120 Years Ago – Forest Fires In Pennsylvania Were Problematic

Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock, Pennsylvania’s Father of Forestry. If you go to McVeytown, his birthplace, be sure to pronounce his last name with a long O as in Rowth rock, otherwise you will be soundly corrected.

Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock through his efforts as Chief of the Division of Forestry, in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, worked to acquire land for state forest reservations.  The purposes of these reservations was to secure land that would again become forests beneficial to all persons of the commonwealth, advance forestry culture on those lands, and protect sources of water supplies. Forest fires in Pennsylvania were a huge problem as fire followed the axe.

Finally on March 30, 1897, he was successful when P.L. 11, No. 10   Cl. 32 was signed. This act was known as the Unseated Lands, Purchase Authorized by the Commonwealth. It authorized the purchase for the non-payment of taxes for the purpose of creating a State Forest Reservation. The act required county treasurers to notify the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Commissioner of Forestry, that land was available for purchase.

It was then the duty of the Commissioner of Forestry to examine the location and character of to determine if the land was desirable for the purpose of creating and maintaining a forestry reservation. The purchase of the lands by the state was subject to the “right of redemption”; that is, for one year following the sale the original landowner could reestablish himself as landowner by paying the back taxes. The state was limited to paying no more than the amount of tax owed and in no case the price paid by the state should not exceed the assessed value, or $5 per acre.

Pennsylvanians have long been skeptical of government interference with their rights and this was (and still is) especially true when the government wants to acquire their land. The Pike County Press was one of the first newspapers to voice this concern as it related to state forest reservations. On March 26, 1897 it ran the following an editorial which in part said:

Nothing is said in the act as to how the county shall be indemnified for the loss of taxes on these lands. While the benefits which may accrue will he largely shared by the people of the whole state and presumably by posterity, yet the present burden of taxes for local purposes will he greatly increased only in the counties where the lands are taken, and they are very likely those least able to bear it.

Further on in the editorial the paper stated it was in favor of forest reservations but only if they could be protected from fire and timber thieves but it doubted it could. It concluded:

…we trust that while those who would be law abiding and conservators of the forests are suffering the penalty of increased taxation for sins they have not committed, those who have been persistent, notorious violators of the law may have a finger as large as a man’s thigh laid on them, and that not very gently either. If the state should take, and thus exempt from taxes half of the number of acres provided for, it would make “this one green spot” look considerably greener if the state protected its domain, and it would probably result also in large accessions to our Sheriff’s boarding house business…..

On May 25, 1897 an act of the legislature created the State Forest Reservation Commission that was separate from the Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. The Commission consisted of five members. The first commissioners included Dr. Joseph Rothrock of West Chester; Mr. John Fulton of Johnstown, President of the State Board of Health; Mr. Isaac B. Brown of Corry, Secretary of Internal Affairs; Mr. Albert Lewis of Bear Creek, Luzerne County; and Mr. A.C. Hopkins of Lock Haven. The commission was charged with acquiring three reservations of not less than 40,000 acres each in the watersheds of the Delaware, Susquehanna and Ohio Rivers.

One thought on “120 Years Ago – Forest Fires In Pennsylvania Were Problematic”

  1. Thank you Mike for clarifying the correct pronunciation of Rothrock. Most forestry historians & even my friends at the Bureau of Forestry get it all wrong, but here in McVeytown we know the truth.

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