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The Biltmore Estate Forest Carl A. Schenck The Biltmore Forest School

 

According to the National Register of Historic Places, the "Cradle of Forestry in America" is located in the mountains of western North Carolina, in the Pisgah National Forest. While the historic marker specifically refers to the site of the first U.S. educational program in forestry, the Biltmore Forest School (1898-1913), the origins of sustainable forestry in America can be traced to North Carolina for a number of reasons.

In the late 1880s, George W. Vanderbilt decided to build a country home near Asheville, N.C. and purchased several thousands of acres of mostly denuded and overgrazed land in the area. He hired the prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to manage the gardens and grounds of the magnificent Biltmore Estate. Olmsted advised Vanderbilt that the topography and soils of the surrounding land were unsuitable for the creation of a larger park. Instead, he suggested that a wise investment would be to plant trees for timber crops.

The Biltmore Estate became the site of the first lumber enterprise in the country to take into account long-term conservation. Olmsted implemented enlightened silviculture practices such as selective thinning. At the same time, he did not abandon his commitment to aesthetics, advising Vanderbilt to "look aheadů for opportunities of forming points of special landscape interest by the development and exhibition of particular trees and groups."

After planting white pine on several hundreds of acres of former agricultural fields, Olmsted recognized that a trained forester was needed to manage and expand the reforestation project. Gifford Pinchot served as chief forester at the Biltmore Estate between 1892 and 1895, when he left to pursue a career as a consulting forester, and after 1898, as the chief of the federal government's Division of Forestry, later known as the U.S. Forest Service. To find a successor who boasted a thorough training in scientific forestry, it was necessary to look to Europe. A German, Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck, was hired to manage the over 100,000-acre estate. Shortly thereafter, Vanderbilt acquired an additional 120,000 forested acres of what is now the Pisgah National Forest.

During his fourteen-year tenure at Biltmore, Schenck transformed vast tracts of exhausted farm land into productive forests by experimenting with plantations of both hardwoods and conifers. Parallell to his duties on the estate, he administered the first U.S. educational program in the field, the Biltmore Forest School, between 1898 and 1913. The curriculum lent an emphasis to practical experience and hands-on skills, relying on the very few North American textbooks that were available, such as Schenck's own published lectures and Romeyn B. Hough's American Woods. By the time it ceased operation, the Biltmore Forest School had produced nearly 400 graduates, who accounted for three-quarters of all the trained foresters in the U.S. at the time. By then, established universities such as Cornell, Minnesota, and Yale had created forestry schools.

Nevertheless, the southeastern region of the United States continued to draw students, Forest Service employees, and forward-thinking entrepreneurs. The Urania Lumber Company in Louisiana began fostering forestry research in the 1910s, cementing long-lasting ties with Yale and the Forest Service. Urania Lumber gained a reputation as one of the earliest lumber enterprises to incorporate reforestation and sustained-yield measures in its forest management policy. While a professor of forestry at Cornell University, Yale graduate Arthur Bernard Recknagel led field trips to South Carolina during the years 1928 to 1934. Known as "the Appalachian Station" in its early years (1921-1934), the U.S. Forest Service's Southeastern Forest Experiment Station - which served North Carolina, South Carolina, northern Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee - was based in Asheville, North Carolina.

In 1929, the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering (now N.C. State University) hired Dr. Julius V. Hofmann to set up a forestry program. One of Hofmann's immediate goals was to acquire some forestland for laboratory, research, and demonstration purposes. Unable to secure funding from the university or the state government, Hofmann determined that land would have to be purchased on a self-liquidating basis. Along with some trustees of the college, he incorporated the North Carolina Forestry Foundation to manage and develop a number of tracts of woodlands in the state, including 80,000 acres near the coast that became known as the Hofmann Forest. The Foundation sold timber from the school forest to various timber and paper companies, primarily the Halifax Paper Company of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.

Today, the Hofmann Forest continues to operate on a sustainable and profitable basis. In addition to Forestry, the NCSU College of Natural Resources offers nationally ranked programs in Wood and Paper Science as well as in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. UNC-Asheville offers a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental Studies. Within this program, students can concentrate in forest ecology, freshwater biology, or wildlife management, among other options. The Special Collections Departments at the NCSU Libraries and UNC-Asheville's D. Hiden Ramsey Library collect rare books, archival records and manuscript materials that support the curriculum at either university.

Affiliated with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the Forest History Society collects, preserves and disseminates information on the history of interactions between people, forests, and their related resources. Meanwhile, the Archives Division of the Biltmore Company's Museum Services Department focuses specifically on the legacy of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.


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