General History, Part 1

By Mark V. Thornton, Consulting Historian

Editorial Note:This version was written by Mark V. Thornton in 1995 who, at that time, was working for CAL FIRE under contract as a consulting historian. Mark was assisting the CAL FIRE Archaeology Program in conducting inventories of CAL FIRE properties for historic buildings and archaeological sites.

CAL FIRE is a State agency responsible for protecting natural resources from fire on land designated by the State Board of Forestry as State Responsibility Area (SRA). CAL FIRE also manages the State Forest system and has responsibility to enforce the forest practice regulations, which govern forestry practices on private and other non-federal lands. Two major themes are attendant to the CAL FIRE mission. One is the protection of the State's merchantable timber on all non-federal lands from improper logging activities and the other is the protection of the State's grass, brush, and tree covered watersheds in SRA from wildland fire. CAL FIRE is a "conservation agency" with origins stemming from the "Conservation Movement" of the last century.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Americans collectively voiced concern about the health and long term availability of the Nation's timber supply. They were alarmed by newspaper accounts of a succession of conflagration fires that had burned millions of acres in the upper mid-West and by the continuing reports of massive timber destruction by homestead and lumber industry land clearing practices. The prevalent idea that at least one-fifth of a given land area should be covered in trees to sustain a successful agricultural industry added weight to the anxiety and led to deliberations on how to control western development of the public domain (Federal land). A widely circulated belief that America might face a timber "famine" or shortage gave momentum to the dialogue. Many also believed that trees caused it to rain and by removing them the Nation ran the risk of converting its western territories, if not the whole country, into a vast desert. Also, the prevailing attitude that the forests of America were infinite, and infinitely forgiving of mankind's exploits, was beginning to wane especially now that the American frontier had reached the western shore.

The 19th century was a period of rapid western expansion for America and the general rule was to transfer the public domain (Federal land) into private ownership. But a growing number of Americans wanted to see the Federal Government withdraw certain tracts of the public domain from private settlement and manage the areas in trust for present and future generations. Two parallel movements emerged to address the disposition of the public domain. One was the drive to "preserve" the Nation's natural wonders from privatization. The other was to "conserve" the Nation's storehouse of lumber trees. The first could be said to have started in 1864 when the United States Government gifted the Yosemite Grant and Mariposa Grove to the State of California. In 1866, the California State Legislature accepted this land grant with the understanding that the areas were to be managed for the benefit of present and future generations. Although it was a State park, these two grants signaled the beginning of a federal park program. The advent of a true national park system came with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 in Wyoming, some 18 years before Yosemite itself became a national park.

The United States Army was assigned the responsibility to patrol and protect this area. The Army's role included the detection and suppression of wildfire within park boundaries. This was no small task considering the size of the sanctuary, the crude equipment at hand, and the few troops that were assigned. Even though the U.S. Cavalry was a far cry from the wildland fire profession of today, they nonetheless represented the beginning of a Federal wildland fire protection program. One noteworthy Army idea was the creation of "campgrounds." These were set up as a means to contain the continuing nuisance of abandoned campfires. In 1890, the Sequoia and General Grant Parks, and the Yosemite Forest Preserve were created. The U.S. Army's qualified success in Yellowstone led to the implementation of Cavalry patrols within these parks in 1891.

As for forestry management, simple laws to protect certain types of trees had been around since colonial times. The creation of the Department of Agriculture in 1862 marks the beginnings of a national effort to protect the nation's agricultural health. It wasn't until 1875, though, that Congress allocated $2,000 to the Department for the purpose of hiring a forestry agent to investigate the subject of timber management. This was unanticipated, since the discipline of forestry was new and there were very few trained foresters in America at this time. In 1881, a Division of Forestry was created and in 1889, the Department of Agriculture was raised to Cabinet level status. Meanwhile, all Federal land remained under the control of the Department of Interior, specifically the General Land Office (GLO).

Bernhard Fernow, Division of Forestry Chief from 1886 to 1898, endorsed the creation of forest reserves and pointed out the need to transfer control of these lands from the General Land Office to the Department of Agriculture. This would insure that government foresters would have the leverage needed to enforce proper timber management practices. Fernow even drafted an organizational scheme that included the idea that "rangers" would be in charge of the smallest administrative units. Stiff opposition against creating federal reserves was overcome in 1891 when Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act. The President was given the authorization to permanently withdraw from the public domain, forestlands he deemed of national importance. The Act did not, however, specify what constituted "forest" land. The people of Southern California capitalized on this by successfully lobbying for the creation of the San Gabriel Forest Reserve, a largely brush covered region whose value lies in its being an important watershed for the Los Angeles Basin. Southern Californians had long been witness to the devastation that wildland fire could bring. They had seen how hillsides denuded by fall fires became a catalyst for flooding and mudslides when winter rains hit. This, in turn, wreaked havoc on the agricultural lands in the Basin below. The Sundry Civil Appropriations Act (Organic Act) of 1897 clarified the intent of the Forest Reserve Act and specifically endorsed the validity of watershed protection. In fact, timber and watershed protection were the cornerstones upon which existing reserves were expanded and future reserves established.

As for Fernow's efforts to wrestle control of the Forest Reserves from the Department of Interior, this fell to his successor, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot is viewed as the "father" of the Forest Service. He served as Chief Forester from 1898 to 1910. His close friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt undoubtedly played a key role in the latter's executive order, of early 1905, which transferred the growing collection of Forest Reserves from the Interior Department to the Department of Agriculture. Had he been so inclined, Pinchot probably could have gained control of the federal parklands. But Pinchot was a forester intent on instituting wise management upon timber-producing lands for commercial use. He was not out to cultivate trees for recreational enjoyment (utilitarian conservation as opposed to aesthetic preservation). Within a few weeks of Roosevelt's order, Pinchot reorganized the Agriculture Department's Bureau of Forestry into the United States Forest Service. In 1907, the Forest Reserves were renamed National Forests.

The U.S. Forest Service became the Nation's primary instrument, for protecting natural resources on Federal land from fire and from timber exploitation. In the teens the National Park Service was established, and charged with protecting the Nation's scenic wonders. Both agencies, however, were protecting only those areas of Federally owned land under their jurisdiction and such private in-holdings that could potentially threaten the well being of the Federal lands. The large areas of timber and watershed lands privately owned that were beyond the National Forests and Parks came under the State authority.

In the midst of the national debate over the merits of having a Federal forest reserve system, the California State Legislature had established a State Board of Forestry. Founded in 1885, the Board was one of the first State appointed forestry boards in the nation. They were authorized to investigate, collect, and disseminate information about forestry. In 1887, the Board members and their assistants were given the power of peace officers to enforce compliance with the few laws that the State had enacted concerning brush and forest lands. A State-level interest in the well being of its natural resources had materialized. But a hostile political climate eventually succeeded in abolishing the State's first Board of Forestry, which was disbanded in 1893.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a few loosely organized groups, including at least one logging company, had taken steps to bring about wildland fire protection upon a few scattered properties outside of the Federal Reserves. A major step forward, though, in bringing about a State-level commitment to protect these areas came in 1903. Shortly after assuming office Governor George Pardee communicated to Gifford Pinchot his desire for a joint Federal-State study and survey of the forest situation in California. C. Raymond Clar, in his report Brief History of The California Division of Forestry suggests that Pardee's request energized Pinchot's lobbying efforts for direct control of the federal forest reserve system and no doubt it helped sway President Roosevelt to transfer the Federal Reserves to the Department of Agriculture. The California survey was conducted from 1903 into 1907. Commencement of the project set the stage for the establishment of a new Board of Forestry and the creation of the position of State Forester. On March 18, 1905 the State Legislature approved both. The enabling Act, as Clar puts it, became "...the statutory cornerstone for the State forestry agency as it has existed through the ensuing years."

The Board of Forestry appointed E. T. Allen, an Assistant Forester in the Forest Service, as California's first State Forester. Unfortunately, Allen had to leave office the following year (for personal reasons). Not surprisingly, another Forest Service employee, Gerard B. Lull, filled his position. After all, the Federal Agency was practically the only source for qualified foresters. In passing, it might be mentioned that 1906 was also the year that the State Legislature returned the Yosemite Grant and Mariposa Grove to the Federal Government. While touching upon the subject of parks, the Act of 1905 had placed the State's Big Basin Park in Santa Cruz County under the authority of the Board of Forestry. The State's park system remained under the jurisdiction of the Board until 1927.

The Act of 1905 granted to the State Forester the right to appoint local fire wardens. The State Forester could also "maintain a fire patrol at places and times of fire emergency." The fire patrol system, however, was to be funded by the County in which the action took place. Although the CAL FIRE could be said to have started in 1905 with the creation of the position of State Forester, from 1905 until 1919, the State Forester and the "forestry department" were one-and-the-same. The "department" consisted of the State Forester and a few office staff and assistants based in Sacramento. The remainder of the department was the large body of local fire wardens. They were, however, funded and supported by their local jurisdictions. The State of California was not spending money to maintain a wildland fire protection force.

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