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Making Southern forests great again

In the late 19th century, virgin Southern pine forests in the West Gulf Coast Region remained virtually untouched. Louisiana had some of the best pine timberland in the South and much of it was controlled by the federal government. A large portion was in virgin longleaf pine.

After the Civil War, this land was made available by the government for homesteading and sale. Pine timberland was offered for sale at $1.25 per acre. Because of this, the extent of public land available, and the large pine volumes that occurred per acre, nearly half of the large purchases of timberland occurred in Louisiana. Primarily it was northern lumbermen and land speculators who had the resources to purchase the land.

The onslaught on the forests began in the early 20th century.

In addition to the steam locomotives that could move tremendous quantities of logs from the forests, rail mounted skidding and loading equipment allowed the companies to load and move the timber to the mills as fast as it could be cut. Temporary railroad spurs could be quickly moved into new areas of the forests.

The period from 1900 to 1920 was one of big mills — two of the largest mills in the world were built in Louisiana. Sawmills and their accompanying towns sprang up across the state. It is estimated that as many as 1,300 such mills were developed in Louisiana alone in the early 20th century. Almost every town or community had one to several sawmills.

These mills became viewed as a double-edged sword. They provided employment of a large percentage of employees in the local areas, but within 20 years most of these mills had harvested their timber and closed their doors with many of the mill towns becoming ghost towns.

When the timber cut-out occurred, mill owners typically abandoned their towns and the mill-owned land reverted to the state due to unpaid taxes.

Large lumbering operations were common in Louisiana and the aggressive nature of their logging methods resulted in extensive areas of cutover timberland with limited possibility for natural regeneration. When the virgin forests were harvested, mostly stumpscapes remained — areas of cutover forests with no seed source available for natural regeneration.

R.D. Forbes, Louisiana’s first state forester, described the situation in 1923 as “the plain truth of the matter is that in county after county, in state after state of the South, the piney woods are not passing but have passed”

In Louisiana, where the most serious effects of aggressive harvesting occurred, people who brought the hope of reforestation began their work. The effort was led by a visionary who convinced others that reforestation was feasible.

The visionary was Henry E. Hardtner.

How did this son of a German immigrant, who settled in Pineville with a $1,000 investment in a small sawmill become known as the “Father of Forestry in the South?”

At age 21, Hardtner quickly expanded his investment into a small sawmill 30 miles north of Alexandria. In 1896, he established a mill at the site that he named Urania — it was a “heavenly” place to him. To provide access to new tracts of timber, a railroad was built. Although it was only eight miles long, the keen businessman listed the “Natchez, Urania and Ruston Railroad” on his letterhead. As president, Hardtner enjoyed pass privileges on other lines.

Hardtner had an innate curiosity of and love for trees. He once said, “I was born in the forests and have had a close association with them since childhood. What I know about them cannot be learned in schools or colleges. To me they are as humans and I know trees as I try to know men.”

Although he bought a small tract of virgin timberland, Hardtner typically purchased cutover land that had some scattered old-growth trees and small understory pines. There was enough old growth remaining on the land to supply his small mill. He could buy this type of land for about $1 per acre.

Hardtner became convinced that another merchantable crop could be grown in 40 to 50 years. This belief, expressed as early as 1905, ran contrary to the beliefs of typical lumbermen and he was ridiculed for his statements.

On his land, Hardtner initiated some basic stand management practices. He instructed his timber cutters to watch for smaller trees, to leave all trees below 12 inches in diameter, and leave four seed trees per acre for natural regeneration. This was at a time when lumber companies were clear-cutting their lands with use of steam-powered skidders that destroyed all standing trees. Hardtner was fortunate in that his forests consisted of a significant proportion of loblolly pine, which is easier to regenerate naturally than longleaf pine.

Hardtner, in addition to his study of forest conditions, read forestry literature and began in 1909 contacting the Forest Service in Washington for advice. At his request, the chief of the Forest Service over several years sent to Urania the most knowledgeable forestry specialists in the country.

The first of these was W.R. Mattoon, a pioneer extension forester who in 1913 drew up a preliminary plan for experiments in thinning and fire protection. He was followed by Samuel T. Dana who, following Mattoon’s plan, established a series of plots in 1915 to evaluate fire and thinning regimes. These were the first of their kind of research studies in the South.

Elected to the Louisiana Legislature as both a representative and senator, Hardtner had great influence on the reforestation of cutover lands within the state and on the development of forest practices across the South.

As chair of Louisiana’s Commission for the Conservation of Natural Resources, a comprehensive six-point forestry program was outlined in 1910. It established guidelines for forestry practices and organizations which led to the development of forestry in Louisiana and set the president for other Southern states to follow.

His work on establishing state reforestation contracts provided a way for lumbermen to avoid the taxation that limited any prospect of reforestation.

These contracts for up to 40 years, allowed assessment of cutover land at a low value for tax purposes, provided timber was grown and maintained on the lands.

Another important accomplishment of Hardtner was establishing Urania as the site for the Yale University School of Forestry’s spring field camp. In 1917, his belief in research and education became the basis for locating the three-month camp there. In 1921, Hardtner built a permanent location for the camp where it continued annually until 1942. Professor H.H. Chapman, who supervised and trained the camp students, conducted research efforts with Hardtner which clarified the role of fire in longleaf pine management and established early growth and yield guidelines for Southern pine species.

Hardtner’s influence on forestry was impressive. He was a visionary who put his ideas into practice and convinced others to adopt his methods. Although he was generally recognized as the “Father of Forestry in the South,” he was not without political adversities.

Hardtner opposed Huey P. Long and his political ambitions. This resulted in Long attempting to nullify the state contract that provided tax relief for reforestation on Hardtner’s land.

Hardtner was killed in 1935 as the result of a car-train accident in Baton Rouge. He was in Baton Rouge defending his reforestation legislation. Ironically, his political adversary Huey Long was assassinated a few months later.

The legacy of Henry Hardtner to forestry is remarkable. As a lumberman, he understood the potential for reforesting cutover lands. He promoted his ideas and used his forest land to demonstrate the sustainability of Southern pine forests.

In addition as a Louisiana state legislator, he led a program to provide tax relief for those wanting to reforest their land. He led, too, an effort to develop and introduce a timber severance tax that would provide for forest fire protection program across the state and that would fund the Louisiana Division of Forestry.

On April 27, 1939, four years after his death, the Society of American Foresters, Yale School of Forestry Alumni and the Hardtner family erected a plaque in Hardtner’s honor. Urania businesses and schools closed that day for the dedication and memorial service.

At the memorial service were many of the most influential foresters of the United States. Comments from a number of these were published in the 1939 volume of the Journal of Forestry. His accomplishments were many and his friendship was coveted.

As an indication of the significance of his contributions, in June 1934, the Urania Lumber Co. became the first company in the United States to be accredited for sustained yield forestry under the conservation provisions of the then lumber code.

Urania became the mecca for those interesting in learning of the potential of reforestation. Visitors from all over the country came to Urania to talk to Hardtner.

One of the most significant visits occurred when the Great Southern Lumber Co.’s general manager and board of directors came to Urania 1918.

William H. Sullivan and his directors were so impressed with Hardtner’s results they decided to establish a reforestation effort for their lands.

In the next edition of Forests & People, look for the story of Sullivan taking off with Hardtner’s plan of reforestation.

(Dr. Jim Barnett is an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.)

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