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The National Forests in Michigan
A Short History

Prepared in Celebration of the Centennial of the Society of American Foresters

By Mike Moore

Like most forestry school students in the fifties, particularly at Michigan State University, I was strongly encouraged to seek summer employment with the United States Forest Service. Although the pay was little, and the cost of living away from home ate up most of the wages, it was a great experience. Most of us tried to get to the great Western forests we had heard so much about: The Bitterroot, the Olympic, the Flathead, the Stanislaus, The Klamath. I was lucky enough to spend the summer of my 18th year in Oregon, on the North Umpqua National Forest out of the Big Camas Ranger District, doing Forest Inventory; and the next year on the Ottawa National Forest, out of Ontonagon, Iron River, and Watersmeet, marking northern hardwoods for selective harvest. What a marked contrast between the two Regions of the county! But the National Forests of both Regions were, and continue to be of major importance to the citizens of this great nation.

Most national forests in the western United States were created from land already owned by the Federal Government. On the other hand, most of the land in the eastern national forests had to be purchased from private landowners. Author William E. Shands has noted "the image many among the public hold of the national forests are those of the national forests of the West---ancient forests; remote back country and immense open spaces that bear little evidence of human impact; wilderness areas of hundreds of thousands of acres. In the East, the reality is much different."

Indeed, the reality is much different. When the federal government began acquiring lands that are the now the National Forests of Michigan, they were far from being considered "forests". Almost all of the lands acquired were cutover forests or abandoned, exhausted farmlands. As Shands notes, "forest rehabilitation has been and continues to be a theme of management of the national forests of the East". Almost five generations of foresters have professionally and lovingly cared for these generally abandoned, worthless and abused lands that today are the magnificent National Forests in Michigan.

Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and over the next 15 years almost 100 million acres in the West were placed in the forest reserves. On June 4, 1897, President William McKinley signed the Sundry Act. One of the amendments was the so-called "Pettigrew Amendment" (later referred to as the "Organic Act"). This "Organic Act" allowed for the proper care, protection and management of the new forest reserves and provided an organization to manage them. It is believed that the first employee was Gifford Pinchot, who was hired in the summer of 1897, as a special forestry agent to make further investigations of the forest reserves and recommend ways to manage them. Gifford Pinchot, of course, went on to becoming the founding President of our professional society in 1900.

In 1905 the American Forestry Association endorsed the proposal to establish eastern national forests by Federal purchase, which was defeated in Congress. Yet the first action in Michigan came in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt established the forest reserves from existing federal public domain lands. On February 10, 1909, certain lands in Michigan were proclaimed the Marquette National Forest. . On February 11, 1909, certain other lands in Michigan were proclaimed the Michigan National Forest. (Later, in 1915 this Marquette Forest was proclaimed part of the Michigan National Forest, and then in 1928 renamed again the Marquette National Forest!). No legislative authority for the federal government to purchase land for the National Forests actually existed until the passage of the Weeks Law in 1911. The second wave of purchases in the late twenties and early thirties resulted in the establishment of the Huron National Forest on July 30, 1928, the Hiawatha National Forest was proclaimed on January 16, 1931 and the Ottawa National Forest was officially established on January 27, 1931. The Manistee National Forest was created in 1938 although the first Purchase Unit was established on August 30, 1933. Later, the Huron and Manistee National Forests were combined, encompassing all federal forestlands in the Lower Peninsula. This occurred in 1945.

When the great depression struck in the early thirties, thousands of young men were enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's recovery programs. Michigan was among the first of the states to receive it full quota of CCC camps. At the end of 1935 there were over 100 camps operating in the state, with many of the camps under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service. Eventually there were 46 National Forest Camps at such locations as Glennie, Raco, Strongs, Paint Lake, Harrietta, Irons, Hoxeyville and many more. The CCC's greatly accelerated restoration of much of the federal land. Road, trail and bridge construction were important activities. Tree planting of large open areas, campground construction and forest fire protection were part of the CCCs. During the period of April 5, 1933 until June 30, 1942 the CCC's in Michigan planted more trees than any other State, almost 485 million, many of these on National Forest lands. The Forest Service established five nurseries in the 1930's to supply seedlings for state and national forests. They were located at Wellston, Manistique, Watersmeet, Raco and East Tawas. Examples of other work include construction of the Caberfae Ski area, fish habitat structures on numerous rivers, the first two campgrounds on the Ottawa (Bob Lake and Marion Lake) and the Olga Lake Waterfowl area, dammed by the CCC.

A steady flow of foresters have passed through the National Forests of Michigan with assignments as summer workers, temporary help, timber management officers, recreation specialists, District Rangers and Forest Supervisors. Many have gone on to greater positions in State and Federal agencies, in forest industry and in academia. Present Chief Mike Dombeck once worked as a summer fisheries worker on the Hiawatha. They have been guided by the mission of the agency as determined by the laws passed by congress.

Today the approximate acreages of these great expanses of managed lands is as follows:

Ottawa National Forest 988,000 acres
Hiawatha National Forest 880,000 acres
Huron-Manistee National Forest 970,000 acres

The Ottawa National Forest has six separate ranger district offices located at Bergland, Bessemer, Iron River, Kenton, Ontonagon and Watersmeet with the Forest Supervisor's office located in Ironwood. The Hiawatha has five ranger district offices located at Rapid River, Munising, St. Ignace, Manistique and Sault Ste. Marie with the Forest Supervisor's office located at Escanaba. And the Huron-Manistee's Supervisor's office is located at Cadillac with ranger district offices at Oscoda (Huron Shores), Manistee (Cadillac and Manistee Districts) and Baldwin (Baldwin and White Cloud Districts) and Mio.

The Federal forest lands in Michigan greatly complement the existing State Forests, giving Michigan more than 6.5 million acres of public forest ownership. Public requests for designation of wilderness areas, demands for management that promotes biological diversity, high recreation use especially in the areas of hunting and trail use, and the call for use of the forest to benefit local economies continues.

After those happy days I spent in the Cascades and the Western Upper Peninsula as a bright eyed forestry student the Congress began to take action relative to all of the National Forests. A flurry of federal legislation was enacted including the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (which was intended to supplement not replace the Organic Act of 1897), the Wilderness Act of 1964, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) of 1974, and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (which amended RPA and repealed major portions of the Organic Act of 1897). Things were changing. But the proof is in the pudding. Any citizen who spends time in the National Forests of Michigan has a right to feel pride in their management. Those generations of foresters have done their work well. Recreational facilities of all types including trails, access to water, habitat improvement activities, timber resources matched to the land that thrives and grows, watershed protection.…truly a testimony to the vision of the early officials who argued and cajoled the powers that be to establish the Eastern National Forests, one of the nation's crowning glories.


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This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Michigan State University Extension Forest in the Upper Peninsula.  Comments, questions, and suggestions are gratefully accepted. 
Last update of this page was 12 February, 2014