Forests and National Prosperity
A Reappraisal of the Forest Situation in the United States


One important aim of the forestry job ahead should be to stop unnecessary forest destruction. As pointed out earlier, this depends in part on better cutting practices, and on more intelligent use of forests. But it also means waging an all-out war against major enemies—fire, insects, and disease.

These destroyers are a threat to all forest values. In varying degree they affect timber, water, forage, wildlife, and recreation, even the soil itself. Fire, for example, can wipe out timber growth, the accumulation of years, in a matter of minutes. And, in other less tangible ways, it can impair the forest—its beauty, usefulness, and capacity to perpetuate itself.

Every day, on the average, 475 fires sear the forests of the United States. They burn 25 million acres yearly, an area as large as the State of Virginia. They destroy small trees—tomorrow's timber—by the billions. Annually they send up in smoke over 850 million board feet of badly needed timber, enough to build 86,000 five-room homes.

The direct monetary loss sustained in 1946 was conservatively estimated at more than 32.5 million dollars. This does not include the enormous in tangible and indirect damages to forests. Whatever the true losses, they represent an intolerable threat to forest abundance.

Even more destructive of timber is the host of insect pests and diseases that make unrelenting attacks on forests. The wood they destroy amounts to a huge drain: for the decade 1934-43, the estimated average yearly loss was 622 million cubic feet. This compares with about 460 million cubic feet destroyed by fire. Yet it measures only the more obvious destruction occurring for the most part in major epidemics. [30]

Much is being done to curb fire losses. Indeed, a great deal of the emphasis and effort in American forestry has centered on protection against fire. But control of forest insects and diseases has made far less headway.

The forest protection job is chiefly a public responsibility. Fire, insects, and disease respect no boundaries. They attack forests on a wide front. Organized, collective action is required to suppress them, and experience has shown that this is best provided through public auspices. The problem is analogous to fire-fighting services and other public safety measures required in cities.

Protection of the National Forests From Fire

Organized forest-fire control began with the establishment of the national forests in 1905. Following the great fires of 1910 which dramatized the need for better protection, the national forests have been gradually opened up with roads, trails, and telephone systems. An efficient detection and fire-fighting organization has been established. Equipment and facilities have been developed. And over the years, the policy of top-notch fire protection has won increasing public support.

Meanwhile, the fire-control job has expanded, chiefly because of the establishment of many new forest units in the eastern and southern States. The acreage protected, which had been close to 165 million acres between 1916 and 1930, has been around 184 million acres since 1941. [31] Expenditures for protection other than fire fighting, which did not reach 2.5 million dollars before the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, were more than 6.5 million dollars, or about 3.6 cents per acre protected, from 1943 to 1945.

The new national forests have added much to the fire-protection work load. Some are poorly consolidated. Many are in regions where woods burning is an accepted tradition. The fire problem has also grown steadily in the West as recreational uses, timber cutting, and other activities have increased.

Trends in frequency of forest fires reflect this (fig. 22). The number of recorded fires per million acres under protection averaged around 30 from 1914-23. Since 1936 it has averaged about 60, and exceeded 75 in 1936 and 1940. Although the fact is partly masked by the growing size of the job itself, fire control on national forests has become much more effective. The downward trend in acreage burned shows this (fig. 22). The average size of all fires 1937-46 was held below 25 acres, whereas for the decade 1921-30 it was 94 acres and for 1911-20, 174 acres.

FIGURE 22.—Trends in frequency and extent of fires on national forests, 1910-45. (click on image for a PDF version)

Between 1933 and 1945 the Civilian Conservation Corps made available, for the first time, ample manpower and facilities for fire control. Termination of the CCC in 1941 left a gap which substantial military assistance and increased appropriations during the war did not wholly overcome.

It will be difficult to maintain the good record of the past 13 years. Equipment, badly depreciated during the war, is still below par. Costs have outrun appropriations. And rebuilding an adequate fire-control organization poses many problems. Partly offsetting the less favorable factors, however, are technological advances such as planes, parachutes, and other facilities which enable men to get quickly into remote mountain country and hit fires while they are small.

But how adequate is national-forest fire protection? Roughly indicative is the ratio of the aver age annual burn to protected. area for a recent 5-year period (table 25). Of 184 million acres protected, an average of 317 thousand acres burned annually—a little over 0.17 percent. This is 29 percent more than in the prewar period, 1937-41, when abundant CCC assistance was at hand.

TABLE 25.—Average annual burn on national forests, 1941-45, by major sections

Section Acreage
Acreage burned annually

   United States183,947317.17

The area burned ranges from a negligible percent in New England to more than 1 percent in the South Atlantic and Southeast regions (fig. 23).

FIGURE 23.—Average annual burn on national forests by regions, 1941-45.

Undoubtedly, an over-all average annual burn of 0.20 percent or less is a good showing. It should not appreciably reduce timber yield, provided the damage is evenly distributed. However, a low national rate of burn often obscures high rates of regional and local damage.

Even locally, a small average annual burn does not necessarily mean satisfactory fire protection. A large fire once in 25 years may not be tolerable even though the average burn remains small. And small fires may cause intolerable damage in critical high-value areas, such as the watershed lands adjoining Los Angeles and other California cities. In such situations adequate protection means virtual exclusion of fire.

Much the same applies to key timber-growing lands. Where recurring fires have converted much commercial forest to worthless chaparral—as in the California Sierras and the white pine type in northern Idaho—virtual elimination of fires may be required to conserve enough productive growing stock to sustain the local economy.

These and other variables make it difficult to generalize as to adequacy of national-forest fire protection. However, nearly all the commercial acreage is receiving good protection which, in every region, compares favorably with the best of that attained on forest lands in other ownerships.

On the debit side, there are many localities where a great deal of improvement is needed. Rather generally in the South, the percent of burn is too high. In the North Rocky Mountain region, drought, lightning, and other factors combine about once every 5 years to set the stage for disastrous fires; here major effort will be required to keep the annual burn below one-tenth of 1 percent, the maximum amount consistent with satisfactory forest management for this region. Protection will need to be stepped up in many key areas in the Pacific Northwest. And in California, where timber, watershed, and recreation values are high and fires are unusually destructive, protection is clearly inadequate.

National-forest protection, then, should aim at: (1) Holding the annual burn on every working circle of commercial forest land to 0.20 percent of the area or less; (2) complete exclusion of fire from certain high-value areas, including critical watershed lands; (3) elimination of incendiary fires and reduction of man-caused fires to the accidental minimum; and (4) prevention of disaster fires—the big ones that get away.

Finally, forest-fire control effort and expenditures should be commensurate with national-forest values and the public benefits that accrue. New circumstances—such as the increased air travel into wild country, the opening up of remote areas to timber cutting, and the constantly changing public attitudes and demands—may profoundly affect forest-fire control on the national forests. We look increasingly to national forests for timber and other benefits. Their values are growing. Reflecting this is the trend in revenues from them, which have more than tripled since 1940. Wise public policy therefore calls for rising standards of fire protection, particularly for those key tracts that produce high income or other essential services.

Fire Protection on Other Federal Lands

Other Federal forest lands totaling about 54 million acres, of which 15 million is commercial, have a fire problem paralleling that of the national forests. They are administered by agencies of the Department of the Interior and are intermingled with some 121 million acres of wild nonforest lands also in need of protection.

About 54 percent of the forest land is in grazing districts, public domain, and Oregon and California revested grant lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Other categories include 16 million acres in Indian reservations; 7 million acres of national-park lands; and slightly less than 1 million acres held by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Progress in fire control has been variable. Most forests in Indian reservations and national parks have been under protection for many years. The others have been brought under protection more recently. Fire protection on grazing-district lands dates from 1935, when they were placed under administration. For most of the lands the greatest progress has been since 1933 as a result of the Civilian Conservation Corps program.

Except for the Indian and the O&C holdings, these forest lands are administered primarily for purposes other than timber production. In the main, protection criteria have not been formulated by which to measure results.

Data for the several categories of land, 1941-45, are roughly indicative of protection accomplishments, although they apply to all lands under protection—predominantly nonforest lands (table 26). They show an average yearly burn of less than a million acres or about three-fifths of 1 percent of the 152 million acres under protection.

TABLE 26.—Average annual burn on lands protected by the Department of the Interior, 1941-451

Administering Service Area protected Area burned

Million acres Thousand acres Percent
Grazing Service99.47580.76
Office of Indian Affairs36.4134.37
National Park Service9.612.12
Fish and Wildlife Service4.026.65
O&C Administration2.5

1Exclusive of unreserved public domain lands for which data are incomplete; these lands are scattered and only partly under protection.
2Of the 776,000 acres burned annually from 1942 to 1945, only about 5 percent was forest land.

National-park and Oregon and California revested lands make the best showing, with an average annual burn of only a little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the protected area. Grazing-district lands apparently receive the poorest protection, the average annual burn being about three-fourths of 1 percent for the 5-year period. [32]

Fire-control needs here aline closely with those on national forests. The objective for the Oregon and California revested lands and national-park lands—now receiving reasonably adequate protection—should be to maintain this good record and to intensify protection where needed for particularly critical areas. Both standards and accomplishments need to be raised substantially for the other four-fifths of these Federal forest lands.

Fire Protection on Private and State Lands

Organized fire protection on State and private forests got its first substantial impetus in 1911 through Federal support authorized by the Weeks Law. This Federal aid, restricted to forest watersheds of navigable streams, was broadened by the Clarke-McNary law in 1924 to apply to all timber lands as well as to critical nonforested watershed lands. These acts were milestones in cooperative fire control.

The area under protection increased steadily from 61 million acres in 1911 to 328 million acres in 1947 (fig. 24). Annual expenditures have risen from a quarter million dollars to more than 22 million dollars in 1947, when they amounted to 6.7 cents per acre protected.

FIGURE 24.—Area protected and expenditures, cooperative fire protection on private and State forest lands, 1911-47. (click on image for a PDF version)

Federal appropriations for cooperative protection, consistently less than State and private expenditures although visualized on a 50-50 sharing basis, have been stepped up in recent years. They did not exceed 26 percent of the total before Congress raised the annual authorization from 2.5 to 9 million dollars in 1944. In the fiscal year 1948, with the full 9-million-dollar authorization available they were only about 40 percent because of the increases in State expenditures. In addition much Federal aid in fire protection was given through the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1941 and under the special wartime measures for protection of strategic areas from 1942 to 1946.

All States except Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming participated in cooperative fire protection in 1947. Wyoming and North Dakota may eventually participate. In Arizona, the only remaining State with great natural forests, nearly all the commercial forest land is federally owned.

In spite of all that has been accomplished in cooperative protection, much still remains to be done. According to a survey completed in April 1946, more than one-fourth of the 439 million acres of private and State lands needing organized protection did not have it. These neglected lands are virtually all privately owned. Bringing them under effective protection is the No. 1 task in forest-fire control.

The bulk of the land in need of protection in 1946 but lacking it was in the Southeast, West Gulf, Central, and southern Plains regions (table 27). In the Southeast and West Gulf regions, where half of the private and State forest land lacks organized protection, fires burned over 17.6 percent of the unprotected area in 1946 in contrast to 1.6 percent of the protected territory.

TABLE 27.—Private and State forest lands without organized fire protection, and annual burn

Region Without
Annual burn2

West Gulf148
South Atlantic41
Plains (W. Okla. and W. Tex.)1319
North Rocky Mtn4(3)  
South Rocky Mtn6
     United States12017

1 Estimate for 1946.
2 Average, 1941-45.
3 No reliable data.

Some light is thrown upon the adequacy of fire control for the 319 million acres under organized protection by comparing the average annual burn with the "allowable" burn (fig. 25). This protection goal, established in 1946 for each of the cooperating States, represents the maximum percent of the land that can burn over annually consistent with satisfactory forest management.

FIGURE 25.—Relation of average annual burn, 1941-45, to the allowable burn, private and State forest lands under organized protection.

The allowable burn ranges from 0.13 percent in the North Rocky Mountain and Lake regions to 1.7 in the Southeast; the country-wide average is 0.6. In the period 1941-45, the Lake region was the only one with satisfactory protection, although several individual States in other regions held fires within the allowable burn. Nation-wide, after 35 years, an average of 1 percent of the protected area still burned over annually. And it must be kept in mind that protection has not yet been started on 27 percent of the State and private lands in need of it.

The twofold job ahead, clearly, is to (1) bring unprotected areas under effective control, and (2) build up protection to reasonable adequacy where now spread too thin.

Unless progress is accelerated, it will take about 20 years to bring under protection the 120 million acres remaining in 1946. This is too slow. A reasonable aim would be to do it within the next decade. To many States, especially in the South, this is a major challenge.

For lands now under protection the allowable burn objective should be attained in all States as soon as possible. Except for critical watershed lands, these standards appear adequate for timber growing and the other uses of forest lands.

Topping the obstacles to satisfactory fire control is the man-caused fire. Ninety-seven percent of the forest fires are in this category and hence, in theory, preventable. Of the 68,000 which occurred annually, 1941-45, on protected private and State lands, more than half were caused by campers, debris burners, and the like, and 9 percent by railroads and lumbering (fig. 26). Twenty-eight percent were purposely set.

FIGURE 26.—Causes of forest fires, private and state lands, 1941-45.

Incendiarism is most prevalent in the South, where it accounts for 43 percent of all fires. Here firing the woods is a long-established practice. When employed judiciously in certain types and under controlled conditions, fire can help establish a new crop of pine, improve grazing, reduce the hazard from inflammable debris, and serve other purposes. But most of the woods-burning throughout the South is indiscriminate and seriously impairs forest values. It is also a troublesome local problem in some western forests.

Prevention of man-caused fires is a knotty problem. Fundamentally it depends on an aroused public opinion. Effective educational work is being done by the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign, and by the "Keep Green" and similar programs. Education on a much more ample scale is needed.

Paralleling the educational problem is that of obtaining satisfactory fire laws. In about one-third of the States, the laws are inadequate. Most of the States where protection is poorest—in the South, the Central region, and the South Rocky Mountain region—do not require brush-burning permits. Many lack other safeguards relating to slash disposal, campfires, and restricted use of forest areas during hazardous periods.

Better enforcement of fire laws is another widespread need. The quality of enforcement reflects the attitudes of the people and local courts. Enforcement has been weak in the Southeast and West Gulf regions.

Still another problem is finances. Costs have markedly increased, better information is available on what adequate protection requires, and the area needing protection has been increased some 16 million acres. By recent estimates, adequate protection will cost about 40 million dollars a year, or more than double the estimate made in 1939. Total expenditures in 1947 were 22 million dollars. Obviously a dollar job cannot be done for 55 cents. Both Federal and State funds are short of the mark.

There is also need for more efficient administration—a responsibility of the States, primarily. There is wide variation in the efficiency of State forestry departments. This is related in one way or another to variations in value and extent of forest resources, in per capita wealth, in adequacy of fire laws, in civil service standards and salary levels, and many other factors. No uniform pattern or standards can be prescribed. Nevertheless, to achieve effective Nation-wide fire control, many State forestry departments must be further strengthened so as to assure continuity of programs, able leadership, competent, well-trained staffs, and ample authority and money to do the job.

All in all, we are a long way from eliminating the fire menace on private and State forests—on the whole the most accessible and potentially the most productive of our forest holdings. Fire protection alone will not assure good forestry, but obviously it is a first order of business on these lands.

Forest Insects and Diseases Take a Heavy Toll [33]

Insect and disease depredations are far less spectacular than forest fires and seldom attract much public attention. The destruction is of two main kinds: (1) The "endemic" losses resulting from normal activities of established insect and disease pests; and (2) the more evident "epidemic" losses from outbreaks that rapidly and markedly affect forests. [34]

A great variety of pests that cause endemic losses are constantly at work in the forest. Examples are the heart rots, blister rusts, and most of the insects and diseases that attack tree leaves and stems. These seldom kill trees outright, but gradually reduce growth and timber quality. Endemic losses may be of minor importance in young, fully stocked forests. But in mature stands they often accumulate to destroy timber faster than it is replaced by current growth. They flourish especially in unmanaged forests.

There is no satisfactory measure of endemic losses. They are, however, very large and offset a sizable portion of gross annual timber growth. [35] Except in parts of the West, the losses from disease are generally greater than from insects. A principal source is the heart rots, which occur in practically every timber stand. These cause annual cull losses of many million dollars in standing timber.

Epidemic losses are usually unpredictable. Little allowance can be made for them in the long-range management plans. Frequently so destructive as to jeopardize lumbering investments and operations, epidemic losses have always attracted most of the public attention and remedial action.

This country has many examples of damage from epidemics. The larch sawfly destroyed practically all mature stands of larch in the Lake States about 35 years ago. Chestnut was wiped out by an introduced parasite, the chestnut blight. Numerous bark-beetle outbreaks in the pine forests of the West and South have destroyed many billions of board feet of timber. Blister rust is a threat to valuable white pines wherever they occur.

Government agencies have mostly centered efforts on control of epidemics after they have become full-blown outbreaks; on quarantine and inspection to exclude foreign pests; and on research to develop the basic techniques of control.

Only a small beginning has been made in adjusting forest-management practices to reduce insect and disease losses. Yet, generally speaking, good forestry is the best preventive for these losses. It helps keep insects and diseases from reaching the epidemic stage where control may be very expensive, if not impossible. Moreover, well-managed forests are usually accessible and closely utilized. This permits better clean-up of dead and dying timber and greatly facilitates control operations. Conversion of natural stands to fast-growing, managed forests will remove the trees most susceptible to attack. A vigorous growing forest—a prime aim in forestry—suffers comparatively little injury from most insects and certain diseases. For others, against which mere vigor does not protect, much can be done through adjusting species mixture or stand density and avoiding unnecessary wounding.

During the decade 1936-45, 54 million dollars of Federal, State, and private funds was spent on control:

Expenditures for forest insect-disease
control, 1936-45 (million dollars)

Federal State and
   White pine blister rust26.22.528.7
   Gypsy moth12.911.023.9
   Other insects1.4

More than half was spent on white pine blister rust, about 44 percent on gypsy moth. Much of the latter, however, was spent for protection of roadside and shade trees. The small expenditures for control of other forest insects—the bark beetles, weevils, defoliators, and other pests—reflect the national disregard for the heavy damage inflicted by them.

Federal expenditures exceeded 40 million dollars, about 75 percent of the total. A considerable part was spent on Federal forests. However, more Federal money was spent on private and State forest lands than the 13.5 million dollars from State and private sources. Most of the latter was for gypsy moth alone.

Emergency appropriations for the CCC, WPA, and other work-relief programs represented 54 percent of Federal expenditures for 1936-45 and about 45 percent of the total expenditures from all sources. Regular Federal appropriations increased from 1.3 million dollars in 1936 to nearly 3.1 million in 1945.

Control of insects and diseases has been too slow-paced. Valuable time has too often been lost while awaiting special Federal or State appropriations, or participation by private forest owners.

With this record of "too little and too late," the continuing threat of major insect and disease epidemics should be faced squarely. A widespread outbreak of spruce budworm now threatens spruce and balsam in the Northeast. The valuable commercial white pines may be confined by blister rust to areas of high productivity where expensive control can be economically justified. Destructive outbreaks of bark beetles and other major pests are hazards over wide areas. It will take fast, concerted action on a much more ample scale to keep losses to a tolerable level.

Clearly, several things have been lacking. Among them is a well-organized detection system to catch incipient outbreaks before they grow. With this, there should be adequate facilities for prompt suppression. Epidemics, like fires, almost invariably spread from small infestation centers. Discovering the trouble spots while they are small should not be left to chance. As in fire control, time is of the essence in both detection and suppression.

Not the least of obstacles is the deficiency of technical information on which to base control action. There are many gaps in knowledge despite the effective work done in limited research. [36] For one thing, not enough is known about foreign pests. Machinery for preventing their entry is well developed. This, however, cannot operate as an efficient selective quarantine without more advance knowledge of potentially dangerous introductions.

Public agencies will have to lead the way in prevention and control. Indeed, as in forest-fire protection, the Federal-State responsibility is paramount. It rests, in general, on the huge public stake in forest resources; on the need for blanket application of control measures without respect to landownership or State lines; on the inability of individual owners acting alone to cope with these risks.

Control operations have demonstrated the need for concerted action—Federal, State, and private—particularly where forest lands of diverse ownership are intermingled. These activities need to be greatly stepped up. Private participation has been mostly by organized protective associations in the West. State participation has been limited. A primary need is for Federal leadership and participation at least on a par with that provided in cooperative fire control.

The Forest Pest Control Act of June 25, 1947, marks a notable advance toward meeting this need. It recognizes the Federal responsibility in Nation-wide forest protection against insects and diseases and provides flexible authority for direct action and for cooperation with State and other agencies. It sets the stage for an adequate, system to detect incipient outbreaks and suppress them promptly.

On the whole, the protection of forests—whether against bugs, decay, or fire—is of high priority, and we need to get on with it without delay. There is widespread acceptance of the need for eliminating these hazards. There is also reasonable agreement on how to do it. Moreover, it is an essential phase of the much larger problem of getting good forestry practiced on private lands.

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Last Updated: 17-Mar-2010