As a new young professional in the forestry world, my knowledge of the historic and modern lumber industry in the United States and its connection to the scientific study of forests is still growing. The handful of forestry and plant ecology courses I took during college focused on general ecology and individual plant traits rather than humans’ use of forest products. Most of my exposure to the lumber industry was through brief mentions about our lack of old growth forests and our forests’ role during the industrialization of the United States. Images of huge log jams and ecological dead zones came to mind first when I thought about the logging industry. While those mental images are certainly an important aspect of historic forestry, they are not necessarily reflective of what current practices look like (as you might have guessed from our current lack of two mile long log jams). I have become increasingly curious about the transition from landscapes devoid of trees and rivers clogged with logs to properly managed forests and streams.

While the Alliance team was not able to make it to the Cradle of Forestry, an Alliance hat did! (Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver)

I began learning about that transition, in part, on a recent trip with a friend to Asheville, North Carolina. As we were piecing together our exploration of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Google Maps, I came across a location called The Cradle of Forestry, home of the Biltmore School of Forestry. I immediately wanted to check it out. While I had a rough idea that this place was important to my career, based on its bold name, I didn’t realize the extent to which that was true.

And so there I found myself, dragging my friend into the visitor center’s mini theater to watch a 30-minute documentary. As we sat there listening, I was captivated by the actors’ portrayal of the beginning of the first forestry school in the United States. Not too far from where I sat was the original building for the Biltmore School of Forestry, the first attempt to improve the historic logging practices that had previously been commonplace in the rapidly developing United States.

Previous logging practices functioned on the idea that the North American forests were practically endless. The expansive forests and their supply of timber was one of the reasons why colonists came to North America in the first place; after running out of lumber and firewood in England, they had to look elsewhere for these goods. Not much thought was given to the forest’s limited supply, however, so the same practices that had been used in England were used once again: cut down every tree over a certain size, send the timber to mills, and move onto the next location. However, that approach left behind a limited diversity of small and/or slow growing trees that created a dysfunctioning forest in the long term. These were the degraded forest conditions that the Biltmore Estate found itself in during the late nineteenth century.

The Biltmore School of Forestry’s name comes from its close connection to the Biltmore Estate; you may have heard of this estate as it holds the title of “America’s Largest Home.” It was owned and built by George Washington Vanderbilt II, who completed construction in 1889 after 6 years of work¹. While you can pay large sums of money to tour the mansion and it’s garden, the part that interests me is the 125,000 acres of land that surround it. These acres had been logged in the late 1800s with traditional practices and as a result, the land there was devoid of any trees of value, much like the rest of the United States at the time after the logging industry had moved through it.

The Biltmore School of Forestry only had a small one room building for lectures. Students spent the mornings in this building before venturing into the field for afternoon lessons (Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver).

Vanderbilt had Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park) work to design the proximate grounds and gardens. Olmstead then recommended they hire Gifford Pinchot, one of the two trained foresters in the United States at the time, to create a plan for how to manage the surrounding forest. Pinchot passed this responsibility to Carl Schenck in 1895. Schenck was a trained forester (now one of three in the United States) but grew up and went to school in Germany. He was unfamiliar with tree species, wildlife, and ecosystems of North America but managed to translate the techniques he learned at the University of Giessen to the forests of North Carolina’s Appalachians.²

It was quickly apparent to Schenck that there was a lack of knowledgeable foresters and forest management in the region. So in 1898 he started the Biltmore School of Forestry, the first forestry school in North America, on the Biltmore Estate property. The school trained over 300 young foresters through morning classes and afternoon field experiences. They even held a three-day gathering called the Biltmore Forest Festival in 1908 complete with tours, a gala, hunting competitions, and lessons on forest management. Following the event, Schenck noted that the general public had “for the first time in their lives…seen real forestry in America; for the first time they had visited a tract of primeval woods not devastated, but actually flourishing, after lumbering.”³

As you walk around the Cradle of Forestry, you can see several of the remaining structures from the forestry school including (left to right) an American Log Loader, Carl Schenck’s office, and a saw mill (Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver).

The practices that Schenck advocated for entailed sustainable forest management, which began to be developed in Europe in the 18th century. The point of this management style is to be able to harvest timber on a property into perpetuity, so rather than simply clearing stand after stand of timber, these forests were managed for the long term. His lectures included topics such as “age of trees fit for natural seed regeneration,” “light demanders and shade bearers,” and “ecological factors and their influence on sylva” ⁴. Schenk stayed at the Biltmore Estate for 14 years until disagreements arose between him and the Vanderbilts, leading him to leave and direct a traveling forestry school for several years. In 1914, 86,000 acres of the Biltmore Estate’s forest was sold by the Vanderbilts to the US Forest Service to create Pisgah National Forest, which is the forest that I found myself exploring on my recent vacation.

The view following a brief but steep hike to the top of Mount Pisgah is well worth the effort. You can easily see several nearby peaks on the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains that run through part of the Pisgah National Forest.
Photo caption 6: Photo Credit: Josh Delcourt. The Biltmore Stick is held at arms length against a tree trunk. The stick has built in calculations that translate your width measurements to give the tree’s diameter (Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver).

Obviously much has changed in the world of forestry since the 1890s. The Vanderbilts started their initial reforestation and forestry efforts in order to have a forest that was deemed a necessity for a “baronial estate”.³ Now, forest management plans and objectives recognize there are far greater benefits to forests than creating your ideal baronial estate like wood and non-timber forest products, supporting wildlife, sequestering carbon, helping to address climate change, providing oxygen, and recreation, to name a few. The field of scientific forestry has expanded immensely and has been the norm in the United States for roughly a century.

And now, looking towards the next steps in my forestry learning process, I’ll be joining the other members of the Alliance’s forests team to do forest inventory work this summer. We will collect canopy and understory data for use in SILVAH (Silviculture of Allegheny Hardwoods). This program analyzes the field data to support human decision making on overstory harvests and other vegetation treatments (like thinning or invasive plant control), to ensure that the stand will have good regeneration of desired tree species. This computer program, which was developed by Gifford Pinchot’s own US Forest Service in the 1990s, aligns with his dream of sustainable, scientifically based forestry. SILVAH and other systems like it are now commonplace among accredited foresters, who now take long-term ecology into account when making decisions on what trees to cut, when to cut them, and what steps need to be taken before and after the cut. If you see a modern clearcut, the chances are high that rather than a horrendous act of irresponsible expediency, it was scientifically prescribed as the best way to regenerate the desired tree canopy, usually that of oaks.

The Biltmore Stick is held at arms length against a tree trunk. The stick has built in calculations that translate your width measurements to give the tree’s diameter (Photo Credit: Josh Delcourt).

One of the tools we’ll be using this summer is a Biltmore Stick, which quickly measures a tree’s diameter. As you may have guessed, this tool originated from Carl Schenck’s Biltmore School of Forestry. Funny enough, the first time I even saw this tool was just a week before heading to North Carolina. At the time I didn’t know about its history or where it came from, much like my exposure to the practice of sustainable forestry. I expect to measure a lot of trees with one this summer as I continue to assist my teammates in their endeavors to keep spreading the messages of sustainable forestry that were first spoken, on this continent anyway, at the Biltmore Estate.

Want to learn more about sustainable forest management without having to drive to North Carolina? You’re in luck! Visit Forests for the Bay for an expansive clearinghouse of forestry information.