Joseph J. Jones, Ph.D.
Term: Spring 2012
Land of Poor Character: Creating National Forests in the Eastern United States explores the political, economic, social, and scientific debates regarding the appropriate use of reclaimed cutover lands in the United between 1880 and 1950. Using as examples two Michigan national forests created nearly thirty years apart, I argue that the federal government, guided by the visions of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, had two models for national forest creation in the eastern regions of the country: forest reserves and rehabilitation for many uses. While national forests in the West consisted of large tracts of unsold land in the public domain, eastern forests had already been logged and were privately owned. Hence, the creation of eastern national forests in the early twentieth century required the purchase of land from private owners and support from state and local officials. Congress authorized land purchases with the Weeks Act (1911) and the Clarke-McNary Act (1924), but land sales still required the support of state governments and private landowners. National forest rangers sought to buy land of poor character that failed to meet the agricultural visions of settlers. This personification of land with human values demonstrates how the struggles over land use in the cutover were not just among residents, scientists, businessmen, and politicians, but also with the land itself. These socially constructed visions of the land informed scientific research, economic initiatives, and public policy, while in turn being limited by ecological factors. Since most of the cutover did not easily adapt to the presupposed vision for it, local residents and state leaders grappled with alternative ways of rehabilitating the land and the regions economy for 40 years before reaching political consensus that only reached fruition with the political will and economic power of the federal government. This study of the creation of national forests in Northern Michigan demonstrates that the growth of federal authority during the first half of the twentieth century resulted because local and state officials lacked the political will and capital to act themselves. Although these federal means of rehabilitation were imperfect in many ways, a national response was necessary for the economic and social good of this denuded region and the nation as a whole.
Land of Poor Character provides a significant contribution to the field of environmental studies through its focus on federal land management in the eastern United States, where the federal government faced far more stable and entrenched political parties, private interests, and local communities than in the West. It explains how the management of a marginal landscape allowed for the expansion of federal authority within already developed states. In Michigan, the disputes among scientific experts discouraged decisive state action and prompted the inclusion of local residents in political debates about appropriate land use. The multiplicity of political perspectives in the cutover and throughout the state slowed the process of building broad political consensus surrounding how to rehabilitate the region. A rising tourist economy spurred by the automobile in the 1920s helped diminish resistance to reforestation as forests would attract visitors by improving wildlife habitat and the local scenery generally. Despite a growing acceptance of reforestation over agriculture as the predominant land use, no private or governmental agency was willing to produce the capital necessary to make it happen. Ultimately, it took the Great Depression to generate the political will and capital to initiate large scale land purchasing and rehabilitation in the cutover through acts of the federal government.
“Being a scholar-in-residence at Grey Towers afforded me the opportunity to research and the time to write that significantly furthered my scholarship. I was able to spend a week researching USFS land purchases and forest management at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Once at Grey Towers, I was able to write an article for a general public audience, revise an academic article, and do full revisions of two book chapters. All of these pieces had previously remained uncompleted for a want of time. This scholarship provided me the time to finish this work and prompted me to consider what further research and writing would be necessary to complete the book manuscript. I am thankful to the staff of the Forest Service staff at Grey Towers and the Grey Towers Heritage Association for their logistical and scholarly assistance throughout the process but especially during my stay in Milford. Without a doubt, this program has quickly become one of the most valuable writing grants in the United States for the promotion of environmental, forest, and conservation history.”
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