In March, NFF friend and author, Char Miller, released a beautiful coffee table book called America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands. We are pleased to be able to excerpt several of Miller’s thoughtful essays in a new blog series we’re calling: “In-Depth: America’s Forests from Past to Present.” The series focuses on National Forests that are part of our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. If you’re interested in learning more about the NFF’s work on these amazing landscapes, please visit

We hope you enjoy the blog series and Tim Palmer’s gorgeous photos that accompany the book and the posts. You can purchase America’s National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands at fine book retailers and online outlets throughout the country.

Salt Lake City, Utah, would not exist without the Wasatch Mountains, a claim as true for Denver and the Rockies, Albuquerque and the Sandias, or Reno and the Sierras. In each case, the local mountains offer a dramatic backdrop framing the urban skyline, but more fundamental is what these peaks offer that the valleys below need to survive—water. Roughly one-third of the water supply of the western United States flows off national forests. Recognition of their invaluable catchment-like function is precisely why these mountains are home to national forests, whose 1897 establishing legislation identified “favorable conditions of water flows” as one of their critical functions.

Congress knew to make this claim because it had funded (and presumably read) John Wesley Powell’s Arid Lands Report (1876), arguably the most important document detailing the relationship between aridity and economic development in the West. As head of the U.S. Geological Survey, Powell, along with several colleagues, had closely inspected the region. As part of their labors they assessed its geology and topography, climate and precipitation, and the prospects for a sustainable life in this land of so little rain.

Its aridity was linked to the region’s physical conditions and related environmental limitations. These data informed geologist G. K. Gilbert’s analysis of the Wasatch’s impact on the emerging communities nestling against its western slope. The north-south mountain chain, he wrote, consists of a series of “abrupt ranges crowned by sharp peaks,” its ridges “severed by transverse valleys,” a geological structure that drove water westward into the low desert.

As a result, the Great Salt Lake and its upper tributary, Utah Lake, “exist by virtue of the presence of the Wasatch Mountains, for the mountains wring from the clouds the waters with which the lakes are supplied.”

Gilbert laid out the economic ramifications of this hydrologic connection between upstream and downstream for rural and urban economies. In almost lyrical language, he wrote that the “springs of the cliffs are the fountains of the rivers that are to fertilize the valleys.” At the time, Powell and Gilbert argued that rapid clearing of high-country watersheds through logging and grazing were beneficial, increasing streamflow for flatland irrigation. This claim was rebutted two decades later in the enabling language for the national forests, which were expressly created to protect and regenerate vital drainage systems.

Reinforcing this point was a 1902 report that also depended on an on-the-ground examination of Utah’s mountainous region and those who ran cattle and sheep in its upland meadows and box canyons. Its author was Albert Potter, an Arizona stockman who helped convince Gifford Pinchot that regulating grazing would be far better than excluding it from the national forests. Pinchot asked Potter to become the first head of what would become the Forest Service’s Grazing Division. Among his first assignments was to evaluate rangeland conditions in Utah’s federal lands, including the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache, Manti-La Sal, Fishlake, and Dixie National Forests that drape over the Beehive State’s key mountain ranges.

One of Potter’s unsurprising conclusions was that intense grazing (and, to a lesser extent, logging) was jeopardizing Utah’s natural resources. Everywhere the situation was the same, he concluded after spending four months in the saddle, riding through canyonlands, basins, and foothills. Too many cattle and sheep crowded the range, leading to significant erosion and catastrophic mudflows and flooding in the Wasatch, Uinta, La Sal, and Escalante Mountains. This perilous situation reflected the failure of the Department of the Interior to effectively regulate these lands’ use. “The overstocking of the Uinta Forest Reserve this year,” Potter concluded, “is a sore blow to the management of grazing by the government.”

Photo by Tim Palmer

Because achieving regulatory control would be difficult, Potter suggested leniency. “I would recommend that in all of the forest reserves which are created the general policy already adopted be continued, and that a liberal number of livestock be allowed upon the reserves at first and the number cut down afterwards as found necessary.” Although his approach mollified the livestock lobby, what Potter could not foresee was that his strategy would “present challenges and conflicts for decades to come.”

These repercussions were not simply a result of the minimal restrictions Potter had proposed. They also grew out of the subsequent development of scientific rangeland management. In 1912 the Forest Service set up the Great Basin Experiment Station located in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Its scientists demonstrated, among other things, that controlling grazing in watersheds would reduce flooding, managing to maintain ground cover would diminish erosion, and setting standards for carrying capacity would extend rangeland productivity. These findings were then tested and refined throughout Utah, a science-based process with real-world application—research produced knowledge, knowledge gave its holders expertise, and expertise determined policy.

The data did not convince everyone. Opposition to the scientific basis for policy making and regulatory action came from inside and outside the agency. It was strong enough that John Riis, deputy supervisor in the Cache National Forest, and a staunch proponent of professional management, felt compelled to transfer out of the region in 1911. The livestock industry was happy to see him depart, and ever since has continued to buck against agency regulations and to challenge them in the public arena and courts. In the past, the Forest Service itself also wavered in its commitment to rangeland protection. To beef up production during World War I and World War II, the agency encouraged heavy grazing, nearly destroying the range. Its battered condition in the mid-20th century prompted one critic to predict that Utah would turn into the Sahara.

Fortunately, it did not reach that sorry state in part because the Forest Service and Congress stepped in. To control increased flooding resulting from damaged watersheds, Congress added additional lands to the Uinta and Wasatch National Forests. In conjunction with this initiative, the agency shortened the grazing season and decreased the number of animals allowed on allotments. It also collaborated with neighboring landowners and communities to replant the abused terrain.

Regeneration took time, though, a lengthy process that itself became a target of an energized environmental movement. Critics of the Forest Service gained energy after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and its searing indictment of the use of DDT and other chemicals poisoning land and water. They also took advantage of a suite of tough new environmental regulations, including the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973), to file lawsuits against the Forest Service’s grazing policies. Intensifying the debate was the related upsurge in Sagebrush Rebellions, during which rural ranching interests and conservative politicians demanded the dismantling of the national forest system altogether.

To break through all the angst and anger this highly charged atmosphere produced has required patience. An example of what might be achieved in these northern Utah forests has occurred in the national forests in the south of the state, including the Fishlake, Manti-LaSal, and personnel met to discuss the possibility of an accord. Four years later, they announced a series of pilot projects to test a new set of “grazing management principles and practices for Forest Service lands in Southern Utah that provide for ecological sustainability, are socially acceptable, and economically viable.”

Perhaps a more significant result was that this collaboration decentered the Forest Service. Its representatives attended all the group’s meetings as “technical representatives to ensure that the group had accurate information on policies, current activities, and other topics critical to the discussions.” But they did not participate in the decision-making deliberations that produced new managerial strategies for the grasslands under their stewardship. In ceding its authority in this instance so that consensus could emerge, a stepping back that the agency’s detractors have long demanded, the Forest Service may not have finally resolved the ongoing debate over grazing in the national forests. Yet whatever debates next erupt over management of the southern Utah rangelands, the Forest Service’s adoption of collaboration as an essential management tool marks a watershed moment.


Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. Author of the Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2004) and Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (2012), his latest books include America’s Great National Forests, Wilderness, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013) and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013); he co-authored Death Valley National Park: A History (2013) and is co-editor of Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice (2016).


Tim Palmer is the photographer and author of 24 books featuring the American landscape, including the classic photographic works Rivers of America and Trees and Forests of America. His honors include the National Outdoor Book Award, Independent Publishers Award, and Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

National Forest Foundation