Jan 0000

Before European colonization, public lands were Native American ancestral lands

North American Tribal lands map

“All or part of every national forest and grassland is carved out of the ancestral lands of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples. Indigenous communities across the country still maintain strong historical and spiritual connections to the land, connections that have not been extinguished despite changes in land ownership” – Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon, 2018.

Between 1776 and 1887, the United States Government seized Native American lands through treaties, laws, and executive orders. Explore these land cessions through the Forest Service Tribal Connections Viewer or through eHistory’s Invasion of America, a project of the University of Georgia.


May 1785

New U.S. Government establishes a survey system for public domain lands

Jack County Map

The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the “Rectangular Survey System” and a system for settlers to purchase farmland in the western states. The U.S. Government used land sales in part to raise money to pay off debts from the Revolutionary War.

May 1862

Department of Agriculture is established (The Forest Service becomes an agency under USDA in 1905)


In the mid-1800s, about half the country’s population worked in agriculture, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to establish “the People’s Department”—the U.S. Department of Agriculture—which became a cabinet agency in 1889. (Photo: Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Jan 1864

George Perkins Marsh writes Man and Nature, launching a conversation about conservation in America

GP MarshGeorge Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action details how human impact on the environment can lead to collapses in civilization and helped launch the idea of conservation in America.

Naturalists, writers, photographers, and artists of this era including: Enos Mills, Isabella Bird, W. H. Jackson, and Charles Russell also helped shape the conscience of Americans and pave the way for a new view of conservation.

Apr 1872

An estimated one million trees are planted on the Nation’s first Arbor Day

The first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska City, NE. Proposed by J. Sterling Morton, this new tree-planting holiday offered prizes to counties and individuals for properly planting the largest number of trees on that day. An estimated one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.

Mar 1873

Congress expands the Homestead Act of 1862 through the Timber Culture Act, which granted individuals 160 acres of public land at no cost if they made improvements to the land, such as planting and growing trees.

Congress expands the Homestead Act of 1862 through the Timber Culture Act, which granted individuals 160 acres of public land at no cost if they made improvements to the land, such as planting and growing trees.

The goal of the Timber Culture Act was to increase the number of trees in the West but rampant fraud led to its repeal in 1881. Debate over this and similar acts led to the Forest Reserve Act in 1891.

Aug 1873

Dr. Franklin B. Hough, physician and naturalist, expands on George Perkins Marsh’s arguments for sustainable use of natural resources

Dr. Franklin B. Hough presents “On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests” to the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Portland, ME. The AAAS immediately appoints a committee to lobby Congress and the President for federal forest management.

Download On The Duty of Government

Aug 1876

Franklin Hough hired as the first federal expert on forestry in the Office of Special Agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Franklin Hough hired as the first federal expert on forestry in the Office of Special Agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Congress creates the office of Special Agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study general forest conditions in the United States, and Dr. Hough is hired as the first federal forestry expert.  Hough produced a series of comprehensive reports on forestry in the United States that, according to the Forest History Society, laid the foundation for conversations on forestry through the Industrial Revolution.  In 1881, the Office of the Special Agent expanded into the Division of Forestry.

Jan 1881

The Office of Special Agent is expanded into a new Division of Forestry

Initially, the purpose of the Division was information on general forest conditions.

Mar 1886

Bernhard Fernow, third Chief of the Division of Forestry, begins to reorganize with a goal to establish a national forest system.

Bernard Fenrow

Bernhard Fernow is appointed as the third Chief of the Division of Forestry and begins to reorganize the division with a goal to establish a national forest system and introduce scientific forest management. Some call Fernow the “father of professional forestry in the United States.”

Bernhard Fernow also promoted scientific forest management. Some call Fernow the “father of professional forestry in the United States.” 

Read more about Bernhard Fermow at the Forest History Society.

Mar 1891

Forest Reserve Act allows the President of the United States to establish forest reserves under the General Land Office in the Department of the Interior

Forest Service California

The President of the United States may, from time to time, set apart and reserve, in any state or territory having public land bearing forests, in any part of the public lands, wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations; and the President shall, by public proclamation, declare the establishment of such reservations and the limits thereof.

Among the first forest reserves were: • Yellowstone Park • Pecos River • White River • Plum Creek • Pikes Peak • San Gabriel • Battlement Mesa • Bull Run • South Platte • Afognak

Jun 1897

Organic Administration Act specifies the purpose, protection, and management of forest reserves

James Wilson

The Organic Administration Act specifies the purpose for which forest reserves can be established and provides for their protection and management. Its purposes include to protect and improve the forests, to provide a permanent supply of timber, and to ensure conditions for continuous water flow. James Wilson was the Secretary of Agriculture in 1897.

Mar 1898

Gifford Pinchot becomes Chief of the Division of Forestry

Gifford Pinchot studied forestry in France before returning to manage George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate forests for three years. As a member of the National Forest Commission, he traveled the western United States, helping to identify lands for forest reserves. With a philosophy of the “greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time,” he and Teddy Roosevelt join to expand forest reserves, and later create the Forest Service.

Feb 1905

Forest Service established under the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Forest Service

The Forest Service is created when management of forest reserves transfers from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, with Gifford Pinchot as the first Chief of the Forest Service. This move also marks the end of rangers as political appointees. Under USDA, foresters are selected through comprehensive field and written civil service examinations, creating a well-qualified workforce. Regulations and instructions for the public and Forest Officers were documented in the 1905 “Use Book.” 

In 1905, there were 60 forest reserves, totaling 56 million acres. By 1910, there were 150 national forests encompassing 172 million acres.

Aug 1908

First Forest Experimental Station established at Fort Valley, Arizona

Fort Valley

Fort Valley Experimental Station was established after two lumbermen from Flagstaff, Arizona, asked Gifford Pinchot to find out why ponderosa pine wasn’t regenerating after logging. Early research at this site covered natural and artificial regeneration, stand improvement, sample plots, and climate.

Dec 1908

Division of State and Private Forestry created

Forest Service Chequamegon

The Division of State and Private Forestry is created, and payments to states based on forest receipts from timber and grazing begin in 1910. Cooperation between the Forest Service and states also expands as fires flare up across the western states.

Jun 1910

Forest Products Lab established

Forest Products Lab

Timber companies left nearly 25% of every tree they cut on the forest floor because it had no commercial value. This caused fires to become more intense and dangerous. The Forest Service created the Forest Products Laboratory to develop new use for waste wood.

Mar 1911

Weeks Act expands Government land purchasing in the Eastern United States

White Mountain

The Weeks Act gives government the right to purchase private land to protect river and watershed headwaters in the eastern United States, and new authority to work with and support state forestry efforts. The Weeks Act also gives support to joint firefighting efforts. This led to the creation of 52 national forests in 26 eastern states, and the addition of 19.7 million acres on national forests and grasslands across 41 states and Puerto Rico.

Jun 1915

Forest Service Research Branch established

Reforested signage

A full Forest Service research program is authorized through the McSweeney—McNary Forest Research Act in 1928 (repealed and replaced by the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research Act in 1978).

Apr 1933

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) puts young men to work on public lands across the country

Ruby CCC 1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt creates the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to work on public land projects in response to the Great Depression. The first CCC camp is Camp Roosevelt on the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. More than 3 million men enroll in one of 2,650 camps over the 9-year length of the program. 

Jul 1937

Bankhead—Jones Tenant Act expands Government land purchasing after severe droughts in the 1930s

Buffalo Gap

July 1937

The Bankhead—Jones Tenant Act promotes ownership of family-sized farms through loan programs, funding for farm equipment and land rehabilitations, and federal acquisition of “submarginal” lands. Twenty-five percent of net revenues are designated to be returned to the counties. 

Mar 1944

Sustained Yield Forest Management Act authorizes cooperative, sustained-yield forestry units on Agriculture and Interior Department lands.

Shelton Washington

The Sustained Yield Forest Management Act authorized the creation of sustained-yield timber units, cooperative agreements between national forests and local mills. The idea was to stabilize local communities, but dissatisfaction grew among mills and communities not included in the agreements.

Jun 1960

Multiple Use—Sustained Yield Act of 1960 sets new priorities for the Agency with regard to timber, wildlife, range, water, and outdoor recreation.


The Multiple Use—Sustained Yield Act of 1960 was passed in response to concerns that the Forest Service was too focused on timber production. It was the first bill to address the five primary uses of national forests equally.

Jun 1960

National Grasslands established

Thunder Basin

More than 3.8 million acres are designated as 19 national grasslands, to be managed for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife, and fish.

Aug 1964

Job Corps created through the Economic Opportunity Act to employ youth on National Parks and National Forests, while building educational and job skills

Forest Service

Job Corps launches as a training program that has since served generations of young adults through intensive programs of education, vocational training, work experience, and counseling. Job Corps has prepared millions of young people for meaningful work and is now America’s leading residential employment training program.

Sep 1964

Wilderness Act establishes the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Maroon Bells

The Wilderness Act establishes the National Wilderness Preservation System. “A Wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. “

Jan 1970

National Environmental Policy Act establishes a national policy for environmental protection


The National Environmental Policy Act requires all federal agencies to document the effects of management activities through environmental assessments and environmental impact statements.

Aug 1971

Youth Conservation Corps established as a summer employment program

Youth Conservation Corps

The Youth Conservation Corps is established as a summer employment program for young people age 15 through 18, from all segments of society, to work, learn, and earn together by doing projects on public land. A Young Adult Conservation Corps program also exists from 1977-1982.

May 1972

Volunteers in the National Forest Act formalizes volunteer program in the Forest Service

The Volunteers in the National Forests (VIF) program is authorized by the Volunteers in the National Forests Act of 1972, as amended (Public Law 92-300). In 2019, more than 100,000 volunteers and service participants contributed 4.7 million hours of work, worth $119 million, to the Forest Service. 

Jan 1974

New forest management and planning laws redefines the way the Forest Service operates


In the late 1970s, a collection of laws redefines the way the Forest Service works, including:

• Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (1974)
• National Forest Management Act (1976)
• Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research Act (1978)
• Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act (1978)

These laws authorize long-range planning for national forests, setting new standards and guidelines for and establishing new requirements for periodic reporting on vegetation management, timber harvesting and scheduling, riparian habitat protection, soil and water conservation, and maintenance of plant and animal species diversity on national forest lands.

The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act establishes a coordinated and cooperative federal, state, and local forest stewardship program for management of non-federal lands, and authorizes financial assistance for state and private forest land owners.

Jun 1992

Forest Service shifts to “Ecosystem Management,” emphasizing interdependence and scale of resource management

Four Forest Restoration

The Forest Service’s “New Perspectives” initiative highlights the need to demonstrate scientific basis for ecosystem management, to conduct more multiple-use management, and to incorporate biodiversity conservation into planning and management. Adoption of the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units leads to ecosystem management.

Oct 1993

Public Lands Corps Act expands youth and veteran employment programs in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior

Public Lands

Public Lands Corps Act amends the Youth Conservation Corps Act of 1970, keeping the Youth Conservation Corps, and establishing new Public Lands Corps Programs in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to do conservation, restoration, and rehabilitation work on public lands or Tribal lands. It also authorizes the placement of individual resource assistants (at least 17 years of age), with preference given to individuals enrolled in institutions of higher education or recent graduates, and particular attention given to ensure full representation of women and participants from historicallyBlack, Hispanic, and Native American schools.  

Aug 2018

A new philosophy of Shared Stewardship redefines Forest Service work with partners

August 2018

New Forest Service Shared Stewardship strategy outlines plans to work more closely with states to manage wildfire and invasive species.