When did people start properly managing forestry resources?

I have this stereotype in my head that humans were extremely careless and destructive toward the environment until the issue started garnering interest somewhere around the 1960s. Specifically on the issue of clear-cutting forests, I would wonder whether for centuries people treated woodland like it was an inextinguishable resource, and whether the majority of forests were at any time in danger of being completely cut down, or whether people in centuries past also knew that forests should be replanted, that they should not be wantonly destroyed (as they seem to be even today in Amazonia), and that there are other resources (fruit, game, etc.) that make forests worth preserving. When did humanity begin to realize this? Some specific thoughts or observations:

-I know that Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the USA if not in the world, was established as early as 1872. Algonquin Provincial Park was established in Ontario in 1893 after a commission concluded that “the experience of older countries had everywhere shown that the wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of forests brings a host of evils in its train. Wide tracts are converted from fertile plains into arid desert, springs and streams are dried up, and the rainfall, instead of percolating gently through the forest floor and finding its way by easy stages by brook and river to the lower levels, now descends the valley in hurrying torrents, carrying before it tempestuous floods.”

-I recall reading that already in the first decade of the 20th century, Sweden passed a law saying that for every tree you cut down, you had to plant another.

-People, AFAIK, privately owned commercial woodlots as far back as the 18th or early 19th century, if not earlier. Wouldn’t they have had a vested interest in managing the forests they cut down and replanting them to be able to re-use them?

-What about the many forests that were cut down by the legendary lumberjacks of places like Quebec, Maine or Minnesota? Who owned the land on which they worked their trade, and were the forests ever replanted for future logging, or was the land just given other uses, e.g. being sold as real estate?

This is probably not a complete answer to your question, but forest management has been around since before European settlement of North America. The natives practiced it here, so well that when the Europeans did arrive they found the entire place full of forests that were ready to exploit. The smallpox epidemic had just killed off most of the former inhabitants. Europeans also practiced it extensively, forest management is an old art, and people have known about it for centuries. Google Forest Management, you can see videos of how people do it even today.

There has been active forest management in Japan for hundreds of years.

In one of James Fenimore Cooper’s books, the inhabitants of a recently-founded town are hopeful of finding a coal seam for fuel, because forests are a finite resource, but a coal seam would last forever.

One would imagine native groups might be more likely to have treated forests in a sustainable way, if only for spiritual reasons. But the risks to forests only became significant after the technology existed to cause them significant damage m, and enough demand for lumber existed to make this more likely.

Too many strands and too broad a question to give precise answers. Some areas of forest were protected as royal or church domains in Europe, to prevent poaching of animals or as royal hunting grounds. Are they managed?

Common woodland in medieval land systems was also managed by custom, with some things allowed (grazing, collecting wood) which allowed them to be sustainable. Are they managed?

The supply of oaks for warship building was a strategic issue for many nations in the past few centuries - the US Navy still owns an oak forest and its got one wooden ship to worry about, so imagine when your entire royal fleet required mature centuries-old oak trees (4,000 trees per ship apparently).

On the flipside the good people of Easter Island went from lots of trees to zero, and as Brian Fagan points out, at some point someone was sizing up the last tree with his axe, knowing that when this bad boy was gone there were no more (to be fair, archaeologists dispute some details of this scenario).

One theory says the Easter Islanders had rat stowaways, and these helped by eating a lot of the seeds that could have turned into trees. Then there’s fishing - it’s a trade-off; plus there were rival clans at their peak population - besides getting into a contest to make the most and biggest statues, they also had to consider if they didn’t chop down that tree for a canoe, someone else from another clan would. I imagine this “tragedy of the commons” is the opposite of management.

Coppicing is a forestry management technique that greatly enhances forest sustainability and biodiversity, and is good economic practice as well.

And we know that’s been practiced in Europe at least since the Neolithic.

I see no reason to suppose that native groups’ spirituality would be any more inclined towards sustainability, in practice, than that of any other human population on the planet. Most human religious traditions talk about respect and care for the environment, and it doesn’t stop us.

If native groups did treat their environments more sustainably, I’d expect that that’d just be because they’d been there long enough for selection effects to kick in: Any such groups that didn’t practice sustainability, and who didn’t have virgin lands available to expand into, would have died out.

Anywhere there were forests in Precolumbian North America, they were managed, often with controlled burning. Since the human history of North America is at least 30,000 years, they had plenty of time to practice. Europeans have devastated many of these forests in only a few hundred years.

The history of the Near East, however, is thousands of years of deforestation and desertification. It took us a lot longer there.

One thing to clarify is that the forests weren’t managed for the purpose of harvesting timber but to improve hunting, encourage desirable forage plants, and clear pathways for travel. They also had been clearing forests for cropland for centuries before European contact. However, the decimation of native populations by old world diseases led to the forests reclaiming old cropland, and managed forests filling in with dense undergrowth. Once European settlers started penetrating the continent, it had reverted to a mostly unmanaged state over the prior two centuries.

Here’s a good summary of the topic: American Prehistory: 8000 Years of Forest Management - Forest History Society

The active forest management by indigenous peoples having been duly noted, the harms of the the Smokey era (including of the ‘60s) of extreme fire suppression as forest management must also be pointed out. The result has been a build up of fuel, contributing to more massive fires. Only fairly recently have practices similar to what were commonly practiced historically been re-embraced.

Coppicing was of course a tremendous source of raw materials for premodern peoples, from arrow- and spearshafts to basketry materials, wattle-construction, fish trap manufacture etc. etc.

African traditional religion often involves protecting sacred stretches of forests, where exploitation of resources is prohibited or limited:

Jachie and Jaagbo Groves of Ghana – Sacred Land.

Did anyone else watch Nova last night? There’s a lot of emerging evidence that far from being a pristine, untouched wilderness like Europeans assumed, the Precolumbian civilizations had been managing the Amazon for millennia before Europeans arrived.

This is not news to me, although I can’t remember where I read about it. But it was several years ago.

As far as the question in the Subject Line, I’ve been tempted several times to reply “I’m still waiting.” But then I tend to think that most forests should be left undisturbed and not be a “managed resource”.

There’s many levels of management for sure. The least managed would be just left alone to its own devices. That’s not necessarily the best thing, especially if there’s invasive species around like honeysuckle that can get out of control.

Managed but otherwise wild woods would probably see occasional prescribed burns and clearing out of invasive species (one is often a result of the other). Maybe they try to reintroduce missing species and treat some diseases if possible. They may also clear out dead trees that pose hazards to hiking trails. This would be typical for nature centers or city forest preserves.

The next step would be to start culling specific trees for timber harvest. Either for woodworking, firewood, or to preference the maturing of others, say for maple syrup harvesting. I don’t see too much wrong with that. This is usually the family-owned woodland.

The next level would be commercial woodlots that are periodically clear cut (or nearly so) but otherwise left to their own devices for years at a time. They’re thinned out occasionally to prevent overcrowding and allow individual trees to better mature. It’s not a fully healthy forest, but there’s still understory and various stages of succession, at least for a while.

Then there’s the tree farms, which are neat rows of identical trees with little to no understory. That’s little different than a corn field, and it should be viewed as such. It’s trees, but it’s not really a forest. Maybe it’s a “forestry resource” in the same way that Velveeta is a “prepared cheese product.”

It should be noted that what “management” means is relevant. The incorrect assumption that North American natives did not manage the land, (by defining this as formal farming and deliberately not considering other common practices) was used as a reason to unethically take control of territory.