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Identifying and Preserving
Historic Bridges

Bridges Within the National Forest System—A Historic Context

Graphic design element.

Creation of the National Forests (1891 to 1905)

The public lands currently managed as national forests are the result of ideas germinated in the mid- and late 19th century. During this period, the government sold and gave away millions of acres of land in an effort to promote settlement of the Western United States. As thousands of acres were cleared to make way for railroads and the settlers that followed, the idea that natural resources were not inexhaustible began to germinate. The seeds of this concept can be found in a book entitled Man and Nature, published in 1864. The author, George Perkins Marsh, spoke directly about the issue of exploiting and overusing America’s natural resources and extolled the philosophy of "responsible stewardship" of public lands (Dussol 1996). Marsh’s words later helped to spawn the "conservation movement," a period from 1890 to 1920 when numerous Congressional acts aimed at government management and protection of America’s natural resources were passed.

Transforming Marsh’s eloquent thoughts to action took years of hard work by such men as Franklin B. Hough and Bernard E. Fernow, both of whom worked for the Department of Agriculture within the newly established Division of Forestry (Steen 1976). Fernow’s efforts paid off when in 1891 Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, which gave the President power to set aside lands as Federally managed forest reserves. Exercising this newly acquired right, President Benjamin Harrison set about establishing Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve. This was the first of 15 new forest reserves, totaling more than 94 million acres, to be placed under the Department of the Interior. The way had been paved for Federal creation and management of public forests (Runte 1991; Steen 1976; Steen 1992).

In 1898, Bernard Fernow turned over leadership of the Division of Forestry to Gifford Pinchot. One of Pinchot’s first and most fervent issues was to gain control of forest reserves from the Department of the Interior’s General Land Office and turn them over to the Department of Agriculture. With the help of his friend President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot succeeded. On February 1, 1905, the Department of the Interior transferred 63 million acres of forest reserves to the Department of Agriculture, which would be managed by the Bureau of Forestry (formerly the Division of Forestry). Within a year, funding for this new organization doubled and its title changed yet again. From this time forward, the management of America’s forest reserves (soon to be renamed national forests) would rest with the USDA Forest Service (Runte 1991).

The Early Years (1905 to 1933)

Providing access to forest resources required a system of roads and bridges capable of taking man and machine to the peripheries of the forests and beyond. In addition, forest rangers needed trails to reach the interior depths of forests. Prior to 1905, engineers were pressed into service primarily as mapmakers and surveyors, using transit and chain to establish forest boundaries. An early pioneer in the engineering field was F.G. Plummer, who transferred to the Department of Agriculture from the U.S. Geological Survey in 1905. Plummer compiled statistical and map data and described for the first time conditions on many of the western forest reserves. In 1906, the Washington Office established a section called Reserve Engineering and charged it with "general supervision of all engineering work on reserves done by private interests or by the Forest Service" (USDA Forest Service 1990).

Development of an infrastructure within the national forests began in earnest following the devastating forest fires of 1910. Once the smoke cleared, the Forest Service used its engineering staff to formulate an ambitious construction program, which developed 320 miles of roads, 2,225 miles of trail, 1,888 miles of telephone line, 65 bridges, 181 miles of fire line, and 464 cabins to house backcountry staff (USDA Forest Service 1990) (figure 3).

Photo of an early bridge construction.
Figure 3—Early Bridge construction in 1914.

A major step in fire protection took place when Engineer and Regional Forester Major Evan Kelly produced a design for permanent fire lookouts to be used atop mountain peaks, commanding a clear view of the surrounding forest. These small, self-contained structures allowed fire lookout personnel to remain on post and monitor the surrounding forest 24 hours a day. With this modest infrastructure in place, the Forest Service could better manage and protect the ever-increasing acres of land under its control.

As larger amounts of timber acres were placed under Forest Service management, it often imposed hardships on counties whose boundaries contained those lands. To address this problem, Congress enacted the Twenty-Five Percent Fund in 1908, which allowed the Forest Service to share earnings from the public lands it managed. Commonly known as the 25% Law, it directed that 25 percent of all revenues from timber sales, grazing permits, recreation fees, and other sources, be returned to the counties to help fund schools and build roads. Just as importantly, the revenues shared by the Twenty-Five Percent Fund helped build strong relationships between local communities and the Forest Service (Dussol 1996; USDA Forest Service 1993).

Five years later, a similar law helped provide funding for road and trail construction within the boundaries of the national forests. Enacted on March 4, 1913, the law (16 U.S.C. 501) mandated that 10 percent of all moneys received from the national forest in each fiscal year be allocated for the construction and maintenance of roads and trails. As a result, road and trail mileage within the national forests increased substantially (USDA Forest Service 1993).

Throughout the period between 1905 and 1933, the total acreage of lands under management by the Forest Service continued to grow. In the West, lands acquired for the national forest system came primarily from the public domain, however, lands in the East were more likely to be held privately. The Weeks Act of 1911 expanded on ideas spelled out in the Forest Reserve Management Act of 1897, which emphasized the need to protect timbered watersheds. Through passage of the Weeks Act, the Forest Service could now acquire (purchase) lands (mostly located in Eastern States) containing the watersheds of navigable streams previously held in private ownership. As a result, the Forest Service purchased millions of acres of private land, much of it farmland suffering from overgrazing, nutrient depletion, overuse, and erosion. Under careful management, these damaged acres recuperated and now constitute the nearly 25 million acres of land managed by the Forest Service east of the 100th meridian (Dussol 1996; Steen 1976).

The Depression Years (1933 to 1942)

Following the busy years from 1908 through the early 1930’s, the Forest Service was slowed by the downward spiral of the lumber market, a trend that began several years earlier. As the Great Depression set in following the stock market crash of October 1929, the agency, like so much of the country, felt the pain of a crippled economy (Steen 1976).

In 1932, the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in a host of domestic programs designed to rebuild the nation’s shattered economy. One of Roosevelt’s most ambitious social programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, known simply as the CCC. Working hand in hand with the Forest Service and other Federal agencies, Roosevelt crafted a program that accomplished two important goals: it put thousands of young, unemployed men to work and completed hundreds of badly needed conservation projects for the Forest Service.

Typical CCC projects included reforestation (more than 2 billion trees were planted), timber stand improvements and inventories, surveys, and the development of forest maps. Technical projects included the construction of dams, diversions, roads, and bridges; erosion control; and the design and construction of campgrounds. In many cases, the men built the very camps and barracks they lived in, often providing their own unique touch. A camp near the Ninemile Ranger Station in Montana, for example, included a 20-foot-high wooden archway at the entrance that served as a portal to usher in enrollees, officers, and visitors.


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