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Saving the Forest
It has been about a century since what forest historians call the “era of forest exploitation”
ended in Arkansas. Just as described in John Prine’s classic tune Paradise, “Mr. Peabody’s
coal train done hauled it away,” the same thing happened to Arkansas timber. The arrival
of railroads in the 1880s permitted out-of-state interests to move in, set up saw
mills to cut and haul the resources away to distant markets in the Midwest and East.
The Ozark biome reaches into parts of four states. Missouri, with less steep terrain
and where railroads arrived first, experienced its era of forest exploitation a decade
earlier than Arkansas. By 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt established the Ozark National
Forest in Arkansas by presidential decree, nearly all of the Missouri forests had
been cut whereas considerable amounts of the rugged Boston Mountain region of the
Ozarks remained unassigned and mostly in their pre-settlement state.
Teddy Roosevelt is considered the “conservation president” because he sat aside 230
million acres of public land during his tenure, 150 million as National Forest. During
this time he wrote, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources.
But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when or forests are gone…”
To help in the scientific management of all these public forests, he established the
Forestry Service in 1905.
Arkansas residents then and now were skeptical, if not outright hostile, to the “I’m
from the government and I’m here to help you” approach taken by federal agencies.
Though the forests of New England, the upper Midwest and much of Appalachia were gone,
the general consensus of the citizenry at large was that American forestry resources
were inexhaustible. Just as we see happening in the West today over public land use,
Arkansans a century ago didn’t want outsiders coming in and taking “their” forest
land away from them. For a couple generations locals had hunted, grazed and harvested
timber from this public land pretty much at will.
Every Democratic politician running for office in Arkansas was opposed to the National
Forest. Homesteading had been allowed in the Ozarks, but because not all of the timberland
had been adequately surveyed and recorded, ownership claims were often disputed. And
when eminent domain laws were used to take inholdings in the forest, there was wide
disagreement about the value of the land. Things were contentious. The Arkansas legislature
voted by a 2-to-1 majority to overturn the National Forest plan in the state. In 1909
the Taft administration took over and the size of the Ozark National Forest shrank
by half a million acres.
Meanwhile the Forest Service was staffing up and getting established. Roads were terrible,
the acreage each ranger oversaw was vast and they weren’t very popular with the locals.
Then in 1910, “the great burn” happened in the northern Rocky Mountains, destroying
the timber on 3 million acres of land. Fire prevention suddenly became the number
one priority of the new Forest Service.
Fire had long been a part of land management in the Ozarks, but before the period
of forest exploitation, the trees were more widely spaced and there was less fuel
on the forest floor. But after cutting there were a lot of treetops littering the
ground and stump sprouts and seedlings grew with abandon. These later fires were hotter
and killed or damaged younger trees that were trying to become established on the
So, starting in 1911, fire prevention became an important priority in the Ozarks.
But fighting fires required lots of labor so locals were hired to control local blazes.
This didn’t end well. As there were few employment opportunities out in the hinterland
after the sawmills had moved to new locations “job fires” became a major problem.
Locals would start fires so they would be hired to put them out. By 1913 this had
become so prevalent that the Forest Service stopped hiring locals for firefighting.
By the 1920s most of the prime timber in the state had been harvested. A 1929 estimate
stated that 91 percent of the state’s forests had been cut over. Since 1911 with the
passage of the Weeks Law, the National Forest Service was allowed to add to its holdings
by purchasing land. In 1919 some 42,000 acres of land was purchased from Missouri
Pacific Railroad; during the depression more land was added as struggling farmers
abandoned their land. By 1978 almost 650,000 acres had been added, creating the 1.2
million acres that now makes up the forest.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.