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The New York State College of Forestry at Cornell was a short-lived statutory college established to teach scientific forestry.

The idea of a Cornell Forestry school began with Colonel William F. Fox, Superintendent of New York's state-owned forests during the mid 1890s. At that time, forestry research and education was conducted only in Great Britain and Europe. Fox believed that the State's constitutional amendment adopted by the voters that set aside the Adirondack and Catskill preserves as lands to be kept forever wild was unfortunate. Instead, Fox would prefer that enlightened forest management should apply to these areas. In his annual reports for 1896 and 1897 Col. Fox advocated inauguration of a demonstration forest to educate the body politic regarding what "modern" forestry was all about.[1]

When Governor Frank S. Black went on a fishing trip with a Cornell trustee and discussed Col. Fox's proposal, the suggestion was made that Cornell would be well-suited to implement the demonstration forest. Cornell President Jacob Gould Schurman then began lobbying for a state-funded college, just as he had successfully advocated for a state-funded veterinary college in 1894. The legislature quickly approved the new college.[2] The act authorized New York State to pay for a tract of forest land in the Adirondacks from funds, previously appropriated for the acquisition of lands to be held "forever wild" in the Adirondack Forest Preserve,[3] with Cornell holding title, possession, management, and control for 30 years. After 30 years, the land would revert to the State.

Schurman recruited German trained, Dr. Bernhard E. Fernow, who was then the 3rd Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Division of Forestry (predecessor of the U.S. Forest Service) and one of the top forestry experts in the United States, to be the first Dean of the college. Fernow quickly moved to acquire a tract of land for the demonstration forest and to establish a program of instruction. The former involved purchasing 30,000 acres of forested Adirondack land near Axton in Franklin County, New York. He also contracted with the Brooklyn Cooperage Company to take the logs and cordwood from the forest land for a 15-year period. The more valuable, in the 1890s, red spruce trees had been logged leaving primarily a forest of northern hardwoods. The company turned the hardwood logs into barrels; and the cordwood into methanol and charcoal by a process called destructive distillation.

To his credit, Fernow established the first tree nursery in New York State at Axton, the site of an old lumber settlement originally called Axe-town. Most of the nonnative, conifer species, he planted on his reforest scheme, such as Scotch Pine and Norway Spruce, did not do well for many years. However, the foresters recklessly denuded the area, leaving behind a bleak landscape of slash that could be viewed by wealthy "great" camp owners on Upper Saranac Lake. Moreover, in addition to being a poor businessman and manager Fernow had a prickly character who alienated nearly everyone he came into contact with. [4]

In 1901 Fernow's plan drew criticism from adjacent landowners and Adirondack guides such as Ellsworth Petty, father of Clarence Petty who ferociously protested the plan and in a letter writing campaign successfully lobbied the State to assign a special "Committee of the Adirondacks" to tour the Axton site. It concluded that "the college has exceeded the original intention of the State when the tract was granted the university for conducting silvicultural experiments." [5]

Fernow's plan called for clearcutting a total of 30,000 acres of forestland at the rate of several thousand acres per year to prepare for planting conifers. Smoke from the burning of brush and logging slash, along with Fernow's arrogant disposition toward landowners from nearby Upper Saranac Lake further alienated the public.[6]The years 1899,1903,and 1908 were terrible years for forest fires in the Adirondacks. Many, tens of thousands of acres were consumed by forest fires.Most fires were started by sparks flying from coal-burning locomotive stacks and landing on logging slash. Louis Marshall branded locomotives as "instruments of arson."[7][8] Fernow had a 6-mile long railroad spur built from Axton to Tupper Lake in order to deliver logs to the Brooklyn Cooperage Company facility.

In 1898, the New York State College of Forestry opened at Cornell, which was the first forestry college in North America.[1] Because some of the students were transfer students, even though the College had a four-year curriculum, it graduated students during each of the five years of its operation, and the demand for students with Cornell forestry degrees exceeded the supply. It also offered an optional fifth year for a professional masters in forestry degree.

In 1899, Fernow had been recruited as a member of New York's E.H. Harriman expedition to Alaska along with fellow Cornellian Louis Agassiz Fuertes. The expedition set sail from Seattle on May 31,1899 aboard the refitted steamer, the George W. Elder. "His research on the expedition was hampered by the fact that the coastal itinerary never gave him a look at the inland forests. His overview thus limited, he concluded that Alaska would never be a great source of timber: the wood was inferior and the conditions of lumbering too difficult. Some say that history has proven him wrong, but his opinion did have an effect: for a time, it discouraged commercial interests from prospecting for timber in the Alaskan forests."[9]

In 1902, Fernow founded and became editor-in-chief of the Journal of Forestry, the pioneering scholarly journal in this field.

The demonstration forest, near Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks drew heated opposition from neighboring land owners.[10] who brought a lawsuit against the Brooklyn Cooperage Company and Cornell University. In particular, the annual state appropriation for the college was only $10,000 forcing it into a contract with Brookyn Cooperage Company to be viable, so more land was clear-cut than neighbors would have liked. The contract proved to be profitable and beneficial only for the company. Cornell had gained insufficient funds to replant the areas of the forest that had been clear-cut. The reforested areas of the Axton forest, which still exist today, are mostly of non-native Norway spruce(Picea abies). Although the legislature adopted the 1903 appropriation without debate,[1] Governor Benjamin B. Odell vetoed the 1903 appropriation for the school. In his veto message Governor Odell said: "The operations of the College of Forestry have been subjected to grave criticism, as they have practically denuded the forest lands of the State without compensating benefits. I deem it wise therefore to withhold approval of this item until a more scientific and more reasonable method is pursued in the forestry of the lands now under the control of Cornell University."(Charles Z. Lincoln, ed., Messages from the Governors, X [Albany,1910],555)as a footnote in [11]

This is what the great constitutional lawyer Louis Marshall had to say, "I hold before me the decision in the case of the People against the Brooklyn Cooperage Company.....the consequence of that (its contract with the University which agreed to cut logs and cord wood and deliver at its own expense) was that this "tremendous" tract of thirty thousand acres was to be cut down "flat" from one end of it to the other, in order that the scientific foresters might start a new forest which might mature a hundred years from the time that that contract was entered into. This is scientific forestry?"[12]. In other words, the idea to destroy a forest in order to save it, is abominable.[13]

Dean Fernow did not want to let the veto end his school, and he continued to work without a salary. He proposed continuing the school by charging tuition to the students. (During this time, New York State students attended the College tuition-free.) However, in June 1903, the Cornell Trustees closed the school.[14] It was rumored, and with good reason, that a political bargain took place exchanging the College of Forestry, for the establishment of the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University in 1904. To quote Liberty Hyde Bailey, "Last winter at Albany I was confronted by inquiries which indicated that the State would be willing to give to either a College of Forestry or a College of Agriculture, but not to both."[1][15]

In May 1903, Samuel W. Pennypacker, governor of Pennsylvania, established the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy(ranger school) at Penn State Mont Alto. Joseph Rothrock, an explorer, botanist and medical doctor founded the academy to train men for service in the state forests. It was one of three forestry schools in the nation, after Yale and Biltmore, respectively. The goal of the academy, in the early 1900s was to crusade for a change from the barren hills caused by forest fires and charcoal production. Four million acres of Pennsylvania's forest land had been made a wasteland, with the state leading the nation in logging in 1870 and fourth in 1900. There was great concern whether the denuded forests could ever regenerate a new forest. George Wirt, the academy's first administrator, patterned the curriculum after curricula in Germany, a leader in reforestation.[16] All first year students were required to bring a horse with them to the academy until the late 1920s. The horses were used to fight forest fires in the Michaux State Forest.

In 1907, Bernhard E. Fernow became the first Professor of forestry, in a four year baccalaureate degree program, at Penn State, State College,PA after having been the nation's first consulting forester since leaving Cornell and Ithaca,NY in 1903. His office was in New York City. After teaching the 1907 spring semester at Penn State Dr. Fernow left to organize the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto in Canada. He gave as a reason for leaving, his argument with Dr.Rothrock that Mont Alto should not have departed from its role as a "ranger school" to pursue higher aspirations.[17]



Fernow Hall
Fernow Hall on the Cornell Campus.

Fernow left Cornell to become the first head of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. In 1910, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the Dean of Cornell's Agriculture College, succeeded in having what remained of the Forestry College transferred to his school. At his request, in 1911, the legislature appropriated $100,000 to construct a building to house the new Forestry Department on the Cornell campus, which Cornell later named Fernow Hall. That Forestry Department continues today as the Department of Natural Resources. In 1927, Cornell established a 1,639 acre research forest south of Ithaca, the Arnot Woods.[1]

However, Cornell did not fully honor its contract with Brooklyn Cooperage Company, following the closing of the College.[18]. A lawsuit was filed, naming Cornell University and the Brooklyn Cooperage Company as defendants with the People of New York State as plaintiff. The lawsuit was decided in favor of the People in People vs Brooklyn Cooperage Co. and Cornell University in 1910 and on appeal in 1912; and the case defined forestry in the United States for a generation. The 30,000 acres of forest lands were placed under the "forever wild" protection of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

It is indeed ironic that when Gifford Pinchot, named for Hudson River School painter Sanford Robinson Gifford ,[19] and the future first Chief Forester of the US Forest Service asked Dr. Bernhard Fernow's, then Chief of the USDA's Division of Forestry, advice on finding instruction in forestry, Fernow advised against a career in forestry.[20]. During the Brooklyn Cooperage trial, a forester on Chief Pinchot's staff, Charles S. Chapman, testified on behalf of the plaintiff. In 1914 Gifford married Cornelia Bryce: "Her influence worked its way into Gifford's view of conservation, adding a human component to the scientific management of natural resources. Years later in a speech he said: The conservation problem is not concerned only with the natural resources of the Earth. Rightly understood, it includes also the relation of these resources and of their scarcity or abundance to the wretchedness or prosperity, the weakness or strength of peoples, their leaning towards war or towards peace, and their numbers and distribution over the Earth."[21]

Subsequently, in 1911, the State Legislature established a New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. In 1930, the NYS Board of Regents questioned the need for duplicate, state-supported forestry programs at Cornell and Syracuse. A formal study resulted in an agreement in 1937 that the Syracuse program would be the sole site for professional undergraduate training in forestry. Cornell's Department of Forestry continued with responsibilities curtailed to courses in "farm" forestry, to cooperative extension work in forestry, and to research and graduate education. In an exchange, Syracuse University agreed to abandon its School of Agriculture.[1]

Related Page

Further reading

Gifford Pinchot, 1998. Breaking New Ground. Island Press. Washington. 552 p. Reprint. Originally published: New York : Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1947. ISBN 1559636696; and in paperback.

Gates, Paul W. The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University: A Study in Land Policy and Absentee Ownership. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1943.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Retrieved 2009-09-05.
  2. ^ Chapter 122 of the Laws of 1898.
  3. ^ Donaldson, Alfred Lee,(1921) A History of the Adirondacks, page 203
  4. ^ Christopher,Angus. 2002. The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty; p 31. Syracuse University Press ISBN 0-81560741-5
  5. ^ Christopher,Angus. 2002. The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty; p 31. Syracuse University Press ISBN 0-81560741-5
  6. ^ Gove, B. 2005. Logging railroads of the Adirondacks. Syracuse University Press. pp. 176-181.
  7. ^ Angus,Christopher. The extraordinary Adirondack journey of Clarence Petty: wilderness guide, pilot, and conservationist, p. 17, Syracuse University Press 2002 isbn 0815607415
  8. ^ Marshall,Louis, Letter to the Forest, Fish and Game Commissioner of NY and copy to Governor Hughes, September 25,1908. Subject: Adirondack Fire Emergency... Replacing lax, ad hoc Fire Wardens. In Reznikoff, p. 1014-1018.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Donaldson, Alfred Lee (1921). A history of the Adirondacks, Volume 2. Century Co. p. 202–207.  
  11. ^ Education & Agriculture, A History of the NYS College of Agriculture at Cornell University,1963, by Gould P. Colman, page 161, Cornell University Press
  12. ^ Quoted in Reznikoff, Charles, ed., Louis Marshall: Champion of Liberty. Selected Papers and Addresses. 2 vols. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1957., page 1020.
  13. ^
  14. ^ "CORNELL SCHOOL OF FORESTRY SUSPENDED.; Action Followed Failure of State to Provide Means for Its Support.". New York Times. June 18, 1903. Retrieved 2009-09-05.  
  15. ^ Education & Agriculture, A History of the NYS College of Agriculture at Cornell University,1963, by Gould P. Colman, page 162, Cornell University Press
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ "CORNELL FORESTRY CASE.; Appellate Division Decision Against Brooklyn Cooperage Company.". New York Times: p. 4. July 13, 1906. Retrieved 2009-09-05.  
  19. ^
  20. ^ Pinchot, G.B., 1998. Breaking New Ground. Island Press. Washington. 552 p. Reprint. Originally published: New York : Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1947. ISBN 1559636696
  21. ^


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