Happy Birthday Forest Service: 111 Years Strong


Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot conversing on the deck of the Mississippi.

Today, the Forest Service celebrates its 111th birthday! Although the Department of the Interior’s Division of Forestry (later the Bureau of Forestry) had existed since the late 1800s, the Transfer Act of 1905, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, transferred the responsibility of maintaining the nation’s forests to the Department of Agriculture.

With this, the Forest Service was born, and Gifford Pinchot was appointed as the fledgling organization’s first director. Although the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) wouldn’t open for another five years, Pinchot would lend his name to FPL’s current street address.

Transfer Act of 1905 Act of February  1, 1905

“Establishment of Department  There shall be at the seat of government a Department of Agriculture, the general design and duties of which shall be to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture, rural development, aquaculture, and human nutrition in the most general and comprehensive sense of those terms and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.”

But perhaps more important than the actual legislation signed by Roosevelt is a memo from the office of the Secretary of Agriculture, James Wilson. This memo, dubbed “The Wilson Letter,” is considered by many to be one of the most important documents in American Forestry. It expertly outlines the charge of the new public service.

“In the administration of the forest reserves it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people; and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies.  All the resources of forest reserves are for use, and this use must be brought about in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner, under such restrictions only as will in-sure the permanence of these resources. 

The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advance in settlement and development.  The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore in-dispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of this Department for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value…

In the management of each reserve local questions will be decided upon local grounds; the dominant industry will be considered first, but with as little restriction to minor industries as may be possible; sudden changes in industrial conditions will be avoided by gradual adjustment after due notice; and where conflicting interests must be reconciled the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”

Although the Forest Service has grown significantly in scope, and today manages 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 44 states and Puerto Rico, the words of the Transfer Act, and Wilson Letter, still resonate today. It is this vision, providing the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run, that more than 34,000 employees around the country, and world, work to fulfill every day.

We look forward to the next 111 years.