Origins of the Forest Service
The Forest Service was established by an act of Congress in 1905, during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and at the height of the Progressive Era . In many ways, it was the quintessential Progressive agency. The Forest Service promoted science, efficiency, professionalism, and integrity.

From the start, the young men who ran the Forest Service were protégé’s of Gifford Pinchot. Many received their forestry training from Pinchot’s first charge, Henry Graves, in a graduate school endowed by the Pinchot family at Yale University, Gifford’s alma mater. They shared an esprit de corps inspired by the agency’s mission and by their charismatic leader. Many stayed with the Forest Service for decades, long after President Taft fired Pinchot in 1910. This “old guard” created a strong agency culture that allowed it to survive bureaucratic infighting, world wars, low pay, political upheavals, and natural disasters.

Gifford himself was greatly influenced by many strong-willed older men, including his father. James Pinchot convinced his son to become a forester, a profession which did not exist in the United States. To learn this science of growing and harvesting trees, Pinchot went to Europe in 1889.

Dietrich Brandis, a world-renowned German forester, became Gifford Pinchot’s mentor and teacher. Earlier, Brandis had established a Forest Service for the colonial government of British India. In hand-written and highly-detailed letters, Brandis laid out the structure and functions of a federal forestry organization. These provided the blueprint Pinchot used to create the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency itself was created from two federal entities. Starting in 1891, forested public domain lands were set aside by presidential proclamation in order to slow destructive logging and preserve watersheds. The Forest Reserves were controlled by the Department of the Interior’s General Land Office. Forestry expertise, however, resided in the Agriculture Department’s Division of Forestry, in the person of Bernhard Fernow, a German ex-patriot struggling to demonstrate forestry’s relevance.

In 1898, after shouldering Fernow aside, Pinchot became Chief of the Division of Forestry and its eleven employees. Over the next several years, he gradually increased its size and importance, turning the division into a bureau. Using his family’s wealth and political connections (including a close friendship with Theodore Roosevelt), Pinchot then maneuvered to get the forest reserves transferred to his forestry organization and renamed national forests. They remain there today, under the Forest Service’s management.

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