Marshall Writes

In The People’s Forests, Robert Marshall advocated the preservation of untouched wilderness areas in the national forests.

Summary of Event

In The People’s Forests (1933), Robert Marshall decried the devastation of American forests by private owners and called for increased federal regulation and public ownership of these lands. The book followed Marshall’s 1930 pamphlet The Social Management of American Forests and the U.S. Forest Service’s National Plan for American Forestry (1933), for which Marshall wrote the chapter on recreation (one of the most articulate and widely read treatises on the topic). Marshall’s work as a conservationist and writer ultimately led to the passage of important regulations protecting wilderness areas in the United States, including the Forest Service’s 1939 U-Regulations and the Wilderness Act of 1964. [kw]Marshall Writes The People’s Forests (Sept., 1933)
[kw]People’s Forests, Marshall Writes The (Sept., 1933)[Peoples Forests, Marshall Writes The (Sept., 1933)]
[kw]Forests, Marshall Writes The People’s (Sept., 1933)
People’s Forests, The (Marshall)[Peoples Forests, The]
Wilderness preservation
[g]United States;Sept., 1933: Marshall Writes The People’s Forests[08400]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept., 1933: Marshall Writes The People’s Forests[08400]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Sept., 1933: Marshall Writes The People’s Forests[08400]
Marshall, Robert
Pinchot, Gifford
Silcox, Ferdinand A.

The People’s Forests demonstrated Marshall’s interest in conservation as well as his gift for writing. The book is clear and straightforward, and at times both eccentric and passionate. Marshall began his book by harking back to the Pilgrims’ first encounter with the New World, when half of what is now the continental United States was forest land. He created beautiful images of million-acre stands of tall trees with no unnatural sounds or sights, and he described how the wild animals and the Native Americans benefited from the trees without harming them. In harsh language, he showed how settlers destroyed the land and narrowed the forests for the next three hundred years.

Carefully and thoroughly, Marshall explained the state of the forests and the timber industry as it existed in the 1930’s. With statistics and tables, he showed how much lumber was produced over the years from 1809 to 1932, how the lumber was used, and how many acres of forest had disappeared. He persuasively argued that the nation’s forests had been dealt great harm under the private ownership of timber companies. (Modern readers who study the statistics will find interesting gems: For example, the third-highest volume of wood used in the 1930’s was for railroad ties, and the sixth-greatest use was for barrel staves. The automobile industry was also a great consumer of wood.)

Marshall conceded the importance of forests as a source of raw material but asserted they also were important for soil and water conservation and for recreation. Recreation, however, was Marshall’s chief concern. He believed that walking through the woods was important to human happiness, and that this preservation became more important as the world became more mechanized:

Finally, there are those whose chief purpose in visiting the forests is simply an escape from civilization. These people want to rest from the endless chain of mechanization and artificiality which bounds their lives. In the forest they temporarily abandon a routine to which they cannot become wholly reconciled, and return to that nature in which hundreds of generations of their ancestors were reared.

Marshall acknowledged that few people would ever take advantage of the chance to spend significant amounts of time in the forest. Still, he believed that their right to do so was important and that a democracy should protect the rights of such minorities. His cause, he said, was important enough that the government should take control of the forests from their owners, either by purchase or by foreclosure. Without this control, there would not be any wilderness left, since the private owners had shown themselves incapable of taking care of their land. If the government operated forest land, Marshall believed, the timber industry could still thrive; with proper management and replanting, the forests could be replenished. In addition, large tracts of land could be set aside for recreational use, with restrictions on cutting, the building of roads, and other intrusions.

Marshall proposed several types of recreational forest land that people could enjoy: “superlative areas” such as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, of such profound beauty that they should be protected and carefully developed for everyone; “primeval tracts” of at least one thousand acres of virgin timber; “wilderness areas”; “roadside areas”; “campsite areas”; and “residence areas,” which could contain homes, hotels, and resorts. His chief concern was with the wilderness areas, and it was to those areas that he devoted much of his professional and personal life.

Marshall defined “wilderness” as an area with no residents, no roads or means for motorized or mechanical travel, no power lines, and no hotels, restaurants, or souvenir stands. The idea was that travelers in the wilderness should be self-sufficient, just as travelers had been for centuries. Simple shelters and trails would be permitted, because they had been available to early travelers. Marshall thought such an area should be large enough for visitors to spend at least a week actively hiking without recrossing their tracks. Since he often hiked twenty or thirty miles a day, wearing common tennis shoes and carrying heavy, old-fashioned equipment, the wilderness areas would need to be sizable.

Large virgin forests could no longer be found in the continental United States, although such areas did exist in northern Canada and in Alaska, which was not yet a state. Since Marshall was concerned mainly with getting away from modern conveyances and conveniences, he was willing to accept land that had been logged and retimbered for his wilderness areas. Primeval areas gave him access to primitive plants, while wilderness areas gave him access to primitive transportation. Marshall estimated that it would take 55 million acres of forest land to supply the recreational needs of the nation—approximately 11 percent of the 506 million acres of commercial timber land of the time. He proposed that 20 million acres be set aside as wilderness areas, in tracts ranging from 200,000 acres to a million acres or more. As he said, “This seems like a very conservative area to devote to the purpose of assuring tens of millions of our citizens a fitting environment for the finest moments of their lives.”


The publication of The People’s Forests came at a time when American forests seemed to be in real danger of disappearing. Although national “forest reserves” had been established as early as 1871 and Yosemite had been designated a national park in 1890, federal agencies did not necessarily consider that national lands should be protected from use or even from overuse. Gifford Pinchot saw a need in the early part of the twentieth century for a national agency to regulate federal forest lands, and he became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Yet even Pinchot believed that scenic areas should not be preserved if a “better”—that is, more utilitarian—use could be found for them. National forest lands were being leased to private timber companies and cleared, and there was little interest in acquiring and protecting more acreage.

Even more alarming was the rate at which privately owned forest land was being cleared. Private companies were not farsighted, and they cleared their land without adequately replanting. The total area covered by forest was rapidly shrinking, and the land might never recover if more careful reforesting plans were not put into effect. Forest tracts of hundreds of thousands of acres were rapidly disappearing. There were, however, a few men who actively worked for wilderness conservation in the early part of the century and who won a place for conservation in national policy. Some of these men, such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold, were well known during their lifetimes and on to the end of the twentieth century. Marshall was a quieter figure who devoted a short life to public service and to solitary travel. He never achieved great fame, but his work had important and lasting effects.

As a bureaucrat and a well-educated conservationist, Marshall wrote government reports and scientific articles outlining his plans for national wilderness areas. With The People’s Forests, he brought his case to the citizens, the common people who would most benefit from his plans. He gave them enough statistical information to understand what was happening to the forests and presented it in a clear, easy-to-read, and passionate style. He urged them to consider the effects of increased mechanization on their lives and to find peace by spending time in the forest.

The result was not a great public outcry. There were no public demonstrations, no boycotts, no letter-writing campaigns. Yet the stage was set for Marshall to use the powers of bureaucracy. In 1933, he was director of forestry for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he encouraged Native Americans to manage the natural resources on reservation lands wisely. He also worked to limit public roads on reservations so that reservation residents would be able to limit their contact with outsiders.

In 1935, dissatisfied with the support he received from other bureaucrats, Marshall joined Leopold and others to form the Wilderness Society. Wilderness Society Marshall put up part of his own family fortune to support the group’s lobbying and educational efforts. In 1937, Marshall became chief of the new Division of Recreation and Lands in the Forest Service. He was sure his stance on preserving forests was right, and he was encouraged by public response to the Wilderness Society and to The People’s Forests. As chief, he worked hard to protect large wilderness areas within national forests and to keep them from being leased to timber companies or overdeveloped. He never forgot that the forests belonged to the people, however; in overseeing recreational developments in the national forests, he tried to make sure that provisions were made for visitors from all income groups.

Shortly before his sudden death in 1939, Marshall pushed for the adoption of a new set of Forest Service rules called the U-Regulations. Forest Service, U.S.;U-Regulations[U Regulations] Supported by the chief of the Forest Service, Ferdinand A. Silcox, these regulations established three categories of primitive areas within the national forest: U-1 Wilderness areas of more than 100,000 acres, which could have grazing and emergency access but no roads, timber harvesting, or motorized transportation; U-2 Wild areas of 5,000 to 100,000 acres, managed as wilderness; and U-3 Recreation areas, in which some timber cutting would be permitted away from scenic views. These new rules were stronger than the regulations they replaced and should have protected the people’s forests.

Unfortunately, after Marshall died there was no one in the Forest Service to take up his fight; Silcox died during the same year. Soon afterward, World War II demanded the government’s attention, and conservation was largely forgotten. Private groups such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club were disappointed as the U-Regulations were poorly enforced during the next two decades. Not until the late 1950’s did the government again show a strong interest in conservation. This renewed call, which echoed the language and arguments Marshall had set down in The People’s Forests, led eventually to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. People’s Forests, The (Marshall)[Peoples Forests, The]
Wilderness preservation

Further Reading

  • Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. A political scientist’s view of American wilderness policy throughout the nation’s history. According to the author, when the nation was new, government policy was directed toward conquering and exploiting the wilderness; more recent public policy seeks to protect it. How this change has come about, shaped by tension between economic and social needs, is the subject of this rather scholarly work.
  • Fox, Stephen. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. An important and insightful biography of the famous naturalist John Muir. This book looks beyond Muir’s life to the 1980’s, providing a history of the conservation movement and its most colorful characters, including Robert Marshall.
  • Frome, Michael. Battle for the Wilderness. New York: Praeger, 1974. Part 1 traces the importance of the wilderness to American artists and authors, including Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Robert Marshall. Part 2 gives the history of the American conservation movement and calls on the reader to support conservation philosophy and policy.
  • _______. The Forest Service. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Frome, a journalist, has more than twenty-five years of experience with the Forest Service and its leaders. He formed clear opinions about the agency’s strengths and weaknesses through this contact and through extensive research into the earlier history of the agency, and he gives a balanced view of them in this book.
  • Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. A seminal work on the early history of conservation. Argues that the movement began as a search for greater efficiency in resource management, not as a democratic crusade against supposed business rapacity.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An exploration of the physiological and psychological significance of wilderness, especially for Americans of European descent. The book looks backward to prehistoric humans, treats notions of the wilderness in classical and medieval Europe, and focuses on American efforts to define, explore, and conquer the wilderness up to the end of the twentieth century.
  • Wellman, J. Douglas. Wildland Recreation Policy: An Introduction. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987. Recounts the history of national parks and wilderness areas and analyzes their management. Instead of attempting to cover every regulation and agency, the author focuses on the careers and thoughts of key people, including Robert Marshall.

Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite

Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service

National Audubon Society Is Established

Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature Preserve

Izaak Walton League Is Formed

Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature

Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated

Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park

Canadian National Parks Act

Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society

John Muir Trail Is Completed