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The History of Forestry in Europe

The Beginning of Forestry as a Science in Western Europe


The History of Forestry in Europe

Heinrich Cotta, German Forestry Pioneer (1763-1844)


Sylva by John Evlyn, 1662

Public Domain via Wikipedia

Written in 1662, John Evlyn's Silva was probably the first book published on silviculture. The Interregnum and English civil war caused a crises for sources of wood and threatened the restored monarchy. The Royal Society commissioned Evlyn to draw together as much pertinent information about cultivating trees as quickly as possible.

Evlyn modeled his "Discourse of Forest-trees and the Propagation of Timber" after Pliny the Elder's Book XVI of his Natural History . Pliny was a Roman warrior and intellectual. His Natural History was history's first written attempt to define and catalog nature. It was later used as the source for most scientific knowledge during the western European middle ages.

German Heinrich Cotta (1763-1844), who is often called the “pioneer of forestry”, established one of the first private forestry schools in 1811 in what was called the Forestry Town of Tharandt near Dresden. It later became the Royal Saxon Forestry Academy. Cotta studied forestry all his life and has had a profound influence on the profession of forestry and early foresters in Europe.

Here are several quotes from Cotta's Preface in “Anweisung zum Waldbau”:

On the need for foresters: "There would be no physicians if there were no diseases, and no forestry science without deficiency in wood supplies".

On why forestry was inadequate: "The forester who practices much writes but little, and he who writes much practices but little".

On the "good" forester: "The good forester takes the highest yield from the forest without deteriorating the soil, the poor one neither obtains this yield nor preserves the fertility of the soil."

How European Forestry Influenced North American Forests

Europe's hunger for wood and increasing European settlements had a major impact on the American forest. A year after the Mayflower arrived, the "Pilgrims" sent a ship named Fortune back to England "laden with good clapboard as full as she could stow." That was the beginning of thousands of ships filled with logs and lumber bound to other countries. Domestic wood was consumed in staggering quantities. Wood was the major source of energy, was the building material of choice, was the fencing material of choice, and was nearly as important as food to the settlers.

No real effort to manage trees, practice forestry nor conserve the American forest took place until midway through the 19th Century.

In 1847, George Perkins Marsh , then a U.S. Congressman for Vermont, published an "Address Delivered Before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Sept. 30, 1847" . This was the first awareness paper that advocated a conservationist approach to the management of forested lands. Marsh went on to publish Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action . It was revised in1874 as The Earth as Modified by Human Action , the first systematic analysis of humanity's destructive impact on the environment

New England continued to advance the conservation ethic when Henry David Thoreau delivered an address to the Concord (Massachusetts) Lyceum declaring that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World." In 1863, this address was published posthumously as the essay "Walking" in Thoreau's Excursions . In 1854 Thoreau goes on to publish Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

The German Forestry Renaissance

According to a 1911 report entitled "A Brief History of Forestry", written by B. E. Fernow, (Bernhard Eduard Fernow), 1851-1923:

"It is generally conceded that both the science and art of forestry are most thoroughly developed and most intensively applied throughout Germany."

Fernow acknowledged that "perfection" had not been reached in practical application of the art in Germany, or that the science was as developed as fully as other sciences. One big problem was getting the German owners, both private and government, to change their patterns of mismanagement and especially where there was no management. Still, forestry in Germany and surrounding countries were forced into managing forests, mainly due to chronic timber famines and the need for wood on a sustained basis.

Like early North America, Fernow writes that Germany was a state "that from its earliest history it was broken up into many independent and, until modern times, only loosely associated units, which developed differently in social, political and economic directions." Forest management was not consistent as a result.

So the need for forest management and the academic development of schools of forestry were necessary in Europe and "modern" schools of forestry were established after during the mid-1800s. Most of these schools were created in Germany and France.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the scientific practice of forestry spread through all of Europe, on to the United States and British India. The first professional foresters were either from continental Europe or educated there.

A great review of 19th century forestry can be found at The Library of Congress. Even as there was a raising of conscience about the American forest, a frantic mining of American trees continued. Read more about this era in American forestry at these links: 1847-1871 | 1872-1889 | 1890-1900

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