Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I'll protect it now.
These lines from poet George Pope Morris [1802- 1864] might well have been written in protest to the widespread devastation of virgin forests that existed in the nineteenth century as trees were felled for lumber to supply the demand for building better houses. People wanted nicer dwellings than the log cabins that characterized the early-settlement period of our mountain lands.
As we saw the life and times of Jim Berry, last of the "true mountaineers" in the last two columns here, we learned that he was an employee of the Vogel-Pfister Land Company that dealt mainly in harvesting trees for timber in the Southern Appalachians.
Following the Civil War, a proliferation of timber harvesting occurred in this mountain region. The work of cutting trees and getting them to sawmills set up on streams provided much-needed employment. Very little attention was given to environmental practices and preserving the land or its forests. Large land companies, with an eye for the timber market, bought up lands the early settlers had received in either gold lots or land lots. The lands were cut over and many chestnut, oak, and hemlock trees yielded bark for tanning businesses and lumber for houses. It was a perilous time for mountain forests. The mountain landowners, many owing taxes on their acreage, sold land for as little as $1.00 per acre. Capitalists took advantage of a poverty-level situation and amassed land once rich with virgin timber. The plea of Morris's poem, "Touch not a single bough!" went unheeded. Former farmers sought refuge in the "lumber camps" that sprang up. There they found shelter and subsistence wages.
Erosion set in. Wildfires were prevalent. With forest deadenings widespread, floods came, with nothing to prevent the water from taking the topsoil in formerly productive farmlands. It was a sad and ruinous time. A voice was heard among all the destruction. His name was Gifford Pinchot, one of the first environmentalists. He urged that government and citizens do something about the "burned, slashed, and over-grazed forest." President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in, and in 1901 he ordered that "the preservation of the mountain forests should no longer be left to the caprice of private capital."
The famous Weeks Act was passed in the US Congress on March 1, 1911. In this Act, the U. S. Department of Agriculture was authorized to purchase lands that had been cut over and denuded. Gifford Pinchot's pleas had been heard. The slow process of restoration was set in motion. It did not happen quickly, for growing trees takes time. Restoring natural resources is a slow process.
Out of the Weeks Act grew the National Forest Service Reservation Commission. In 1911, large tracts of mountain land, about 31,000 acres in all, in Union, Fannin, Lumpkin and Gilmer Counties were purchased for $7.00 per acre. The seller was the Gennett Land and Lumber Company of Atlanta, Georgia. The purchase became official on August 29, 1912. A small portion of the lands acquired by the National Forest Service still had stands of virgin timber, but most of the land had been cut-over, cleared, or desecrated through careless industrial cutting and logging.
Another aspect of this era of mountain history shows a decline in population. For example, Union County statistics reveal that population dropped over ten percent from 1900 through 1910. Due to the ecological changes brought about by environmental excesses, people had to leave to find work elsewhere. The poor mountain farms could not support the population. The "westward" movement to Colorado and other western states and influx to manufacturing towns like Gainesville, Dalton and Atlanta accounted for the population decrease.
The Gennett Purchase began the stewardship of forest lands that would eventually lead to formation of the Chattahoochee National Forest in 1936. At first, these lands were incorporated into the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests in Tennessee and North Carolina. Gifford Pinchot's pleas were being heeded. Goals were set for reforestation, planting of new trees. Management of soil, water and wildlife were incorporated into the plan.
Two important names emerge in this early period of National Forest management. Ranger Roscoe Nicholson was the first Forest Ranger in the North Georgia Region. His area was the Tallulah Ranger District. Ranger Arthur Woody of Union County also made a name for himself as he was employed by the Forest Service. They patrolled with an iron will. They used trained bloodhounds to trace down forest arsonists. The first fire towers were built by them and the men they employed—Union County's at Brasstown Bald. Ranger Woody used his own money to stock streams with trout and the forests with deer when these were not forthcoming from Forest Service funds. Ranger Nick and Ranger Woody were brave pioneers who set the pace for later practices that were expanded and enforced.
Credit is due President Franklin Roosevelt's programs to help the nation recover from the Great Depression that began in earnest in October of 1929. During his presidency, beginning in 1932, his "Alphabet Projects" tackled the job market and supplied workers for needed efforts to bring America back into competitive production. The Civilian Conservation Corps was organized in 1933. Camp Woody near Suches and the CCC Camp at Goose Creek on Highway 129 had the boys working to plant trees, check tree blights and insect infestations, build firetowers, fight forest fires, build roads and Vogel State Park. A new day dawned for the mountain forests of North Georgia.
c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published October 2, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.