The History of America's Forests
Douglas W. MacCleery

In our highly urbanized society, it's easy to overlook the critically important role forests played in the history and development of the nation.

The single most important event in the evolution of the American landscape as we know it today was the clearing of forests for agriculture. This clearing was essential to provide food for a rapidly growing nation.

In addition to clearing for agriculture, forests provided a wide variety of products and uses. The forests were habitat for wildlife which were the basis for a lucrative export market in furs as well as providing an important supplement to the diet of millions of Americans.

Wood was virtually the only fuel used in this country for most of its history. It warmed its citizens, produced its iron and drove its locomotives, steamboats and stationary engines. Lumber, timbers and other structure products were the primary material used in houses, barns, fences, bridges, even dams and locks. Such products were essential to the development of rural economics across the nation, as well as to industry, transportation and the building of cities.

American forests -- the products derived from them and the land they occupied -- were, in a very real sense, the economic foundation of the nation.

In the past few years, we have seen an increased interest in all aspects of the environment. Some of this interest has focused on concerns about the condition of the nation's forests and wildlife. An enlightened perspective on the current condition and trends of our forests and wildlife should be based on a general understanding of how they came to be what they are today.

Early European settlers to America were awed by the ocean of trees that greeted them. Forests blanketed much of the eastern third of the United States - extending from the Atlantic Coast to the prairies beyond the Mississippi. These vast forests were a sharp contrast to those of England and much of the rest of Europe, which had been severely depleted for fuel and building materials. The original American forest covered a little over one billion acres, or about half of the U.S. land area (including Alaska).

Today, about one-third of the nation is forested - about 737 million acres. This is about 70 percent of the area that was forested in 1600. About 310 million acres of forest have been converted to other uses since 1600 primarily to agricultural lands.

About three-quarters of the nation's original forest was in the eastern third of the country. West of the Mississippi, as rainfall diminished, forests and woodlands gave way to vast, treeless prairies and deserts. However, in mountainous areas where rainfall was sufficient and along the Pacific Coast, extensive and often magnificent forests developed.

One popular myth is that, prior to European contact, America was dominated by impenetrable, relatively uniform forests that cloaked the landscape in a long-term static balance with the environment. The reality was quite the contrary. Pre-settlement forests were exceedingly dynamic - shaped by a myriad of both natural and human-caused influences, disturbances and catastrophic events that had a profound effect on the age, plant species and wildlife of the forest environment. Pre-settlement forests in both the East and West were a diverse mosaic of forest stands whose age, tree species and wildlife varied widely and reflected the disturbance history of the area.

America's original forests were not pristine in the sense of being uninfluenced by humans. In both the East and West, forests were strongly influenced by Native Americans. In the eastern forests, most Native Americans lived in fixed villages. Domesticated crops accounted for more than half of their diet. It was a maize-based agriculture. Population densities were at least five times that of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the north and west. Hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared for fields. Tens of millions more were burned frequently to improve game habitat, facilitate travel, reduce insect pests, remove cover for potential enemies, enhance conditions for berries and to drive game. It was a shifting type of agriculture. Fields and villages were abandoned when their natural fertility ran out, new forests were cleared, and the abandoned lands quickly reverted back to forest.

European settlers spoke of the open park-like forest they encountered (a condition created by frequent burning) - and of the frequency of Indian burning.

The South was dominated by fire-created forests such as longleaf pine savannahs on the Coastal Plain and Piedmont. The hardwood forests of the Appalachian Mountains were also burned frequently by Native Americans. In Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley - the area between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies - was one vast grass prairies Native Americans burned the area annually.

On the western fringe of the forest, fire-dominated forest types such as oak and pine savannahs covered tens of millions of acres. These forests were heavily influenced by fires sweeping in off the western prairies. Fire-created prairies extended well into Ohio. Evidence of the dominant role fire played in these forests is demonstrated by the fact that when farms finally began to move out onto the prairies and cut off prairie fires, millions of acres of open oak savannahs and even tree-less prairies to the east of these farms became dense woodlands and forests within two decades.

As we see rising interest in protecting some of our forests in their "natural" condition, the complex natural and pre-settlement human history of U.S. forests raises equally complex technical and policy questions over whether to allow wildfire to assume its natural role in these areas as well as whether to seek to replicate pre-settlement human influences. We know it is virtually impossible to separate natural from human-caused influences in pre-settlement forests - North American forests have been occupied and influenced by humans from the time these forests advanced north before the recreating continental glaciers 8,000 years ago.

There can be no doubt the era of European settlement ushered in a vast increase in the impact of humans on the forest. The abundance of land and resources and the scarcity of labor affected everything we did, from the stewardship we applied to our resources (or the lack thereof) to the adoption of the institution of slavery.

The seemingly endless forest was viewed as a mixed blessing by early European colonists. On one hand, it provided an abundant and readily available source of fuel and building materials. It also yielded abundant game which remained an important source of food for decades. But the forest was also habitat for wolves, eastern panthers, and other predators that found colonial livestock easy prey and against which the colonists waged unrelenting war. It provided cover for sometimes hostile Indians. But most importantly, it occupied potential cropland that could be liberated only after intensive back-breaking labor using the primitive hand tools of the day.

For the first three centuries of our history, most Americans were farmers. In 1800, 95 percent of the people lived on the land. Except for a relatively few people engaged in plantation agriculture in the South, most were subsistence farmers. The pre-dominant view that emerged in the early 1600s, and that continued for almost 300 years, was that the forest was both inexhaustible and an obstacle to the much preferred agricultural use of the land.

After all, the forest was vast and cropland was scarce. The nation was much more concerned about feeding itself than it was over the spiritual value of the forest. Forest clearing became a win-win situation. It liberated cropland and pasture while providing fuel, fencing and material for building homes, barns, mills and factories. Indeed, often selling the fuelwood and potash that could be made from wood ashes would pay most of the cost of buying the land.

Energy was the dominant use of wood on a volume basis until well into the late 1800s. In the late 1700s, about two-thirds of the volume of wood harvested was for fuel. By 1850, wood still provided over 90 percent of the nation's energy BTUS.

By far the dominant use of fuelwood was for domestic heating and cooking. However, it was also the primary industrial fuel. Until after the Civil War, virtually all steamboats, railroads and stationary engines used wood fuel. The per capita consumption of fuelwood averaged over four cords per year for most of the 19th century, and the volume of fuelwood consumed rose 15 times between 1800 and 1900.

Even before 1800, fuelwood cutting was depleting the forests around population centers. In 1759, one visitor described the area around Philadelphia as "bereft of forest." In the late 1700s, fuelwood was hauled nearly 100 miles to several coastal towns, causing the price to rise beyond the reach of the poor.

Until the middle of the 19th century, next to energy, the most important use of wood on a volume basis was for fences. Fences were not ornamental. Because labor was scarce, herding livestock, as had been common in Europe, was generally not practiced. Instead, hogs, cattle and other livestock were turned untended into the woods. Fences were needed to keep them out of crops and gardens. In 1850, there were 3.2 million miles of wooden fences in the United States - enough to circle the earth over 120 times.

By the early 1800s, the United States was one of the largest nations in the world. What tied such a large group of disparate and often quarreling states together more than anything else was a transportation system. America's forest figured heavily in this task as well.

Rivers were the first highways. Wooden keelboats were followed by steamboats, which proliferated after 1830. Steamboats were made of wood, and, until the Civil War, used wood for fuel. In 1840, almost 900,000 cords of wood were sold for steamboat fuel, or a fifth of all fuelwood sold.

Railroads followed the steamboats. After 1850, the railroads began to expand rapidly to link the growing cities and to provide access to the cities from the agricultural and forestland upon which they depended. Although called the "iron road," railroads used far more wood than iron. Except for the engine and rails, railroads were made of wood. The cars were wood, the ties were wood, the fuel was wood, the bridges and trestles were wood and station houses, fences and telegraph poles were wood.

The mileage of U.S. railroads increased more than 35 times between 1850 and 1910. By the late 1800s, railroads accounted for between 20-25 percent of the total consumption of timber in the country.

By the turn of the century, a growing number of people were concerned about what was happening to much of the nation's woodlands and future supplies of timber, and from that concern a conservation movement and the healthy forests of today began.

Douglas W. MacCleery is assistant director of forest inventory and planning for the U. S. Forest Service and author of “American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery.”