Our Story: Hiawatha National Forest

A Brief Administrative History of the Hiawatha National Forest

By the 1930's much of the Upper Peninsula was devoid of timber. Most of the area's pine had been cut in the late 19th century and much of the hardwood was cut during the first decades of the 20th century. Major fires swept over much of the cutover land, especially through the extremely flammable pine slash. In some areas, logging and subsequent burning damaged the soil and natural reforestation was not occurring. Many loggers let their cutover land revert to the Government for back taxes.

A number of Congressional Acts were passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which were designed to avert future timber shortages through large scale reforestation and scientific forestry. These acts were also intended to provide for enhanced wildlife populations, soil and water protection, and recreational opportunities on forested lands. It was these acts that ultimately permitted the establishment of the Hiawathain 1931.

The Hiawatha currently is within the Eastern Region (Region 9) of the National Forest System. The Region itself was initially established in 1928 as the "Lake States Region" and included only those National Forests within Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The Hiawatha includes two units in Michigan's Upper Peninsula which initially existed as separate National Forests. In an executive order dated February 9, 1962 all lands within the Marquette National Forest (East Unit) were transferred and made part of the Hiawatha (West Unit).

The East unit had a long history as an independent entity. In central Chippewa County there were large barren sandy areas of public domain lands that had never been claimed or homesteaded. On June 17, 1908 this land was temporarily withdrawn from sale and on February 10, 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the establishment of the Marquette National Forest. This Forest was initially under the supervision of the Regional Office in Denver, Colorado (Region 2). In 1913 the Regional Office recommended that the Marquette National Forest and the Huron National Forest should be handled as one administrative unit. On July 1, 1918 the Marquette National Forest land was transferred to the Huron, and together they became the Michigan National Forest.

The passage of the Clarke-McNary Act in 1924 allowed additional National Forest lands to be acquired by purchase and in 1925 a 307,500 acre Marquette Purchase Unit was established in Chippewa County to guide this acquisition. An expansion was approved by the National Forest Reservation Commission in 1935 and involved an area of 49,500 acres in Chippewa and Mackinac Counties. On February 12, 1931 President Hoover re-established the Marquette National Forest. The Hiawatha National Forest (West Unit) had a somewhat less complicated history. Under the 1924 Clarke-McNary Act, the National Forest Reservation Commission established a purchase unit in Alger, Schoolcraft, and Delta Counties, Michigan in 1928. Much of this area was denuded, burned, and abandoned timberland. By January 16, 1931 enough land had been purchased within this unit to warrant the establishment of a new National Forest and on this date President Hoover proclaimed the Hiawatha.

The early foresters found budgets and manpower small in comparison with the potential projects facing them, and as the cutover devastation reached its climax in the 1930's, the Great Depression swept through the area. Although a federal response to the problems of the cutover in Northern Michigan had already been initiated, the Depression accelerated this response. The establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 as part of Roosevelt's "New Deal" profoundly influenced the newly created Hiawatha and Marquette National Forests. The establishment of the CCC actually stimulated an increase in purchases for the National Forests because President Roosevelt wanted "plenty of land" for CCC work projects. Many forest products companies were more than willing to sell land during the depression. The Bay de Noquet Company attempted to remain financially secure by selling nearly 100,000 acres to the United States for the newly created Hiawatha. Potential work projects on all the newly acquired lands, such as tree planting, blister rust control, fire suppression, road and trail construction, and campground construction were labor intensive, and this labor was forthcoming through the CCC. The Forest Service had acquired both the land base and the manpower to begin rehabilitating the cutover in order to provide a variety of resources.

Over the decades, both the Hiawatha's landscape and the Forest Service mission evolved. The pines planted by the CCC became a valuble supply of timber. Additional land acquisitions resulted in the protection of many miles of Great Lakes shoreline. Several abandoned lighthouses were transferred from the Coast Guard and became important tourist attractions. Grand Island was acquired from the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company and became a National Recreation Area. Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic River areas were established. The harvest of forest products continues in parts of the Hiawatha in accordance with new forestry practices that emphasize the creation and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. As we move into the 21st century, the work started in the 1930s to protect resources and meet the country's changing needs continues.