DAYS GONE BY: The history of the Manistee National Forest

By Shanna Avery Lake County Historical Society

Over half of Michigan boasts beautiful well maintained forest land where wild life freely roam and where Michiganders and visitors enjoy the peace and recreation.  An early English translation of the name Manistee, 'The Spirit of the Woods,' is appropriately named for the river that gracefully courses the northern expanse of the forest. The forest covers an area of 1,256,000 acres of largely sandy wooded land dotted with lakes and scribbled with rivers and streams in west central Michigan. It also borders some lake shore of Eastern Lake Michigan.

The following counties encompass the forest: Lake, Newaygo, Wexford, Manistee, Mason, Oceana, Mecosta, Muskegon and Montcalm counties.  The forest is broken up by private properties and towns and local ranger offices are located in Baldwin and Manistee.

The Manistee National Forest was officially established in 1938 under the U.S. Forest Service, but the first purchase unit was established on August 30, 1933. In 1945, the Manistee and Huron National Forests were merged for administrative purposes, combining the federal forest land of the Lower Peninsula.  Although the forest wasn't established in name and deed until the 1930s, the history of the forest land began long before that. After the glacier activity ceased in Michigan, vegetation slowly sprang up on Michigan's newly formed glacially agitated soil.  Some trees preceded others by centuries. The light seeded trees, such as aspen, appeared first. Varieties such as oak took longer to establish.

By the time white settlers came to Michigan, most of the state was covered in forest. The forest land our ancestors and founders happened upon was different, yet similar to what we know today. Many of the trees were much larger and included greater portions of pine, tamarack, hemlock, and fewer aspen, red maple and birch. Not all the forest was huge pine groves, but some appeared similar to the young forests we see today due to fires and elements.

The settlers harvested the forests for economic gain, and to clear farms and towns. Michigan was the nation's leading lumber state between 1869 and 1900. The desolate land stripped bare from the logging era prompted conservation efforts in the early 1900s. The U.S. Forest Service formed in 1905, and the Department of Natural Resources, in 1921. The barren logged land, in addition to abandoned land taken back from failure to pay taxes, accumulated over the decades spanning from the 1900s through the 1930s. With this land, state and national forests, parks, and wild life refugees were formed. Michigan now has six state forests and three national forests.

In 1902, Michigan Agricultural College, (now M.S.U.) established a forestry school to train students in management of all these lands. The University of Michigan as well as Michigan Technical University also established forestry courses.

The most dynamic change to the desolate forest land occurred during the Great Depression. Under the New Deal, the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps) was formed, taking in young men without employment and putting them to work where needed, largely in land restoration projects. Michigan was among the first states to receive a full quota of C.C.C. camps. At the end of 1935 over 100 camps operated in the state, many under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service.  The C.C.C. replenished forests by planting trees in large open areas, building roads, trails, bridges, and assisting in forest fire protection. The Caberfae Ski area was also established by the C.C.C. From 1933 through 1942 the C.C.C. of Michigan planted more trees than any other state, almost 485 million pine, much of which contributed to the national forest lands.

It is no wonder today the Manistee National Forest boasts some of the most extensive pine plantations in the world. Since 1933, 75,000 acres of pine have been planted to fill the idle lands with true forest soil. The Chittenden Nursery at Wellston, on M-55, was established for this purpose and is one of the largest nurseries in the U.S., yielding 50,000,000 trees annually.

Beautiful campground and recreation areas, such as Udell Rollway campground, Peterson Bridge, and the Tippy Dam, are just some of the attractions that visitors flock to in the wooded hills of the Manistee National Forest.

Original Forest Service buildings are now restored and house the Lake County Historical Museum in downtown Baldwin. The museum features an exhibit of the Forest Service and the C.C.C. impact in the area, to recognize those that built up and maintained the beautiful forest land of the Manistee National Forest.