the first forest reserves, or national forests, in the United States.

The advent of national parks and growing concern over the alarming rate of timber resources consumption created a movement led by Bernhard E. Fernow, head of the Division of Forestry, that secured passage of the Forest Reserve Act in 1891. This act marked the beginning of the National Forest System. The act contained an inconspicuous provision that authorized the president at his discretion to withdraw public lands from private entry if “wholly or in part covered with timber.” This provision would protect the forest areas from sale or homesteading by designating them as forest reserves (they were later renamed national forests). President Benjamin Harrison set aside 13 million acres including the Yellowstone Timber Reserve in western Wyoming and the White River Plateau Timberland Reserve in Colorado.

The Forest Reserve Act, however, only made the reserves into closed areas; it did not provide a plan of operation. Thus in 1896 the secretary of the interior proposed that the president of the National Academy of Sciences create a commission to report on issues concerning the protection and use of the reserves. When the National Forest Commission subsequently urged the expansion of the forest reserve, President Grover Cleveland set aside an additional 20 million acres despite strong opposition from many westerners. Before the end of his presidency in March 1897, Cleveland had substantially increased the number of acres in national forest reserves. Moreover, Congress passed the Organic Act in 1897 to establish a system of administration for the forest reserves and to declare the reserves secure for “favorable conditions of waterflows and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessity of citizens of the United States.” Between 1897 and 1901, President William McKinley withdrew 7 million acres from the public domain. But his actions were dwarfed by President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent proponent of conservation, who withdrew 141 million acres of forest land, thus establishing the precedent of aggressive presidential leadership for conservation.

By 1974 the national forests, which included grazing areas, had grown to 184,276,463 acres. The Forestry Service in the Department of Agriculture administers both forests and grazing areas. As of 2002, more than 192 million acres of forests and grasslands are protected by the National Forest System.

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