History & Culture

Reforesting the Land


With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the economy of Ohio's Hill Country bottomed out. The timber and iron industries were gone. Coal production was down because steel mills and other industries that required coal were closed. Crop prices were too low to support farming in the area. The hills were eroding, and the soil was depleted of nutrients. Entire communities, such as Kachelmacher and San Toy, completely disappeared when the companies that supported them closed or moved away. Between 1900 and 1930, census records show the population dropped 40 percent in the Southeast Ohio, as farmers and iron workers moved away. In 1932, approximately 36 percent of the area which is now the Wayne National Forest was tax delinquent.

In 1934, Ohio's legislature passed a bill enabling the federal government to purchase land in Southeast Ohio to create a national forest. Ohio's governor approved purchase units that covered more than 3 million acres, within which the Forest Service could acquire land. One of the chief concerns was the drain on local governments by the barren lands that nobody wanted. One acre in three was tax delinquent.

The Forest Service was given the mission to restore Ohio's forests. Most of the land acquired in the early days was severely eroded. With gullies and bedrock showing on virtually every hill, early foresters reported it was hard to know where to start in restoring the land.

Athens District Office

A ranger station was established at Athens by the U.S. Forest Service in 1936. 

Much of the actual work of reforesting Ohio's Hill Country fell to the Civilian Conservation Corps. An agency of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the CCC provided jobs for the unemployed of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The CCC not only planted trees, they built roads and fire towers, extinguished wildfires, and put in utility lines, lakes, and recreation areas.

dams help slow erosion on slopes

The first challenge was combating the erosion that washed away the region's fragile topsoil. This series of pole and brush dams in Vinton County was constructed prior to the planting of red pine trees.

Tree planterLine of treeplanters

Line of workers planting trees ahd a single tree planter with his trees.  This team is planting on an eroded slope in the Hocking Valley.

eroded hillside with dams, seeded with grasses and planted.

CCC workers then seeded the areas with grasses and legumes, and planted pine and locust. The vegetation stabilized the soil while legumes, such as locust, lespedeza and clover helped rebuild the soil fertility.

In addition to the Civilian Conservation Corps, many Ohioans had a role in replanting the forest of Ohio's Hill Country. The Forest Service worked closely with the State of Ohio in identifying areas to restore, and some lands acquired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture were transferred to Ohio as state forests, including Dean Tar Hollow and Zaleski State Forests. Civic groups, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, and groups with an interest in ecology, such as garden clubs, sponsored plantations of seedlings. Organizations like the National Arbor Foundation continue to support the planting of trees on the Wayne National Forest.

The children of Ohio also helped build the Wayne National Forest. In some areas, schools adopted sections of government land, and classes planted trees there. Today, Scout troops and others routinely help to plant seedlings on reclaimed strip mine lands.

The success of all these efforts is clearly visible as you travel the highways throughout the region. These aerial photographs of the same area around Hune Bridge on the Scenic Covered Bridge Byway in Washington County show how the abandoned farmlands of the 1930s (first photo below) have become a thriving forest today (photo at the bottom) This is the same area 75 years later!