When early American colonists begun penetrating the thick interior of the North American frontier, they discovered that the vast, untouched forests extended much deeper than previously imagined. About 1 billion acres of heavily wooded land stretched from the Atlantic to well past the Mississippi River and promised settlers a wealth of useful raw timber.
Southern Longleaf Pine or “Southern Steel” covered a wide crescent from South Virginia to East Texas. Those more commercially minded individuals immediately recognized the significance of this untapped natural resource; used for shipbuilding, construction, and fuel, the trees of the American forests offered a seemingly limitless natural wealth for the taking.
This natural wealth, it turned out, wasn’t so limitless. As the population of the young country grew, so did the need for more land, fuel, and building materials. Huge swaths of forest were cleared for building and farm use. Logging operations and paper mills popped up across the country, from the Atlantic Southeast to the Pacific Northwest. Longleaf pine, in fact, dwindled to 3% of its original forest area. By the end of the Civil War, agricultural and logging operations had cleared about 30 percent of the original stands as the country devoured more and more raw timber.
Part of the problem lay in the creation of new legislation that lacked proper oversight. Although efforts such as the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 were meant to facilitate settlement by pioneers and their families, provided the public with 160 acre plots of land along the coast of Northern California, the logging industry took advantage of loopholes and accumulated huge tracts of timberland. One such business, the California Redwood Company, acquired tens of thousands of acres of public lands in 1882, which originally had been allotted to families for only $2.50 an acre. By the 1890s, these “cheap” redwood forests were no longer in the public domain. The country’s forests and its old-growth wood had been taken for granted.
Many worried that America would experience a “national famine of wood” by the 20th century and began demanding that the federal government begin strict conservation measures. At the end of the 19th century it began answering these calls; President Benjamin Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, the first such act that would inspire a series of conservation efforts by government to begin drawing boundaries around the old forests.
Increased efforts, combined with a decrease in the need for farmland, finally began to slow the consumption of old-growth wooded areas. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Geographic Society put considerable pressure on government to create a system of national parks aimed at slowing the degradation of old-growth forests. (By 1920, forest acreage stopped declining, and it has remained relatively stable ever since). Since then, efforts to plant new trees have replaced harvesting old-growth. Modern reforestation efforts include several varieties of pine (a wood used mostly for construction and papermaking). But where would industry turn to when many still demanded durable, high quality material that wouldn’t cause further deforestation?
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Leading image: Lumberjacks standing at the base of a Redwood tree. (Image courtesy of Bacon Babble)