History & Cultural Resources: Our Heritage

Photo of the Smith River.

People have inhabited the lands now encompassed by the Northern Region since the close of the last glacial period or Ice Age, some 13,000 years ago.

Across the Northern Region, evidence of past human occupation is found throughout the deep river valleys and rugged mountains of north Idaho and western Montana; the Rocky Mountains and island mountain ranges of central Montana; and the pine-parklands and prairie grasslands of eastern Montana and western North and South Dakota.

Each of these vast areas, and the national forests and grasslands they incorporate, have their own unique culture histories, representing thousands of years of human adaptations to widely variable and ever-changing environments and untold interactions with other human groups.

The Northern Region is the ancient homeland of the Salish, Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Shoshone, Blackfeet, Chippewa-Cree, Lakota-Dakota Sioux, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Hidatsa, and other indigenous American Indian peoples. Beginning in the late 18th Century, the region was explored, then settled, by people of French, British, Scottish, Chinese, German, Irish, Scandinavian, Greek, Polish and other Old World ancestries. The region then, as today, was a blend of cultural backgrounds, lifeways, and values.

Photo of archaeological testing on Selway River, Nez Perce NF.

The archaeological and historical remains and ruins of these past cultural groups are, in historic preservation lingo, called cultural resources. The list of cultural resources in the Northern Region is extensive and varied: ancient Indian villages and rock art; travel routes and markers; military forts and battlefields; abandoned mines and mills; homesteads and ranches; logging trestles and splash dams; railroad grades and construction camps; Civilian Conservation Corps-built recreation sites; and forest ranger stations and lookouts.

 During the last century, Congress passed a variety of historic preservation laws to foster the identification, investigation, protection and use of cultural resources on federal lands. The Forest Service follows these federal laws and regulations, and its own manual policies and handbook direction, in the care and management of cultural resources.

Photo of the Initial Rock Interpretation: Great Sioux War.

Cultural resources are managed by national forest and grassland Heritage Programs, which are staffed by archaeologists and historians. As of 2011, some 20,000 cultural resources are on record in the Northern Region. This total includes individual sites, building complexes, archaeological districts, and historic landscapes. This undoubtedly is a small fraction of the cultural resources that exist on the 25 million acres of National Forest System land comprising the Northern Region.

Northern Region heritage programs perform a variety of compliance work each year to ensure that cultural resources are protected from agency or agency-authorized activities. Under the authority of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), State Historic Preservation Officers, tribes, and other historic preservation interests are given the opportunity to review and voice concerns about the potential effect of these projects on cultural resources.

Photo of the Morgan Case restoration site on the Lolo NF.

Northern Region heritage programs also complete an array of stewardship projects focused on the recognition, protection, stabilization, restoration, interpretation, and public use of cultural resources, as also required by NHPA and other federal laws and executive orders. Highly significant cultural resources in Region 1 are nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation.

National forest and grassland stewardship projects are supported through a variety of private, public and tribal partnerships, and the Northern Region Heritage Stewardship Enhancement Program.

Historic preservation efforts are benefitted by the Northern Region Historic Buildings Preservation Team, who guide and help direct projects to stabilize and restore buildings across the region. Many of these historic buildings are used administratively or are available for public occupancy and use through the Forest Service Recreation Rental Program.

 Photo of P.I.T. volunteers working on Kootenai NF site.The Forest Service Passport in Time (PIT) volunteer program provides critical workforce capacity and support to many Northern Region projects. The public may enlist in a variety of Northern Region projects, ranging from archaeological investigation to building restoration to cataloguing artifact collections.

 The study of cultural resources provides a broader understanding of past human lifeways and environments. They create a sense of time, place, and historic perspective for visitors to national forests and grasslands. Information derived from cultural resource studies is applied to today’s issues on national forest lands, such as fire history and climate change.

Photo of broken windows on a heritage site on the Helena NF.

Cultural resources are fragile and non-renewable. It is unlawful to remove any cultural resource from National Forest land without authorization or a permit. Once an archaeological site is illegally dug-up or an old building disappears due to natural deterioration, there is no opportunity left for study, preservation and enhancement. Region 1 forests and grassland Site Stewardship Programs enlist public volunteers to help monitor cultural resources for environmental and human-caused damage.

The past belongs to everyone. Because of our nation’s cultural diversity, there is no unified history that adequately describes and characterizes all people, places, events and sites. Rather, the cultural resource record of the Northern Region is made up of multiple histories of people from different cultures and all walks of life. Study and preservation of cultural resources helps us to both appreciate the deep and recent history of our own region and community and understand how it influences our lives today.

Photo of FS staff looking in a melted ice patch.