History & Culture

The Forest Service mission of "Caring for the Land and Serving People" began with the mandate of the Organic Act of June 4, 1897. Conceived in the midst of controversy over the establishment of Forest Reserves in the West, the Act's legacy of professional public land management in the public interest continues today.

The Organic Act provided the underpinning for an ecological approach to the management of publicly owned forest and grassland ecosystems. The Act requires the agency to:

  • "improve and protect the forests."
  • emphasizes "securing favorable conditions of water flows", which led to the management of complete watersheds.
  • " furnish a continuous supply of timber" which provided the basis for legislation that later spurred the principles of sustained yield.

The Organic Act also gave the Forest Service the ability to regulate unrestricted use of National Forests. It authorized the allocation of funds to manage the Forest Reserves and hire professional forest supervisors and rangers.

The Act's provisions for public benefits and uses beyond water and timber was a precursor to the concept of management for multiple-use. Over the years the Act has been greatly amended and supplemented by legislation that requires full public involvement in management of public lands, protection of Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers, protection of air and water, and preservation of rare species.

Much has changed since the passage of the Organic Act and the establishment of the Forest Service. Unregulated livestock grazing, has ended. Timber theft has dramatically slowed. People are more engaged than ever before in helping to determine how their lands and waters should be managed. Not unexpectedly, debate often follows the challenging dilemma facing resource managers in carrying out the multiple-use mandate of the Organic Act in today's changing environment. Nevertheless, the challenge and goal of the Forest Service remain the same -- to ensure that forests and grasslands remain productive, diverse, and healthy for the benefit and use of future and present generations.

George Washington National Forest - History

"Caring for the land and serving people." For over 50 years the George Washington National Forest has remained dedicated to managing resources, protecting the quality of the environment, and ensuring the productivity of the land.

As our young nation began its westward expansion, settlement began in the valley of western Virginia. Shenandoah--daughter of the stars--was a name given to the river and the valley by Native Americans who passed back and forth through the bottom lands. The Monacan, the Cherokee and the Shawnee all had their time here, hunting and harvesting the land.

Later settlers of Scotch-Irish and German heritage began to make their homes in the valley now surrounded by the George Washington National Forest. Settlers often viewed the forests as land that had to be cleared for more fields. The mountain lands, though eroded and over cultivated, were still desired by outside mining and timber interests. In the 1820's the combination of iron and trees to feed the iron furnaces made mining a profitable venture in many areas near the Shenandoah Valley. These companies brought devastation to the land. Repeated cuttings cleared the mountains, erosion caused streams to become clogged with silt and floods came more frequently and with greater damage. Perhaps the most insidious effect of industry was wildfire, which burned repeatedly over the mountains. Miners, timber operators and hunters pushed animal species like elk, white tailed deer and wild turkey to the brink of extinction.

A small group of forest reformers recognized that our natural resources were being exploited and endangered, and introduced bills in Congress that would protect the nation's forests. In 1891 the Forest Reserve Act was passed. It authorized the creation of Forest Reserves, the forerunner of what was to become the National Forest System.

Damage to the mountains also extended to the waterways. In 1911 the Weeks Act was passed, which made it possible for the Federal Government to buy deforested mountain land and protect it for watershed purposes. Land in what was to become the George Washington National Forest was among the first considered for acquisition.Family standing in front of a mountain homestead from 1900

In 1917 three northern Virginia purchase units were combined to become the Shenandoah National Forest. It was later renamed the George Washington National Forest to avoid confusion with the National Park bearing the same name.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also played an important role in the early days of the Forest Service. The first CCC camp in the nation, Camp Roosevelt, was located in the George Washington National Forest. A total of 14 camps were eventually opened on the Forest. The CCC employed 9,200 men in Virginia during the nine years of the program's existence. Their work is still evident today in the roads, campgrounds, picnic shelters, fire towers, and other projects scattered throughout the Forest.

One of the more remarkable changes to occur just after World War II was the development of a more mobile and recreation-seeking society. Between 1945 and 1956, the number of visitors to some areas increased as much as four times. With close proximity to Washington D.C. and Richmond, it is not surprising that the George Washington National Forest has always been a popular destination for those who enjoy outdoor recreation.

In 1960 the Multiple-use Sustained-Yield Act was passed by Congress. It stated that national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, watershed, range, timber and wildlife purposes. A wildlife management agreement with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has helped to reestablish turkey, bear, deer and many other species that were nearly driven to extinction due to unregulated hunting and poor land management practices during the late 1800's. The Threatened and Endangered Species Act of 1973 has also served to protect wildlife and their habitat.

Protection, growth and management have produced many fruitful achievements on the George Washington. Good stewardship has been, and remains, the goal of those entrusted with "caring for the land and serving the people."

Jefferson National Forest - History

"We killed in the journey 13 buffaloes, 8 elks, 53 bears, 20 deers, 4 wild geese, about 150 turkeys, besides small game."

This quote from the journals of Dr. Thomas Walker, leader of a 1750 surveying party through Southwestern Virginia, gives a hint of the tremendous natural wealth awaiting the first settlers to this part of Virginia. Today, while the buffalo and elk are long gone, the 703,000 acre Jefferson National Forest once again provides plentiful deer, turkey, and bear, as well as a wide variety of other natural resources.

In the 184 years between Dr. Walker's survey and the creation of the Jefferson National Forest in 1936, much wealth was extracted from these lands. However, in the process, the old growth Appalachian Forests of Virginia were almost completely cut out, and wild game populations were decimated. Repeated wildfires swept the area and the clearing of steep mountain land for farming and grazing led to severe erosion and increased flooding. Widespread, indiscriminate logging also added its toll. As a result, by the early 1900s, much of the higher elevation mountains and ridges in southwestern Virginia had been transformed into the lands nobody wanted. (The Lands Nobody Wanted, Conservation Foundation Report, 1977)

As early as 1901, James Wilson, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, recommended establishing a Forest Preserve in the Southern Appalachians:

"These are the heaviest and most beautiful hardwood forests of the continent. In them, species from East and West, from North and South, mingle in a growth of unparalleled richness and variety. They contain many species of first commercial value and furnish important supplies which cannot be obtained from any other region...The preservation of these forests is imperative...Their management under practical and conservative forestry will sustain and increase the resources of this region and of the Nation at large."

In March 21, 1902, the State Legislature of Virginia passed a resolution expressing support for the establishment of an extensive National Forest in Virginia and in the Southern Appalachians. With this resolution, the State of Virginia granted the federal government the right to acquire "Forest Reserve" land in Virginia. At the same time, the State also relinquished its right to tax these lands once they became National Forests.

   Portable sawmill in the forest with men working it                         Horse on a skid trail in the forest

 Support for establishing National Forests in the Southern Appalachians came from the private sector as well. In 1902, the National Lumber Manufacturers Association threw its support behind the idea and in 1905 the American Forestry Association also endorsed creation of National Forests in the Appalachians. The battle in Congress took almost 10 years, but finally, on March 1, 1911, President Taft signed the Weeks Law authorizing the purchase of lands to create the first National Forests in the   Eastern United States.

After passage of the Weeks Law, it didn't take long for land acquisition to begin. That same year, 13,450 acres of land was bought from Douglas Land Company in the Whitetop "Purchase Unit" in what is now the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in far southwestern Virginia. Nine years later, in 1920, this purchase would be combined with other newly acquired lands in Tennessee and North Carolina to form the Unaka National Forest.

In 1913, 29,000 acres from the Glenwood Estate became the first addition to the Natural Bridge Purchase Unit in the southern Shenandoah Valley. Three years later this tract was designated the Natural Bridge National Forest. In 1934 and 1935, the Clinch and Mountain Lake Purchase Units were created.

Finally on April 21, 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by proclamation, created the Jefferson National Forest out of lands formerly contained in the Unaka and Natural Bridge National Forests, and the Clinch and Mountain Lake Purchase Units. At a dedication ceremony held on July 1, 1937, at High Knob near Norton, Virginia, Under Secretary of Agriculture M. W. Wilson noted that:

"President Roosevelt has named it the Jefferson. This is fitting, for Thomas Jefferson was a practical conservationist, and this National Forest embraces much of the country he knew and loved. He knew that man's welfare depended in large part on use of natural resources."

In his dedication speech, Wilson went on to describe the value of the Jefferson National Forest:

" To control erosion and Hill side in the forest with burnt trees in the backgroundfloods...as sources of inspiration and recreation, they foster spiritual, cultural and other values essential to mankind. As a living resource they can be renewed...producing continuous crops for harvest. Forests help stabilize industries and communities and add to man's physical welfare...(providing)...the greatest good to the greatest number in the long run."
Prior to the creation of the Jefferson National Forest in 1936, these forested lands had undergone several dramatic changes, all man-induced, some deliberate, and others unintended. Starting in the late 1700s and continuing through the 1800s and early 1900s much of the forested land was cleared for farming and grazing. Just before, during and after the Civil War, large areas of Forest were stripped to feed the iron smelting furnaces of the area until the discovery of large deposits of higher quality iron ore in the Lake States ended the demand for Virginia iron.
Around the turn of the century, the introduction of the narrow gauge railroad in the southern Appalachians greatly accelerated the harvest of timber from the still vast, but steadily shrinking virgin old growth forests of southwestern Virginia. Between 1900 and the Great Depression of 1933, over 63 percent of the present Jefferson National Forest was cut over.

Starting in the early 1900s, an ecological catastrophe hit the forests of southwestern Virginia. By the mid 1930s, a fast-spreading introduced fungus, the chestnut blight, had virtually eliminated the American chestnut tree, so highly prized for its timber value and its abundant crop of nuts used by both man and wildlife. Before the blight, in some parts of the Forest, the chestnut was the dominant tree, accounting for up to 70 percent of the total number of trees in some stands. Today the only evidence that a careful observer will find of this once magnificent tree are the occasional root sprouts still stubbornly clinging to life in the Forest under story around the base of old chestnut stumps.

On a more positive note, a visitor to today's Jefferson National Forest may also notice the legacy left by President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. In fact, the first CCC camp in the country was established at Camp Roosevelt on Massanutten Mountain on Virginia's other National Forest, the George Washington. Many of the trails, campgrounds and shelters built by the CCC between 1933 and 1942 are still in service today on both National Forests in Virginia. The Civilian Conservation Corps program is still viewed today as one of the federal government's greatest successes in providing employment and accomplishing useful work.

The same visitor to today's Jefferson National Forest will no doubt see the benefit, but may not know the source, of another historical success story. In 1938, the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries and the National Forests in Virginia entered into the first cooperative agreement of its kind in the nation. Under this agreement, the two agencies would work closely together to restore wildlife habitat and begin the process of rebuilding huntable game populations on National Forest land.

By 1938, most large and small game had been almost wiped out due to over harvesting and habitat destruction. Today, fifty two years later, hunters are harvesting record numbers of deer, turkey and bear on the Jefferson National Forest. This successful partnership effort in Virginia has served as a national model for many other National Forests across the country.

Men in the forest logging in early 1900s

It is said that today's tourists come to Virginia because of its scenery and its history. It is also said that one in six manufacturing jobs in Virginia are dependent upon forest products. It is hoped that the Jefferson National Forest, named after the "Sage of Monticello", can continue to build on its historical traditions. Today, the Forest Service still sees its mission as "providing the greatest good to the greatest number in the long run," and is committed to principles of conservation, land stewardship, and democracy in government that Thomas Jefferson so effectively espoused over 200 years ago.

The George Washington National Forest and the Jefferson National Forest were administratively combined in 1995.