It Happened at Michigan — Saving Michigan’s forests from ‘the most appalling consequences’


Volney M. Spalding, an 1873 U-M graduate who began his career as a high school principal and returned to his alma mater to teach botany and zoology, worried about the future. Specifically, the fate of northern Michigan’s magnificent forests.

“We have squandered with reckless haste the abundant forest wealth with which the state was endowed,” Spalding said.

Professor Volney M Spalding
Professor Volney M Spalding. (Wikimedia)

He was backed by Charles Kendall Adams, a professor of history who was the dean of U-M’s new but ultimately short-lived School of Political Science. American forests were disappearing, with little regard by politicians and business leaders for how to replenish and manage new growth. While the timber industry was particularly critical to the Michigan economy, he said, it was unsustainable without proper tree growth management.

“If this destruction is not properly guarded against or counterbalanced by the judicious planting and care of trees, even our climate is in danger of being permanently changed,” Adams said. “We have recently had painful admonitions that the unwise cutting away of our forests may be attended with the most appalling consequences.”

In the fall of 1881, with the opening of the School of Political Science, Spalding began teaching what was considered the first forestry course in the United States. Forty-eight students enrolled and explored the impact of trees on human affairs, the control of forests, and legal developments affecting forests in Europe and the United States.

At the rate Michigan was losing pine trees to the lumber industry, Spalding said in 1882, the forests would be decimated within seven years.

An old photo of men logging pine trees in Michigan
Logging white pines in Michigan in the 1880s. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

“Every man who can do so is trying to get a piece of pine land or a quantity of logs before they are gone, and our own people, in company with eastern capitalists, are planning the speedy destruction of the hardwood forests as soon as the pine lands have been stripped,” he told the first meeting of the American Forestry Congress in 1882.

Spalding taught his forestry course for four years. In 1903, the university established a Department of Forestry, which has evolved into today’s School for Environment and Sustainability.


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