Celebrating 120 years with the Bighorn National Forest

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The era of concern about American’s natural resources began after the Civil War, as Americans turned their attention to building railroads, homesteading, farming, mining, cutting timber and raising livestock. Using a seemingly unending supply of natural resources was the spirit of the times.

The Powell Expedition in 1869 and the Hayden Expedition in 1871 were important in calling to attention the marvelous and unusual features of the American West. The images created by artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson informed Americans about what they stood to lose. In the 1890s, it was apparent to many that the remaining natural resources — the nation’s forests, water, soils, grasslands and spectacular physical features — represented great but finite and vulnerable national assets that needed protection.

Various acts of Congress reflected these concerns. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act, setting aside the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve, which included part of what is now the Shoshone National Forest, the nation’s first. On Feb. 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established 13 new forest reserves, known as the “Washington’s Birthday” reserves, including the Big Horn Forest Reserve. Originally managed by the Department of the Interior, in 1905 the Transfer Act transferred management of forest reserves to the Department of Agriculture and named the agency the Forest Service. Gifford Pinchot led the new agency as its first chief, charged with caring for the newly renamed national forests.

Let’s pause a moment here to address the name. No less than mountains, a river, a basin, a town, a canyon, a county and a national forest are named for the eponymous sheep. Accounts written by early explorers use big horn, big-horn, and bighorn interchangeably, sometimes in the same document.

In the beginning it was the “Big Horn” Forest Reserve, but in about 1900 the reserve began to be referred to as “Bighorn,” and over the years, the spelling has gradually been accepted as the one-word “Bighorn” we use today.

As for the mountains, in 1962, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially designated the mountains as the “Bighorn” Mountains.

The Bighorn Mountains’ rich cultural history began more than 10,000 years ago, when Native Americans used the land for rich, varied and vibrant lifeways, which they adapted over time in response to changing climates and ecosystems.

In 1802, the first recorded visit by a white European was by Charles LeRaye, who camped near the town of Big Horn. Over the next century, LeRaye was followed by fur trappers and hunters looking for beaver and bison, military expeditions looking for timber to build forts and game to feed soldiers, loggers cutting tie hacks, and settlers with families and livestock.

The historical uses of the Bighorn resonate today in ranching, logging and professional outfitters and guides. Lodges and resorts provide fishing, hunting, trail rides and other recreation services.

Feb. 22, 2017, is the 120th anniversary of the creation of the Bighorn National Forest. For 120 years, it has exemplified the multiple uses Congress intended for the American people: forest products like timber and firewood, clean water for aquatic species and municipal watersheds and rangeland forage for domestic livestock. The forest provides habitat for deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and all manner of smaller mammals, fish and birds. Every year, the national forest offers a refuge from everyday life for hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy the Cloud Peak Wilderness, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, 33 campgrounds, 180 miles of motorized trails, 391 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, downhill and Nordic skiing and the three scenic byways that traverse the Bighorn Mountains.

In 1891, Congress began conserving national forests for all of us. Over 125 years later, they continue to inspire, restore and provide.


Susan Douglas is the public affairs specialist for the Bighorn National Forest.

By |February 23rd, 2017|

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