On March 3, 1891, Congress establishes the first forest reserves, which will become a system of National Forests. The law preserves water resources until forested lands can be opened for settlement and exploitation, but is part of a growing conservation movement to preserve natural resources for future generations.
By the 1890s, an increasingly urbanized nation began to appreciate the importance of preserving natural resources. Congress established a number of national parks including Yellowstone in Wyoming, and Yosemite and Sequoia in California. At the same time, Congress realized that the Timber Culture Act of 1873 (allowing title to land to anyone planting trees) had resulted in fraud. Scientists and the American Forestry Association advocated better management of the nation's forest reserves. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 had mixed purposes -- to protect watersheds from erosion and flooding, and to preserve the nation's timber supply from over-exploitation.
Despite a lack of guidance from Congress as to the management of the new program, the Department of the Interior conducted surveys of public-domain lands and recommended a number of reserves. Management of the lands was handled by Deputy U.S. Marshals and agents of the General Land Office. On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the Washington and Mount Rainier Forest Preserves, along with 11 others around the country.
In 1897, Congress passed the Forest Management Act, which laid out purposes for the reserves and conditions of use. The purpose was to preserve a water supply, preserve the forests, and provide a supply of timber. Timber would be managed and auctioned with the proceeds going to the government.
In 1905, Congress moved the reserves from the General Land Office in the Department of the Interior to the new Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) became the first Chief Forester. Pinchot drafted instructions on managing the reserves, stating, "All of the resources of the forest reserves are for use ... under such restrictions only as will insure the permanence of these resources" ("Pinchot National Forest: Early History").
In 1907, the forest reserves were designated National Forests.