Forestry industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The forestry industry in the United States dates back to the colonial era and remains integral to the economy. An abundance of wood aided in the rapid expansion of the United States. Wood was used to build everything from homes and factories to ships and wagons, and it also supplied chemicals such as tannin, potash, and lye for use in industry. In the twenty-first century, forest products are used primarily in the production of lumber, paper, and many plastics and chemicals.

The first forest products that American colonists shipped to Europe were masts for ships cut from New England pines and potash manufactured by burning hardwoods in the coastal mid-Atlantic region. From its earliest days, the American forestry industry has included more than simply wood for building. For example, tanneries used hemlock bark for processing leather, and wood ashes were leached to produce lye, a chemical necessary for making soap and for other industrial applications.Forestry industry

Historical Background

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, foresters marked trees in North American forests to show that they were reserved for use by the British crown, although colonists often ignored the marks as settlements grew and land was cleared for farming. The timber resources of the North American continent appeared so vast that colonial governors quickly abandoned efforts to impose timber-cutting laws in the colonies similar to the regulations enforced in Europe. The early forestry industry was fragmented, with wood harvesting done on a small scale. Settlers clearing land for farming would sell timber to local sawmills or to wood yards, where people could purchase fuel for fireplaces. Potash was produced on individual farms, and brokers would travel the countryside collecting it. As the country grew, however, the forest product industries increased in size and emerged as distinct full-time business enterprises rather than one of many part-time activities undertaken on farms and plantations.

Even as lumbering operations grew in size, however, until the mid-nineteenth century the forestry industry functioned as it had for millennia: Trees were felled by axmen or sawyers and the timber was moved by brute force. Railroad ties, for example, were squared by tie hackers using adzes to cut each tie to length and shape before the ties left the woods for market. The ties were then hand loaded onto sledges or wagons for transport. Although subtle differences in logging practices existed from region to region, sometimes dictated by the local topography or species of timber being harvested and sometimes by personal preference, generally forestry workers could travel from Maine to Louisiana, from the Carolinas to the Pacific Northwest, and not be surprised by the equipment being used. No matter where the logger was employed, in-woods equipment used for felling consisted of axes, crosscut saws, and bucksaws, and the work was organized similarly regardless of whether the timber being felled was located in Pennsylvania or California.

In the heyday of white pine logging in Michigan, for example, the operations involved in cutting and moving one log might involve a dozen different men. A two-man crosscut saw team felled the tree, then it was limbed and cut to saw-log lengths by the bucking crew. Other men using logging tongs or a two-man come-along would move it to a point where a chain could be attached, then a teamster with a horse would skid the log to a temporary landing in the woods. From that landing, logs would be hauled out to a larger landing to await final transport to the mill. A small two- to four-man crew piled the logs at the landing. This crew consisted of two men who attached and detached the cabling or chains to the logs and directed the guide cables, and the operator who controlled the winch. The winch was variously powered by horses, steam engines (donkey engines), or gasoline engines, depending on the time period and the resources of the company doing the logging. The larger firms, such as Diamond Match Company or Weyerhauser, were more likely to invest in power equipment than the small, independent contractors. If the winch was horse-powered, the crew also included a teamster.

In any region of the country, topography and the type of timber harvested could affect the size of the logging crew involved in harvesting each stem. In the smaller timber of the South and the pulpwood forests of Canada, instead of a two-man crosscut saw team, individual sawyers armed with bow saws felled trees, while the large timber of the Pacific Northwest required additional workers who would prepare the path where the tree would fall. High-lead and skyline cable logging systems and logging that use river drives called for workers with additional and different skills. Not every logger wanted to–or could be–a drover. Before the development of railroad logging, in northern climates much of the lumbering took place during the winter months, when snow and ice made it easier to drag logs out of the woods to a landing on a riverbank. When the snow melted, the logs would be floated downstream to the mills.

Nineteenth Century Innovations

Following the U.S. Civil War, several innovations emerged that, when combined, sped up the pace of production and encouraged the emergence of large forest product companies, many of which survive into the twenty-first century, such as Weyerhauser. Raker teeth on crosscut saws, big wheels, steam-powered donkey engines, railroad logging, and cable yarding systems were all developed during the 1870’s. All five innovations corresponded with the boom years of the lumber industry. The big wheel and high-lead cable skidding were both based on the desire to make logs easier to move by lifting the leading ends off the ground and eliminating the need to wait to log in the winter, when snow and ice could be used for skidways. High-lead cable systems made logging possible on the rugged mountain slopes of the Pacific Northwest. The raker tooth cleared sawdust from the cut and dramatically reduced sawing time per tree, and donkey engines replaced horses and oxen to provide skidding and loading power that never became fatigued. The first recorded use of a donkey engine occurred when John Dolbeer of the Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company of Eureka, California, began snaking logs out of the redwoods along Salmon Creek in August, 1881.

The Lake George and Muskegon River Railroad established in October, 1876, was the first successful logging Railroadsrailroad in the United States. Railroad logging freed the forestry industry from the geographical limitations of river drives, although loggers could be quite ingenious in using extremely small streams of water to transport timber during the spring runoff in areas where no railroads yet existed. Indeed, the forestry industry succeeded in cutting vast reaches of Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other states before any rails were ever laid in those regions. Where no natural bodies of water existed, loggers would construct flumes and canals, and when water was particularly scarce, as in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana, or the wood unsuitable for floating (for example, the redwoods of California), greased skidways.

More significant than removing seasonal restrictions, railroads removed species limitations in the lake states and elsewhere. Many varieties of wood were not sufficiently buoyant to be transported by river drives. Before railroad logging, these trees were viewed as unusable by lumbermen. Almost all green wood will not float, and even when dry, many hardwoods are too dense for water transport. Therefore, in many frontier areas, mixed stands of hardwoods had been considered commercially useless.

The growth of large lumber companies operating multiple camps and employing hundreds of men paralleled the growth of railroad logging. Equipment developed for use with railroad logging, such as the Barnhart and McGiffert loaders, was large, steam powered, and capital-intensive. Large volumes of wood had to harvested and processed to make railroad logging operations profitable. Lumbermen who were able to continually expand their business and take advantage of the economies of scale that railroad logging represented, including Frederick Weyerhauser, FrederickWeyerhauser, thrived during the late nineteenth century. From primitive temporary clusters of shacks in the woods, Weyerhauser logging camps evolved into stable company towns, such as Shelton, Washington, set up to efficiently process, from the stump right through the mill, large amounts of timber.

Weyerhauser was also one of the first in the forestry industry to recognize the need to practice sustainable forestry. Rather than doing what had been common practice–harvesting large tracts of land and then moving on–Weyerhauser pioneered tree farming. As the supplies of old-growth, untouched forest dwindled, other companies followed Weyerhauser’s lead. By the mid-twentieth century it was common practice for the major forest product companies, such as Georgia-Pacific, Union Camp, Mead, and others, to manage plantation forests covering many thousands of acres. As mature trees are harvested, young trees are planted to replace them.

An Industry in Transition

The era of railroad logging was short-lived. Highly capital intense, railroad logging needed large harvests to be profitable, and by the 1930’s those large harvests were gone. Except for the Pacific Northwest region, the thick stands of old-growth timber no longer existed. Also, along with the disappearance of the unlimited supply of timber, the demand for wood had changed. Other building materials, such as brick and concrete, had supplanted pine and spruce in new construction. In urban areas, the wooden buildings of the nineteenth century were replaced by the brownstones and skyscrapers of the twentieth century. The demand for lumber peaked in 1910 and steadily declined for the next forty years.

The decline in the demand for saw timber was counterbalanced by a steadily increasing demand for pulpwood and chemical wood, but the species utilized for pulpwood as well as the size of the trees harvested often differed from those used for saw timber. Processes for manufacturing paper from wood pulp came into wide use during the late nineteenth century, and the Papermaking industrypapermaking industry grew rapidly. Trees too small to be cut for lumber could be used for making paper or for chemical wood for the growing plastics industry, which in turn meant harvesting previously cut-over regions could be profitable. However, while railroad logging to clear-cut thousands of acres of virgin white pine for lumber made economic sense, railroad logging to harvest much smaller stands of second-growth forest did not.

At the same time, improvements in the internal combustion engine brought trucks and tractors to the woods. By the 1930’s power chain saws were being introduced. The forestry industry became increasingly mechanized as hydraulic loaders, skidders, and other equipment eliminated the need for hand labor. The process was gradual, but by the end of the twentieth century much of the work that one hundred years earlier was done by workers on the ground, from felling trees to loading them for transport to a mill, was now accomplished by a machine with an operator sitting safely in a climate-controlled cab.

As the forestry industry entered the twenty-first century, it remained an integral part of the U.S. economy. The demand for wood products, both in their most natural forms and for use in producing paper and synthetic materials like rayon, continued to grow. Sustainable forestry practices will ensure the industry continues to meet consumer needs well into the future.

Further Reading
  • Brown, Nelson Courtland. Forest Products: The Harvesting, Processing, and Marketing of Materials Other than Lumber. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1950. A good discussion of the various uses for wood in plastics, paper, and other applications.
  • Clary, David. Timber and the Forest Service. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1986. An engaging, highly readable history of the U.S. Forest Service that includes an explanation of why it sometimes seems to pursuing conflicting goals.
  • Connor, Mary Roddis. A Century with Connor Lumber: Connor Forest Industries, 1872-1972. Stevens Point, Wis.: Worzalla, 1972. An interesting account of one particular lumber company with a long history in the upper Midwest.
  • Hickman, Nollie W. Mississippi Harvest. Montgomery, Ala.: Paragon Press, 1962. A fascinating look at the forestry industry in an often overlooked region of the country, the southern pine forest.
  • McEvoy, Thomas J., and James Jeffords. A Sustainable Approach to Managing Woodlands. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004. A contemporary discussion of sustainable forestry.
  • Williams, Michael. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An excellent overview of the United States and forests that while remarkably thorough is nonetheless accessible to the general reader.



Colonial economic systems

Construction industry

Papermaking industry

Woodworking industry

Categories: History