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Byline Burton

The Sierra Club is always telling the U.S. Forest Service what to do, but now it’s trying to rewrite the federal agency’s history.

That’s right.

A recent Sierra Club membership campaign letter led off, “In 1879, when John Muir visited southeast Alaska, he was struck by the beauty of the Tongass. Yet, the U.S. Forest Service was already calling for the rapid liquidation of the ancient forest.”



Hmmmm. There was something with that reference to the Forest Service existing in 1879 that sent me to the history books.

For local history buffs, the year 1879 stands out because that’s when a handful of Ute Indians decided to massacre Nathan Meeker and a few of his guys, then lit off for the hills with the women. But the year 1879 doesn’t connect with the Forest Service. Here’s part of what the Forest Service has to say about its history, as written in “The USDA Forest Service: The First Century,” published by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2000.



In 1876, Congress authorized $2,000 for the federal government to go out and hire a forest expert. That expert turned out to be Dr. Franklin B. Hough. With 2,000 bucks burning a hole in his pocket, Dr. Hough set out to write a study that looked at forest consumption, importation, exportation, future supply and other forest-related issues. The 650-page report was published in 1878.

The next big year was 1881. That’s when the Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry was “temporarily” established, “to study and report on forestry matters in the United States and abroad,” the book says. Dr. Hough was named its “chief.”

In 1886, the Department of Agriculture gave permanent status to its Division of Forestry. “This provided the needed stability for the fledgling organization,” the book says.

In 1890, the American Forestry Association petitioned Congress to establish forest reservations, but Congress took no action. This would have been 11 years after the U.S. Forest Service “was already calling for the rapid liquidation” of the Tongass Forest according to the Sierra Club, although the U.S. Forest Service didn’t yet exist.

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed the President to establish forest reserves. There was still no U.S. Forest Service, although the Sierra Club may beg to differ.

By the end of President Harrison’s term in 1893, there were 15 forest reserves containing 13 million acres.

In 1896, Congress created the National Forest Commission, and in 1897 the Organic Act said any new reserves must meet protection criteria. There was still no U.S. Forest Service. The book does note that John Muir helped found the Sierra Club in 1892, but does not say whether the club’s first order of business was to allege the U.S. Forest service wanted to “liquidate” the Tongass Forest in years prior to 1879.

Finally, in 1905, U.S. Forest Service was established, and placed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There you go. The U.S. Forest Service as we know it today was established in 1905, and not in the years prior to 1879, as the Sierra Club would like you to believe.

Why does the Sierra Club claim the U.S. Forest Service existed in 1879? Well, presumably so the club could link the Forest Service’s hopes to “liquidate” the Tongass Forest, with Muir’s visit there in the same year. Or, as some Sierra Club critics occasionally point out, “They pave the way to their points with emotional rhetoric, not sound science.”

I asked the Sierra Club about the glaring error in the group’s membership campaign letter. Spokesperson Nat Garrett got with the club’s Wildlands Department, and here is part of that department’s reply.

“Technically the Forest Service wasn’t in existence in 1879. The `Forest Service’ didn’t come into being until 1905. However the U.S. Government managed the land in the territory of Alaska since we bought it from Russia in 1867. It would have been more accurate to say, `the U.S. Government was calling for the rapid liquidation of the forest since 1879.'”

This makes me wonder whether other claims in the Sierra Club’s membership campaign letter are accurate, including one that says one of the White House’s environmental priorities is to, “enact big tax breaks for energy companies which will encourage even more coal strip-mining, nuclear power plants, oil drilling and imports.”

Lynn Burton is a staff writer for the Post Independent. His column runs on Thursday, when he can think of something to write about.


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