American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the United States.
In 1875, a time when it seemed that America’s natural resources could never be depleted, a group of forward-thinking citizens met in Chicago with the goal “to protect the existing forests of the country from unnecessary waste.” Led by physician and horticulturalist John Aston Warder, who was among the first to propose planting trees on the Great Plains, the American Forestry Association was founded. In 1992, the American Forestry Association expanded its conservation focus and became American Forests.
These pioneer environmentalists had their work cut out for them. There were no national or state forests, and national parks were still a new idea. Immigration to the US was soaring. Cities like Chicago were growing at an almost unimaginable pace, and forests across the country were being clear-cut for lumber and farming. Business interests had great influence in government with no counterbalance. The great biodiversity of swamps and other wetlands was being lost to drainage and cash crops like cotton. The harvesting of centuries-old redwoods was celebrated as a symbol of America’s natural bounty, and rapid industrialization was beginning to poison rivers. In fact, contamination at some of today’s Superfund sites can be traced to this period.
It was against this backdrop that Warder and his group, in the words of the forest historian Henry Clepper, “inaugurated the conservation movement.” In 1911, we successfully argued for passage of the Weeks Act, which established our National Forests using what had been called forest reserves, mostly in the West, and appropriated $9 million to acquire six million acres in the East. We’ve continued to work for the protection, restoration, and expansion of American forests – from the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, to our current Global ReLeaf and urban forestry programs.