One hundred twenty years ago, the Big Horn Forest Reserve was signed into existence by President Grover Cleveland Feb. 22, 1897. The “Organic Act” was signed June 4, 1897. This legislation outlined that reserves had to meet the criteria of forest protection, watershed protection and timber production. In 1905, the Forest Service was established with the same resource protection focus. By 1908, the forest’s name had been officially changed to “Bighorn.”
W.E. Jackson served as the first forest supervisor on the Bighorn from 1897 to 1910. At that time, he oversaw eight districts and their rangers. The ranger’s job was to map the forest, maintain trails, administer sheep and cattle grazing permits, and protect the forest from wildfire, game poachers, timber and grazing trespassers and exploiters. The life of a ranger was lonely at times and could be dangerous. In 1946, Bly Dickson, who served as the ranger on three districts from 1920-50, wrote about Frank Kueny, the first Tongue District ranger:
“During the Rockwood Fires of 1899, Frank became surrounded by fires and had to abandon his horse and scramble up the rocky mountain side [sic] on foot. He was having quite a time climbing up through the rock slide. When he reached the top, and comparative safety, he was pretty much surprised to find that the horse had scrambled up after him.”
The economic boom of the 1920s brought an insatiable demand for timber. This sparked the first large-scale timber sales done by the Forest Service, and the agency began to play an increasing role in providing timber for the country. During this same era, Americans gradually had more time for leisure and enjoyed improved modes of transportation. This created a desire for developed recreation facilities on the national forests. Campgrounds, swimming areas, roads, trails and picnic areas were all built and improved to meet the demand.
Along with the developmental focus came the opposite idea of setting aside some lands to remain undeveloped. Forest Service employees and early proponents of this concept, Arthur Carhart and Aldo Leopold, recommended that areas remain roadless for recreational use. This idea created areas that would be maintained in a primitive status without development activities, such as the Cloud Peak Primitive Area in the Bighorn National Forest, which was approved in 1932.
With growing public concern and new environmental awareness during the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of new environmental legislation swept through the government. One such law was the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960. Its purpose was to ensure that all possible uses and benefits of the national forests and grasslands would be treated equally. The multiple uses included outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed and wildlife and fish in such combination that they would best meet and serve human needs.
Other laws such as the Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1964 and National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 decidedly changed the way the Forest Service operated and conducted business. These laws also opened doors to a new and diverse workforce with specialized positions for wildlife biologists, recreation managers, archaeologists and more.
Today, the Bighorn National Forest encompasses 1.1 million acres and three ranger districts and employs roughly 90 permanent staff and approximately 70 seasonal staff across a four-county area. The issues today may be slightly more complex than they were in 1897, but the need for clean water and healthy ecosystems managed for future generations has not changed.
Sara Evans Kirol is a public affairs specialist for the Bighorn National Forest.