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A Short History of the Flathead National Forest

As settlers moved west across the vast American heartland, early conservationists realized that something had to be done to insure that a growing country would always have enough timber. They could not allow the western timberlands to be stripped like the eastern ones had been. Others noted that the western forests also protected the western watersheds, providing water for irrigation on the plains. Timber and water were two of the main reasons for the 1891 Forest Reserve Act authorizing the President to establish forest reserves in the US. That same year Benjamin Harrison created the Yellowstone Reserve as the first forest reserve. Six years later President Grover Cleveland established 13 new forest reserves in the west.  The huge Flathead Forest Reserve was one of the thirteen.

One of the most well-known conservationists of that era was Gifford Pinchot, who credited his experiences in northwest Montana with shaping his life and philosophy.  “This region holds some of the pleansantest memories of my life”, he wrote. Pinchot compared these vast tracts to “great sponges” that provided a steady flow of water for use by the farmers and ranchers of the valleys and plains. In fact, many of the early promoters of the forest reserves were western irrigators who certainly had a major stake in the idea.

As a member of the Forest Commission created by the National Academy of Sciences, Pinchot helped to develop and present a plan for forest management. The commission also recommended the creation of an agency to oversee the reserves, to establish fire prevention programs, and to regulate mining, grazing and timber harvesting on public lands. The result was the Government Land Office (GLO).

In the early years of forest management, staff members of the GLO were usually political appointees who were more familiar with backroom negotiations than backcountry trails. But they made progress.  By the time the Forest Service was established in 1905, the service was charged with the administration of more than 86 million acres, most of it in the mountain west and the Pacific Coast states.

At first, the Flathead Forest Reserve included more than a million acres (1,382,400 to be exact). The original boundaries crossed the continental divide into the high plains. It took several years for foresters to survey and review all the lands set aside as reserves. During this process, some lands were removed from the reserves because they were not considered suitable for sustainable timber production.  It was some of that “unsuitable” acreage that eventually became Glacier National Park.

Forest supervisors and the rangers they supervised certainly did not enter the profession for the paycheck.  Early supervisors made about $1000 per year and had to furnish their own horses, food and equipment. Forest supervisors were required to be familiar with all the conditions in their forests, in spite of the fact that many areas had not yet been properly surveyed. Field work was mostly fire-related. Smokey Bear was not yet on the scene, so they posted cloth notices detailing the Forest Fire Act of 1897 and educated people about the campfire safety. And, of course, they had to fuel the bureaucratic fire with weekly and monthly reports.

Pinchot recommended that the responsibility for the forests be moved from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture.  In 1898, he became the Chief of the Division of Forestry and in 1900 he became the head of the new Bureau of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot changed the name to the Forest Service in 1905 to emphasize that his department was performing a service to the country. And in 1907, he renamed the reserves, calling them national forests.

Not all conservationists adhered to Pinchot’s philosophy.  During his era, there was a major split in the conservation movement which can still be seen today.  Pinchot was a conservationist while others leaned to the preservationist philosophy.  He believed the forests were to be used to provide timber and to protect the water supply.  His emphasis was on a sustainable yield over a long period of time. He did not believe that private companies should have free rein in a forest, but he did believe that the object was to develop the most productive use of the land to serve the public good. With this philosophy, mining, grazing and timber harvesting were activities that served the public by providing necessary products.

Hiring well-trained people wasn’t easy. Most college curriculums did not include forestry. In 1905 there were only about 75 graduates from colleges offering professional forestry training.  Pinchot took the foresters who had been doing boundary surveys and made them into inspectors, charging them with the task of weeding out the worst employees and replacing them with new men. The result was a more professional (and enthusiastic) forest service.

Most of the early rangers came from the west and were comfortable in the outdoors.  Many had worked as cowboys, as miners or in the forests as loggers. Some were veterans of the Spanish-American War. Most of the time, the rangers carried out their duties on foot, backpacks laden with food and tools. . Those tools included their badge, a marking axe, a notebook, a pencil and a book of regulations.  They were charged with building trails and patrolling for fires.  They also had to be on the lookout for unlawful timber operations, mines and wilderness cabins. They enforced hunting regulations while making wild game an essential part of their diet.

The work was often lonely and never easy, but for many, it was the job of a lifetime.  Joe Eastland probably said it best when he talked about his days in the field.  “Well, in those days we worked out in all kinds of weather, winter and summer, long hours and short pay, and almost no equipment. But the country was fresh and unspoiled, and resting by the campfire was good enough after a hard day. We weren’t served any fancy store food – but what else could equal the blue grouse and dumplings we used to have so often, or a frying pan of fresh trout, or a venison steak broiled over the open coals. We lived pretty high at that.”


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