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Chris Sommer

RCL 137H
Forest Conservation in America

Take a deep breath. Now take another one. Forget about the here and now. Let the stress
slip away. Think back to the first time you experienced a forest. Remember the smells, the
sounds, the colors, and the carefreeness. Remember the feel of soft dirt and rustle of wind
through leaves. Remember the trees, so tall and old. Now I want you to think about what a world
without forests would be like. Where would we seek refuge from the hustle-bustle? How would
our children explore their imaginations? What would balance the chaos of our progressive
society? Thanks to forest conservation, these questions need not be answered nor this scenario
feared.
America is known for its variety of forests. From the immensity of the redwoods to the
biodiversity of the everglades to the rich heritage of the deciduous Appalachians, we are a
country that treasures the natural spaces both big and small. However, it was not always this way.
During a large period of time in American history, forests were not valued but ravaged for profit
and progression. In the late 1800s there was a change in how America viewed forests as the call
for clear-cutting shifted to a plea for conservation. This shift, driven by civic engagement, was
the result of several historical events and movements. Before we can understand how this shift
occurred and the significance it carries, we must first understand its context.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We all know when America was discovered and
how the settlements of Jamestown, Plymouth, and Salem started the era of American
colonization and expansion. Prior to the momentous voyage, discovery, and migration, America
was a sparsely populated land that boasted some of the most untamed wilderness man had yet to
see (Williams 22). According to Douglas MacCleery, board member of the Forest History
Society, about half of America was covered in forest prior to European settlement. Thats one

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H

billion acres of trees. Most of these forests (roughly 75%) were concentrated on the Eastern half
of the U.S. (MacCleery 1). In Douglas own words, This countrys forest was and is magnificent
and diverse. These forests provided for an incredible abundance of wildlife and served the
native people who had learned how to use forests to their survival advantage (MacCleery 3).
Americas forests thrived; unhindered by deforestation or the agenda of industry and agriculture
(MacCleery 3). This was the scene that welcomed the British colonizers. It wasnt long before
these newcomers realized the economic and agricultural potential of these forests and the land
they rested on.
Wood was and still is one of the most valuable and renewable resources on Earth
(Williams 69). According to Forest History Society, in the early days of colonization and
expansion, wood was harvested for building settlements and fences and for shipping back to
England. Being that Great Britain had long since depleted itself of wood, it now took full
advantage of Americas abundance to build up its Navy (MacCleery 6). According to Michael
Williams, professor at Oxford University, this commoditization of timber grew with population
and thus exponentially with time (54). Industry provided a demand for a good that was
seemingly limitless. All this being said, timber and its many uses is not what drove the majority
of clear cutting in America.
The history of American deforestation and clear-cutting is rooted mostly in agricultural
expansion (Williams 53). Starting with British settlement, the American population grew
exponentially with time (History.com). With this population growth came agricultural expansion
(MacCleery 20). More mouths to feed and bodies to clothe meant that Americans had to expand
farms to fill this need. Because of the density of forests, farmland had to be cleared before it
could be utilized. This clear-cutting for the purpose of agriculture resulted in the depletion of

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H

roughly 300 million acres of forest between 1600 and the late 1800s (MacCleery 14). Thats
nearly one third of the total American woodlands prior to colonization (MacCleery 14). How was
it that Americans felt so entitled to destroy on such an incredible scale? It was our perceived
God-given right that was to blame for such irresponsible behavior.
From the early days of colonial settlement to the late 19th century, Americans expanded.
Up until the American Revolution, it was necessary to expand as population grew (History.com).
This pre-war expansion was limited to the area of the 13 colonies and was largely due to
population growth (History.com). After the Revolution, however, America took on a new outlook
on the seemingly limitless land to the West. Coined by journalist John OSullivan in 1845,
Manifest Destiny is a term that is used to describe Americans perceived God-given right to
expansion (History Net). This destiny, defined by Americans moral obligation to expand and
civilize the wild that lay beyond the East, is what brought about deforestation at an incredible
rate (History Net)(MacCleery). Americans felt entitled by God to move into new territories and
destroy as they went. This destiny, coupled with Americas acquisition of the Treaty of Paris,
Louisiana Purchase, Texan Annexation, Mexican Cession, Oregon Treaty and several other
historical events is what drove Americans from their East-coast settlements toward the West and
the never-ending land that lay there (History Net). With expansion came clear-cutting and
deforestation at an incredible rate (MacCleery 14). This piece of history, Americans manifest
destiny, completes the puzzle of why we allowed deforestation to get so out of hand.
It is evident now exactly why American forests were under such a huge threat. Timber
was a profitable industry, land had to be cleared for agriculture, manifest destiny drove westward
expansion, and Americans felt entitled to destroy the forests for the sake of it all. This, coupled
with the fact that nobody knew why forests are extremely important, is what drove deforestation

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H

to the brink. Now that the context of this shift is clear, we can start to understand why the shift in
thought regarding forest conservation in America occurred.
The mid to late 1800s was a time filled with incredible movement in American history.
Events occurred within this time frame that came to define the era and change American history
for good. It was within these events and this time frame that people started to think differently
about the forests that were being decimated. There were several key pieces of history that
contributed the most to this shift. The first of these events is characterized by the cultural
movements of the time.
Romanticism was a movement embodied in the literature, art, and thought of the mid
1800s (Britannica). Beginning as a response to the enlightenment, Romanticism does away with
staunch rationalization, physical materialism, and the idea of order and replaces them with a
focus on the individual, the irrational, and the imagination (Britannica). According to the
Britannica Encyclopedia, Americas Romanticism period spanned from around 1820 to 1860 and
can be seen in the works of authors and naturalists like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville,
and John Muir. Along with an appeal to individualism and creativity, Romanticism emphasized
the beauty and power found in nature (Britannica). Through Romanticism, nature was
characterized as a place where one could find peace and insight and a place where one could test
oneself to determine worth (Britannica). In the words of John Muir, In every walk with nature
one receives far more than he seeks. Romanticisms appeal to the raw, the organic, and the
natural is what allowed people to see beauty in the forests that were being destroyed. Around the
same time period, an emergent physical limitation sparked a realization.
Americas domestic manifest destiny was coming to a close. In the mid 1800s, its borders
became defined with the conclusion of a series of land acquisitions (History Net). Americans

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H

infinite expansion suddenly became very finite. This caused a change in how Americans viewed
expansion. The God-given right that had allowed them to expand with little regard for the forests
they destroyed could not be called upon anymore. Americans were now forced to shift their view
from outward expansion to inward preservation. From sea to shining sea, Americans now had a
specified amount of land that they could either ruin for short-term gain or preserve for long-term
prosperity. Around the same time period that this realization was setting in, a wave of innovation
brought about efficiency for the better.
Characterized by the Agricultural Revolution, the late 1800s was a time of innovation in
farming practices in America (U.S. Department of State). This revolution involved a shift from
hand labor to machine farming and gave rise to efficiency. Harvesting inventions such as the
horse-drawn mechanical reaper and the combine harvester made it far easier to manage a larger
farm (U.S. Department of State). Farmers began using fertilizers to assist in the growing process.
Education on sustainable and efficient farming practices became widespread. It was because of
this innovation that farming shifted from subsistence to commercial. Before the Agricultural
Revolution, farmland grew proportionally with population (MacCleery 14). After, however,
farms could support more and more people without the need for expansion (MacCleery 14). This
effectively lessened the need to clear-cut forests in response to population growth. The final
piece of this paradigm shift puzzle came with an increase in scientific knowledge regarding the
importance of forests.
Forests affect the climate (Miller 19). They do so in more ways than one. During the mid
1800s, one of these effects became very apparent to scientists. According to Char Miller, editor
of American Forests, Trees have the ability to transfer and evaporate water at much faster rate
than if the water were standing still. They do so by drawing water up through their roots and into

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RCL 137H

their leaves that then allow the water to escape as vapor. Essentially, they are the vehicles for
water from the ground to the atmosphere. This byproduct of a trees metabolic processes allows a
forest to have an effect on a local climate (Miller 20). More water movement means an increase
in rainfall which in turn means better farming. In an 1874 publication of Pacific Rural Press,
Californias leading farm journal, it is stated that, the fact that forests have a beneficial effect on
the surrounding country, by producing an increase of rain, is indisputable. (Miller 19). This new
information, combined with preexisting knowledge of plants positive effects on soil erosion,
gave scientific backing to the move toward conservation.
In the late 1800s there was a shift in thought in America regarding forest conservation.
The Romanticism movement emphasized the natural and the progressive (Britannica). This
allowed Americans to see the beauty in the forests they were clear-cutting. The borders were set
and America could not expand any further (History Net). This made Americans think about
protecting what they had rather than destroying what isnt theirs. The agricultural revolution
provided innovation in farming practices (U.S. Department of State). This allowed the American
population to continue to expand without the need for clear cutting. Finally, new discoveries
were made which showed the beneficial qualities that forests provide (Miller 19).
The dominant practice of deforestation and clear cutting became the residual as the
emergent idea of conservation took hold. It was not simply any one of these events which caused
this paradigm shift, but rather a combination of all of them; physical, cultural, and scientific.
Suddenly it was the civic duty of every American to protect the trees and practice forest
conservation. The logic is simple. Do Americans have pride for their country? Yes. Is
deforestation and clear-cutting bad for America? Yes. Then it is the civic duty of all Americans to

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H

protect the forests that make America great. This call to civic engagement is what ultimately
caused the paradigm shift. Now, lets take a look at the evidence that this really did happen.
In the late 1800s, a paradigm shift occurred regarding forest conservation in America.
While the reasoning for the change in thought has become apparent, proof remains to be seen
that it occurred. For this we will look to statistics and the legislation of the time.
It is one thing to have a change in thought about an issue as huge as forest conservation.
It is an entirely different thing to act on that change in thought. The action taken in response to
Americas call to civic engagement can be seen to in the legislation of the late 1800s and early
1900s. As soon as America came to consensus about the new perspective on forest conservation,
government began pumping out laws and organizations bent on woodland protection (U.S. Forest
Service). Some of the more notable actions of congress include the creation of the American
Forest Association in 1875, the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, the beginning of the National
Forest System in 1891, and the creation of the Division of Forestry in 1901 (U.S. Forest Service).
These actions, though they are only a few examples, show how the paradigm shift took hold of
the nation. The effects that these actions had were fairly immediate and can be seen with some
statistical analysis.
It is fairly evident that there was a noticeable halt in deforestation during the late 1800s
and early 1900s. According to the Forest History Society, in 1600 America contained over one
billion acres of forestland. In the early 1900s that number had dropped to 751 million acres.
Thats close to a 30% decrease. The change in forestland between the early 1900s and today,
however, has stagnated and America now possesses the same amount of forestland today as it did
in 1920 (MacCleery 2). This halt in deforestation can be directly contributed to the paradigm

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H

shift in forest conservation in America. Now we can begin to analyze why any of this matters in
the first place.
Were all humans. I dont need to cite that fact. We breath oxygen and are dependent on a
healthy atmosphere and thereby climate. Forests clean the air, provide homes for millions of
species, regulate the local climate, prevent soil erosion, and so much more. So, who cares? We
do! The significance of this paradigm shifts is unrivaled. Thanks to Americas change in thought
in the late 1800s, we can still enjoy breathing the fresh air that forests provide and finding
wonder in the woodland areas of the great outdoors. Not only are we able to reap the benefits of
this shift, but our children will too! Now thats pretty significant.
Since the beginning of colonial settlements up until the late 1800s, Americans were
driven by an increasing population and a manifest destiny to clear-cut and deforest at an
incredible rate. In the late 19th century, however, there was a paradigm shift regarding forest
conservation in America. What was once a call for clear-cutting rapidly turned into a plea for
conservation as America began to understand the importance of forests and the benefits they
provide. This shift was caused by several historic events and resulted in the enacting of
legislation and the formation of organizations all aimed at forest conservation. So, take a deep
breath. Now take another one. Think back to the first time you experienced a forest and
understand the paradigm shift that occurred to protect it.

Chris Sommer

RCL 137H
Work Cited

Miller, Char., ed. American Forests: Nature, Culture, and Politics. Lawrence: University Press of
Kansas, 1997. Print.
Williams, Michael. Americans and Their Forests. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Print
Highlights in the History of Forest Conservation. US Department of Agriculture Forest Service,
1976. Web. 11/29/15.
MacCleery, Douglas W. American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery. Durham: Forest
History Society, 2011. Web. 11/29/15.
The 13 Colonies. History.com. A&E TV Networks. Web. 11/29/15.
"Westward Expansion." History Net. Web. 11/29/15.
"Romanticism." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 11/29/15.
"Revolution in Agriculture." United States History. U.S. Department of State. Web. 11/29/15.