Four years after the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905 and 18 years after the Forest Reserve Act cleared the way for today’s network of national forests, a fledgling forestry program took root at the University of Montana.
Edward Kirkwood was tapped to lead the newly named Department of Botany and Forestry, and a “short forestry course” was advertised in the Montana Kaimin. A ranger program was established, and a tree nursery opened on campus.
The upstart program at UM was off and running, one of the first in the nation. But it wasn’t until 1913 – three years after the Big Burn scorched 3 million acres across Montana, Idaho and Washington, killing 87 people – that the state authorized establishment of the School of Forestry, which named Dorr Skeels its first dean.
“They were beginning to teach ecology and the wood-product areas that were important to mining and railroads – those early uses of the forest,” said UM Provost Perry Brown, who served as forestry dean from 1994 to 2008. “We’d gone through these periods of fires, like the Big Burn, and there was a realization that we really needed to manage our forests and protect them.”
One hundred years later, the UM School of Forestry and Conservation, as it’s now known, continues to evolve with the times, meeting new congressional mandates, emerging social needs, the impacts of climate change and the fallout of prolonged fire suppression.
What began as a timber-based school in 1913 has grown to offer 17 degree programs ranging from wildlife biology to wildland restoration and cutting-edge fire science. And while resource management is still part of the program, conservation and collaborative management have become core principles within the curriculum.
“A lot of times, human demands are in excess of the environmental capacity to produce them,” said James Burchfield, current dean of the School of Forestry and Conservation. “We need natural resource professionals who know how to work with people, understand their interests and needs, and know how to meet those needs while sustaining ecological function.”
Managing forests for the greatest good and benefit of all marks a struggle dating back to the early 20th century, when forests were seen for their timber and the U.S. Forest Service focused heavily on logging.
By the mid-20th century, a new set of social values emerged that would result in a landslide of policy changes. America’s forests represented more than just trees, and the public demanded a new direction.
“What’s true in Montana, as in other places around the country, people came to value the forest not just for wood,” Burchfield said. “Prior to any science-based forestry, we were good at cutting down trees. But in the mid-part of the century, there was growing awareness of the multiple values around forests.”
As a word, “conservation” was codified in Montana in 1937 when the Legislature enacted the Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station. But as a philosophy, conservation didn’t fully emerge from the shadows until the 1950s, when it became clear that the nation’s forests could no longer meet the demands of a growing, postwar population.
Increased pressure on forest resources set the stage in 1960 for Congress to pass the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act. For the first time, the Forest Service was directed to manage its land not just for timber, but also for range, water, recreation and wildlife. And like the federal agency, the School of Forestry was changing as well, incorporating new philosophies into its program, along with a doctorate in forestry.
“The school started out focused on protection and maintenance of forests and evolved, like the Forest Service did, to manage for timber, recreation, range, grasslands and wildlife,” Brown said. “It became a much broader school, and it followed the path of the county, which had come to value multiple uses.”
By 1962, UM’s School of Forestry had named Arnold Bolle its new dean. His appointment was timely, and it followed his tenure as a professor of forest economics and natural resource policy.
At the request of the late U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf, D-Mont., Bolle led a university review of the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act. The seven-member committee found that quality timber management and harvesting practices had been missing from Forest Service operations in the Bitterroot Valley, where the agency attempted to recontour the land to grow more trees.
All other uses as required by the Multiple Use act appeared as “afterthoughts,” the UM committee found. Bolle’s team indicted the Forest Service for ignoring the economics of regeneration, forest values and social concerns, and suggested that the agency’s work was “out of step with changes in our society since the post-war years.”
The U.S. Senate published the results of Bolle’s findings in 1970. Known as the Bolle Report, the results pushed forest managers to consider the public will when creating future management plans – a move that rocked the agency and marked a major shift in philosophy.
It remains a proud achievement in the school’s history.
“That was a monument, in my mind, to the faculty at this school, regardless of how the (Forest Service) felt about it,” said Ronald Wakimoto, a professor of forest fire science in the school’s Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences. “These were things people had thought about for a long time. There were alternate uses for the forest than just timber production.”
The history of the Forest Service and the federal regulations guiding it are long and complex. They include the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1976 National Forest Management Act, and the Organic Act, among others.
Burchfield, who arrived at UM in 1996 as director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests, cites the legislation easily, along with the School of Forestry’s colorful history – the three UM forestry students killed in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire and “Bertha,” the school’s stuffed moose, which often goes missing when the Foresters’ Ball approaches.
Looking ahead, Burchfield now sees a push toward collaborative land management. The subject dominates much of his own work at the university, and it’s something he respected in his predecessor Bolle.
“We’ve seen Montana’s role as being one that empowers grassroots organizations and local residents to be the managers of their own lands,” Burchfield said. “We’re seeing that play out in multiple forms, whether it’s Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, or the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act, where Montanans have really come together to embrace the process of collaboration.”
Brown also believes that new and unique challenges lie in the future. Climate change, new technology, water quality and growing pressure on natural resources will require the School of Forestry to stay responsive to human needs.
In one way or another, all forest issues are people issues, Brown said. The school must evolve to remain socially relevant, just as it has done over the past century.
“I think the program is going to continue to be responsive to a worldwide need to manage forest and grassland environments,” Brown said. “We’ll see the school evolve to have a very strong worldwide perspective, and how we work in a wide variety of ecosystems.”
And more than ever before, Wakimoto said, new and emerging sciences are playing a greater role in the school’s programs.
“The kind of science we do has really stepped things up,” said Wakimoto, who has taught at UM since 1982. “In all these different areas of natural resource management, from the Recreation and Tourism Institute to the climate-change work that Steve Running does, they’re applying science to help people in Montana deal with these new challenges.”