1897 Organic Act: Foundation of 2014 USFS Planning Objectives?

Recent discussion on this blog has regarded the restrictions governing recent and proposed changes in planning for our National Forests. Some concern has been raised that current regulations have veered far from the intended path of the original founders of the National Forest System. The “Organic Act of 1897,” for example (30 Stat. 34-36; codified U.S.C. vol. 16, sec. 551), stated that the purpose of the forest reserves was for “watershed protection and timber production.”  The Act further states (note: the following quotes, bold texts, and legal citations are mostly courtesy of the “Family Guardian” website):

“…but it is not the purpose or intent of these provisions of the Act Providing for Such Reservations to authorize the inclusion therein, of lands more valuable for the mineral contained therein and for agricultural purposes, than for Forest Reserve purposes…”

Settlers were allowed to cut firewood, fencing and building material, and mining and prospecting were specifically authorized within forest reserve boundaries, but grazing was not mentioned. Statutes at Large, vol. 30, p. 36; U.S.C. vol. 16, sec. 478 provided that nothing in the act would “prohibit any person from entering upon such national forests for all proper and lawful purpose, including that of prospecting, locating and developing the mineral resource thereof . . . such persons must comply with the rules and regulations covering such national forests.” The section also provided that the Secretary of the Interior to “make such rules and regulations . . . as will insure the objects of such reservations, namely, to regulate their occupancy and use and to preserve the forests thereon from destruction.”

Less than one month after passage, the General Land Office “promulgated regulations” that allowed grazing in reserves. In 1896, restrictive Forest Rules regarding sheep grazing were challenged in United States v. Tygh Valley Co., 76 F. 693. The Forest Rules were upheld on the basis that closely herded sheep were damaging the resources; (see also Dastervignes v. United States, 122 F. 30; 1903; and Dent v. United States, 76 P. 455, reversing 71 P. 920; 1904.) According to Colorado Judge Ethelbert Ward, The Legal Aspect of the Grazing Problem, these were essentially civil cases by injunction to prevent damage to property “and would apply as well to the individual as to the United States. They are founded on the law of the land, and do not depend on rules and regulations.” (Forest Service Law Office Correspondence RG 49, Drawer 16, National Archives.)

The grazing system devised by the Bureau of Forestry in 1902 issued the first grazing permits for sheep. A circular issued by the department of Interior on January 8, stated livestock on the forest reserve would receive preference in the following order: 1) Stock of residents within the reserve; 2) Stock of persons who own permanent stock ranches within the reserve, but who reside outside of the reserve; 3) Stock of persons living in the immediate vicinity of the reserve, called neighboring stock and 4) stock of outsiders who have some equitable claim.

So, we can see from the outset that the Forest Reserves were intended entirely for “watershed protection” and “timber production” — excluding all lands better suited for agricultural and mining purposes — and the principal issue of the day seems to have been livestock grazing. Is any of this still relevant today in regards to current National Forest planning efforts?

We can also see a very specific attempt to define “local” in regards to pre-automobile livestock owners; was that perspective still accepted during the construction of the 1905 “Use Book”?

8 thoughts on “1897 Organic Act: Foundation of 2014 USFS Planning Objectives?”

  1. Bob

    Re: “the Forest Reserves were intended entirely for “watershed protection” and “timber production” — excluding all lands better suited for agricultural and mining purposes”
    –> It would seem that this plus the right to make rules “to preserve the forests thereon from destruction” leaves plenty of room for adding other types of Better Use Set Asides such as endangered species and recreational use.
    –> It also seems to establish a dichotomy as follows:
    —– Better/Other Use Set Asides for uses other than “Forest Reserves”
    —– “Forest Reserves” for watershed protection AND timber production
    –> In addition, the use of the term “Forest Reserves” seems to have meant the opposite of what it means to me today where I think of it as meaning “Forests reserved/removed from timber production and active forest management” such as wilderness and roadless areas.

    BTW what is the legal difference between a roadless area and a wilderness area?

    • There can be logging in a Roadless Area but, Wilderness Areas are outright “protected” from development of all kinds. In the past, short temporary roads could be used, in some situations, in Roadless Areas, to accomplish projects like helicopter salvage logging. In recent years, salvage logging in Roadless Areas has been contested, in court. That is why some people prefer Wilderness designation as an ultimate goal for current Roadless Areas, regardless of their actual suitability.

      • Larry

        Thanks for the reply. It explains the difference. So now I am interested in the why.

        What was the intent of roadless areas as being separate from wilderness and separate from other logable areas?

    • Here is the basic difference: A wilderness area designated by Congress is prohibited from the use of mechanical means for travel within the designated area. A roadless area does not have this prohibition. All the other issues about what is allowed/not allowed in either area are premised on this basic difference.

      • Many Roadless Areas simply are not spectacular enough to qualify as “Wilderness”, despite what preservationists will say. For example, a Roadless Area full of dead trees shouldn’t qualify as “Wilderness values”. However, the lack of roads was supposed to be the qualifier for “Roadless status”. However, many Roadless Areas do, indeed, have roads inside them. It is “interesting” that some people describe Roadless Areas as “pristine”, despite the existing roads.

      • Tony

        Thanks – Let me see if I understand:
        –> Wilderness is understood to be no recreation other than anything that can be done by walking (?or animal travel?) and no management except to bring an early and timely stop to beetle outbreaks, disease and fires when there is significant chance of them getting onto the property of other landowners.
        –> Roadless areas can have forest management in the form of logging and therefore, supposedly in other forms. They can have off road vehicular traffic and can even have some temporary roads constructed for management purposes.
        –> By deduction that makes me think that roadless areas are the same as any other non wilderness or other set aside area except that new permanent roads can’t be built for any purpose. Do I have it right? On the surface, it sounds like it was a runaround in order to create a second class of wilderness that wouldn’t allow access to automobile bound visitors. But, then allowing off road vehicles would seem to negate any benefit for solitude, enjoying nature, and caring for the soils. I am still missing the method to the madness.

  2. My grandfather, J.D.C. Thomas, was the investigator and litigator for all trespass against the Public Domain for Oregon in his career that ended in S.F. in 1950, running that effort across a much larger landscape in the latter part of his career. I remember him telling Dad, and my overhearing, that the limits on prosecution were primarily economic: How much US Govt money could you expend to prosecute and how much would you gain in damages? He was successful in getting the SPRR for cutting timber outside their deeded rights of way, for the entirety of the line from Eugene to Chemult, I believe called the “Natron Cutoff.” It amounted several million dollars of treble stumpage in the Depression Era. He said that the only local timber trespass that was worth pursuit was that of cutting “round 40s”, into the Forest Reserve or Unclaimed Public Domain, to access and steal Port Orford cedar. He also said that a lot of liens were filed against people with grazing allotments from the Taylor Act and others, involving horses. Haying horses were turned out on the range at summer’s end, and brand inspectors for the GLO would assess the fine of 2.5 AUMs per month per horse. After that, the horses went on the public range unbranded. And then were rounded up in spring, as “wild horses” and rebroke to harness. No brand, no proof of ownership and no evidence for a court to consider.

    From all that, I have always had the thought that the US brand meant government ownership and the issue was getting fair value for resources for the Nation. The intent was to hold that land, unsuitable for full time occupancy and agricultural husbandry, and lease grazing, sell renewable resources, lease mineral rights, using the Public Domain and USFS land for the stated purpose of being a Reserve, not unlike the Naval Oil Reserves in California. Resources kept in reserve for the public good, for resources in perpetuity, all in the National public interest. Not a place to stay out of forever, but a place where resources were available in times of need to serve local and national purposes.

  3. Management of Wilderness Areas designated by Congress is governed by the Wilderness Act (a statute): http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1133.

    Management of roadless areas Identified in a specific Forest Service inventory is governed by federal regulation: http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5050459.pdf. Except in Idaho and Colorado, which developed their own roadless area regulations (also federal, though applying only to one state).

    The forest planning process can provide additional direction for either kind of area as long as it is consistent with these overriding requirements.

    You can find my comments on the Organic Act here (somewhere): https://forestpolicypub.com/2013/10/11/to-manage-perchance-to-sell-forest-vegetation-on-public-lands-why-or-why-not/#comments


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