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Sonderegger was La. state forester two times

V.H. Sonderegger served as state forester two times, but refused to hire any professional staff. (Photo by the Louisiana Office of Forestry)

Victor Hugo Sonderegger, a native of Winnfield and two-time Louisiana state forester, might have been named for the French playwright who was the champion of the people, but his time in office was more characterized by a man alone at the top.

There were accomplishments during the 14 years he served, but a reform movement sounded the end of his career.

Sonderegger graduated in 1911 from the Biltmore Forest School at Asheville, North Carolina, which provided one year of practical forestry training. Although the Biltmore school lay claim as the earliest forestry school in the nation — it was established in 1898 — it was only a few weeks earlier that more traditional four-year programs.

The Biltmore curricula consisted of one year of practical training — classroom work in the morning and field exercises in the afternoon. The program lasted 13 years and did provide some training in forestry for about 400 enrollees.

When R.D. Forbes, a Yale forestry graduate, became the first state forester of Louisiana Division of Forestry in 1918, he hired Sonderegger as his first assistant. Sonderegger had worked for the Mansfield Lumber Co. in Winnfield prior to this job.

In 1921, when Forbes left to become the first director of the Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station, Sonderegger was elevated to state forester. He did not fill the assistant state forester position and remained the only professionally trained forester in the organization.

As state forester, Sonderegger carried out a number of projects that Forbes had initiated: fire patrols, railroad fire prevention, publicity and education.

On the fire-fighting front, Sonderegger divided the state into two areas with a chief ranger in charge of each. Recruitment of patrolmen and fire wardens followed. In 1922 and 1923, two fire towers were constructed. One was on Great Southern Lumber Co.’s land and the other was on Henry Hardtner’s company land at Urania.

His administration was active in proposing forestry legislation. Notable accomplishments were:

• Penalties for setting fire to state land.

• Provision for establishing national forests.

• Acceptance of lands donated for state forests.

• Establishment of Arbor Day in schools

• A comprehensive seed-tree law.

Interestingly, Sonderegger was not the one responsible for these initiatives. Henry Hardtner, president of the Urania Lumber Co., was an advocate for forestry and as a state legislator

proposed legislation that provided direction for the state organization. And it was Caroline Dormon who developed educational programs for the Division of Forestry.

Progress was made on the information and education front when the Commissioner of Conservation appointing Caroline C. Dormon as an education specialist for the Department of Forestry in late 1920. She proved during her stay until 1923 to have a genuine love of forestry, did much to establish an education program in schools and gained respect across the South for her ability and contributions in education. She proved to be an outstanding authority on dendrology and became the first woman elected to membership in the Society of American Foresters. She could not, however, tolerate Sonderegger’s management style and resigned in frustration.

In 1923, 2,200 acres of land from H.S. Burrowes was acquired by the state for a state forest. The area near Lecompte was officially named the M.L. Alexander Memorial State Forest in honor of Alexander who served as Commissioner of Conservation from 1912 to 1923. Additional land was added to the property and today it comprises 8,000 acres.

The regime of Sonderegger ended on Oct. 1, 1925. One of the problems he had faced was keeping competent employees. His management style was not one that resulted in a stable workforce. However, this was not the end of his involvement in state forestry. He was succeeded as state forester by W.R. “Billy” Hine, a graduate of Cornell University, who had worked with the Southern Forest Experiment Station. Hine did a remarkable job of improving the fire protection organization, constructing an additional 13 lookout towers, rehiring Caroline Dormon as assistant in public relations and beginning a training program for employees.

Funds became available under the Federal Clarke-McNary law to establish a nursery on the state forest site in 1925. Charles and Luther Delaney were placed in charge of the nursery program. Within three years, they were able to grow and distribute more than a million pine seedlings.

Hine recruited Nathan D. Canterbury as assistant forester in charge of the nursery program. Canterbury received his Master of Forestry degree in 1922 from Yale and was very capable. He was one of a few students that received a master’s

degree without first receiving a bachelor’s degree. The nursery program expanded rapidly and Canterbury led the development of other programs.

However, politics began to overshadow the developing forestry programs. Huey P. Long was elected governor and planned to oust the Commissioner of Conservation and his staff. State Forester Hine had an opportunity to take a Forest Service position and resigned before Long became governor. V.K. Irion, then commissioner of Conservation, named Canterbury as State Forester telling him, “It probably won’t last long, but at least you can say you were once the State Forester.”

Irion’s words true, Canterbury was in office only one month and one day. However, he moved on to a long and illustrious career in forest industry.

Long dismissed all personnel of the Department of Conservation en masse — this included Caroline Dormon.

Canterbury stayed over a day to orient the new state forester. He was introduced to the familiar V.H. Sonderegger, who was from the same hometown as Long. Canterbury stayed long enough to glimpse how new employees were hired. Each new employee came with a slip of paper signed by the new Commissioner of Conservation specifying the amount of salary the employee would receive — no mention of what position the employee would hold.

Over time, Sonderegger would rehire many of the employees that were fired by Long. Also, he continued much of the effort established by previous State Forester Billy Hine.

Sonderegger remained in office until 1940 when a reform movement called for a modern and complete forestry program.

Among things Sonderegger is noted for is being removed from membership in the Society of American Foresters because of questionable political activities and by having a pine species named for him.

Yale University’s H.H. Chapman, who brought forestry students to Urania for training for decades, described a natural hybrid of loblolly and longleaf pine and named it Sonderegger pine (Pinus xsondereggeria). Some believed, knowing Chapman, that it was named more in recognition of the common name, bastard pine, than as an honor.

During Sonderegger’s two terms as state forester he did not hire a single professional forester. Apparently, he did not want competition from professional foresters.

Sonderegger’s second regime faced many challenges as he served during the Depression. He established more than 20 Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Louisiana during the Great Depression years. These camps made remarkable contributions to the state.

Sonderegger served during a difficult time and had no ulterior motives. He had the interest of the organization at heart. Although wrong in strategy at times and tainted with politics, he did what he thought was right for forestry.

During the restructuring of the forestry program following Sonderegger’s tenure, steps were taken to prevent any newly elected governor from firing the state forester and staff. A board of Forestry Commissioners was placed in charge of the state’s forestry organization — this prevented any governor from following Huey P. Long’s example. Removing the newly organized Louisiana Forestry Commission from political influence was likely the reason that James “Jim” Mixon was able to serve as state forester for 29 years, outlasting the administrations of seven governors, and led the organization to become recognized across the South for its excellence.

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



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