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The Jefferson National Forest

An Appalachian Environmental History

Will Sarvis

Publication Year: 2011

The highland forests of southwestern Virginia were a sacred land to Native Americans and one they relied upon for sustenance. After European contact, this beautiful country drew successive waves of settlers and visitors, and for a brief yet intense period, industrialists rapaciously exploited its timber resources, particularly in the higher elevations where the woodlands had survived the nearby valleys’ generations of agricultural use. This is the story of how various peoples have regarded this land over the centuries and how, starting in the early twentieth century, the federal government acquired 700,000 acres of it to create what is now the Jefferson National Forest (JNF). Will Sarvis’s in-depth history explores the area’s significance to such native tribes as the Cherokee and Shawnee, for whom it functioned as a buffer zone in late prehistory, and its attraction for nineteenth-century romantics who, arriving in stagecoaches, became the area’s first tourists. Aggressive commercial logging gave way to the arrival of the U.S. Forest Service, which patched the JNF together through successive purchases of privately owned land and instituted a more regulated harvesting of various timber resources. Public support for Forest Service policy during the Depression and World War II was followed by controversies, including the use of eminent domain. In presenting this history, Sarvis probes the many complexities of land stewardship and, in analysis that is sure to spark debate, discusses how and why the JNF could abandon clear-cutting and return to traditional selective tree management. An ongoing experiment in democratic land use, the JNF contains many lessons about our relationship with the natural environment. This book delineates those lessons in a clear and compelling narrative that will be of great interest to policy makers, activists, and indeed anyone drawn to American environmental history and Appalachian studies.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xv

This must be one of the more unlikely books ever to reach publication. It is a work begun with the backward process of data in search of philosophy, composed during disjointed periods of unemployment, hindered by the destruction of over eighty boxes of primary sources, financed through sporadic personal savings, and pronounced dead and unrevivable several times over a ...

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pp. xvii-xx

By the time I began this research project, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., had destroyed the primary records they held for the JNF. Oral history interviews became essential in this context, and many JNF retirees (a full list of whom appears in the bibliography) generously shared their memories. During my eighteen months of employment with the Forest Service, ...

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Note on Territorial Designations

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pp. xxi

In 1995 the U.S. Forest Service combined the Jefferson National Forest with the George Washington National Forest. The James River approximates the former boundary between them. The combined territories now constitute Virginia’s only national forest. Other postmerger administrative changes combined the former Blacksburg, Wythe, and New Castle ranger districts ...

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pp. 1-10

The original title I had conceived for this book was “Highland Woodlands,” which was derived from the particular Forest Service holdings along the higher elevations of the ridge and valley subregion of the southern Appalachian mountains.1 The linear valleys are dominated by meadows, farms, waterways, railroads, and major highways. All the large towns are found here, ...

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1. Prehistoric Southwestern Virginia

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pp. 11-26

Native American land and resource use in southwestern Virginia spans almost the entire scope of North American prehistory and includes evidence of early Paleo-Indian hunters, all the way up to tribal peoples who met the impact of Euro-American occupation. Southwestern Virginia prehistory shares much in common with archaeological patterns in the southern Appalachians ...

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2. Agricultural Settlers

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pp. 27-34

From the Atlantic shore various Euro- and Afro-Americans and their descendents tended to follow the Great Valley of Virginia in a west, southwest direction toward Tennessee. The Great Valley and some of its parallel linear valleys in southwestern Virginia offered the easiest travel along well-established footpaths that animals and aborigines had traversed for millennia. ...

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3. Turnpikes and Romance in the Mountains

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pp. 35-46

As the American wilderness began to diminish, the American people began to cherish it. With Indians subjugated and predatory animals greatly reduced, the wilderness no longer seemed so threatening. However, it remained rural and comparatively undeveloped and thus greatly appealing to those who lived in the Atlantic seaboard’s growing cities. The southern highlands also ...

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4. Industrial Logging Discovers Appalachia

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pp. 47-56

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when timber cutters had already denuded most areas of the eastern United States of their old growth forests, large areas of southern Appalachia remained untouched by industrial logging. Virgin timber covered literally hundreds of thousands of acres.1 Steep, inaccessible terrain, not yet penetrated by railroads, had prevented ...

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5. JNF and the Rise of National Conservation

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pp. 57-70

While early industrialism and spreading farm acreage continued to alter southwestern Virginia’s environment, Romanticism was to some extent morphing into national events that were coalescing around a new environmental conservation ethic.1 After the 1860s, preservation and conservation of public lands began to gain greater public appeal. A significant fear of timber ...

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6. The Depression Era

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pp. 71-90

The JNF arose out of an exceptionally dynamic period in American conservation history. The New Deal’s social programs, particularly the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—Roosevelt’s “tree-planting army”—accentuated the creation and maintenance of the JNF. Indeed, the 1930s were something of a culmination of at least a hundred years of a developing conservation ethic ...

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7. World War II and Postwar Transitions

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pp. 91-108

Among the many aspects that differentiate the early JNF from the agency at mid and late century, probably no other underwent as tremendous an evolution as fire control. Even by the 1950s local situations had drastically changed from the earlier era of annual hillside burning. Indeed, in 1953 Ranger J. N. Van Alstine, who once recalled seeing “Meadow Creek and Sinking Creek ...

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8. The Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

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pp. 109-126

Rising to 5,729 feet on the Smyth and Grayson county line, Mount Rogers and neighboring Whitetop Mountain (5,520 feet) have attracted the attention of explorers, scientists, sightseers, and other visitors for centuries. Wilburn Waters, as legendary as Daniel Boone in some parts of southwestern Virginia, lived the life of a hermit, hunter, trapper, and backwoodsman in the ...

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9. From Commodity Interests to Ecological Forestry

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pp. 127-148

National forests are now amidst perhaps the most dramatic transformation in their history. What began as a utilitarian venture appears to be evolving into a more holistic consideration of the forest environment. A generational divide within the JNF characterized the Mount Rogers NRA policy controversy of the 1970s, which ended with ambiguous results. Concentrated ...

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10. Cultural Resources

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pp. 149-160

In all, the scope of JNF cultural resources spans the entire period of human prehistory and history of southwestern Virginia. Documentation and preservation of these resources has contributed, in its modest way, to a more detailed understanding of the greater region, Appalachian history, and environmental history. The cost-sharing, or matching-funds policy, has ...

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11. Sacred Land

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pp. 161-174

Throughout the world, and throughout history and prehistory, mountains and trees have held religious and spiritual significance for any number of peoples. Scholars and writers like Mircea Eliade and Edwin Bernbaum have demonstrated how peoples everywhere have embraced and continue to embrace concepts of the cosmic mountain and sacred tree.1 In a philosophical ...

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12. Old Commons Meets the New

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pp. 175-184

For almost two centuries before JNF management, the highland woodlands in southwestern Virginia had functioned as a de facto commons. The early development of land speculators and absentee ownership of large tracts certainly fostered such informal use of the forested slopes, for the numerous landless tenants could not have survived otherwise. They used these ...

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pp. 185-192

In the Chinese philosophy of Daoism, there is an appreciation of things for their contrast regarding other things. This is most famously depicted in the familiar yin-and-yang symbol. Thereby daylight is appreciated through night, summer through winter, the female principle through the male, and so on. It is also how valleys and lowlands render mountains for what they are, ...

Appendix A: Pioneer Forest: A Case Study in Modern Selective Forest Management

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pp. 193-200

Appendix B: Payment in Lieu of Taxes

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pp. 201-204

Appendix C: Miscellaneous Statistics and Recent Budget Data

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pp. 205-220


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pp. 221-302

Source Materials

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pp. 303-344


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pp. 345-354

E-ISBN-13: 9781572338371
E-ISBN-10: 1572338377
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572338289
Print-ISBN-10: 1572338288

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 22 halftones, 5 line drawings, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2011