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Sec. C Pg 34 Missoulian Centennial Missoula Emerges as Forest Service Regional Headquarters; Offices in Hammond Block

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Missoula Emerges as Forest Service Regional Headquarters; Offices in Hammond Block

Vast, raw forests were being proclaimed one after another in Montana just after the turn of the century. They were dropped into the lap of a struggling new agency manned by a handful of ex-cowpunchers of Charlie Russell vintage, a few loggers, some youthful easterners, and a tiny nucleus of more seasoned foresters. The territory which was to become Region 1 of the Forest Service stretched from the Great Lakes westward to Washington, and from Wyoming’s Big Horns north to the Canadian border.

Fire Speeds System

Fire, raging over millions of these areas[1], was the catalyst which was to shape men and organization into a working system of forest resource management.

Missoula was soon to emerge as headquarters of forest administration in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region. The old Bitter Root Reserve and the two Lewis and Clark Reserves had been set up nearby before 1900. In the first two years of the century, the Elkhorn, Absaroka, Little Belt, Kootenai, and Madison Forest Reserves were proclaimed. In 1903 and 1904 forest agents were busy locating other likely reserves closer to Missoula.

Forest Service Born

Meanwhile Congress had become interested. In 1905 the old Bureau of Forestry and the forest reserves were transferred to the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service was born. While the change-over from the Bureau of Forestry was taking place, the Missoula, Hellgate and the Lolo forests were proclaimed. The Lolo, Bitter Root, and Missoula forests were under the supervision of E. A. Sherman. Chief of operations for various forests in the Northern Rockies and plans area was Elers Koch with headquarters in Washington D.C. In 1906 Koch moved to Missoula to take over Sherman’s job and Sherman, in turn, took over as inspector in charge for the area which became known as Inspection District 1.

The big jobs for these early foresters were inspection of the former reserves and organization of staffs for both the older forests and those just proclaimed. Series of field tests were conducted and some of the early appointees sifted out. To aid in inspection and exploration, Inspector in Charge Sherman had a staff of general inspectors including F. A. Silcox, C. H. Adams, Paul Redington and George Cecil.

Missoula Becomes Center

Missoula became the official center for national forest operations in the Northern Rocky Mountain District in December 1908. The present regional office system was set up on Dec. 1 with the district office in the old Hammond Block where the Hammond Arcade now stands.

W. B. Greeley was district forester and F. A. Silcox his assistant. Both of these men later became chiefs of the Forest Service. There were about 80 people on the staff and just over 300 Forest Service employees in the region. The arrival of the regional office marked the end of the primary pioneering period and the beginning of a new era in administration. But, before the new organization came of age, it was to undergo trial by wildfire.

A series of forest fires in the summer of 1908 helped condition newer foresters for the big test that came two years later. The spring and summer of 1910 were gun-powder dry; the forests were as free of moisture as a well-kept tinder box. By Aug. 15 the Forest Service had controlled 3,090 large forest fires. Then, on Aug. 20, a vicious wind whipped out of the southwest. The sky turned an ominous yellow. Flames drove through the forests of Idaho and western Montana. Towns, homesteads, lumber camps, bridges, went up in the roaring inferno. Fire fighters were trapped by wind-driven flames.

By the time rains slowed the fires two days later there were 85 known dead. More than three million acres of forest had burned. Trainloads of refugees were brought into Missoula from the west and Missoula turned out 1,000 strong to feed and house them.[2] Missoulians vied with each other for an opportunity to help refugees from Wallace, Mullan and other towns to the west.

Fire Control Planned

The defeat suffered by the Forest Service in the 1910 fires indicated a need for better fire control facilities. Fire control plans were drafted and a warehouse was set up near where the Bitter Root branch joins the main line. From these beginnings, the forest fire control system has developed into one of the most efficient in the world.

Much of the development in fire control was done under Silcox who became regional forester in 1911 when Greeley left Missoula to become chief of the Forest Service. In 1913 the district office was moved into the old Federal Building over the present Post Office.

Silcox remained as district forester until 1917 when R. H. Rutledge took over the post. It was under Silcox that the forest road program got under way in 1914 with the Bitter Root-Big Hole road and another road on the Kootenai. In 1910 foresters and stockmen held meetings to establish range use allotments. Families of some of these early permittees are holders of current grazing permits.

Important Period

One of the immediate needs after the big burns of 1910 was to salvage as much as possible of timber killed or injured by the fires. The period from 1911 to 1917 was an important one in the development of timber use in District 1. The annual cut of timber from national forests increased from 99,000,000 board feet in 1910 to 197,000,000 in 1914 – about one-fourth of the amount harvested in the region in 1958.

There were to be more bad fire years, but none to compare to 1910. In 1917 a total of 10,000 men were hired to fight forest fires, but 1919 is remembered as the next to the worst fire year in the history of the region.

The years before 1919 had seen the Forest Service in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region develop from a fledgling, undermanned bureau into an organized agency capable of protecting the public forests. Guidelines such as “Wise, perpetual use,” and “The greatest good of the greatest number in the long run,” were rapidly becoming realities in the management of national forest resources.


[1] Probably meant acres

[2]Marguerite Berry (Gilder - Dickerman), my grandmother, was one of these. She was a teacher in St. Regis, Mt.

Last Updated on Sunday, 20 November 2016 22:25