The origins of sustainable forestry in America can be traced to Biltmore Forest School outside Asheville, North Carolina, on the vast estate of millionaire businessman George W. Vanderbilt. Not only did Vanderbilt’s purchase of several thousand acres of mostly denuded, overgrazed land lead to the first lumber enterprise in the U.S. to plan for long-term conservation, it also led to the founding of the nation’s first educational program in forestry.
Upon purchasing his land in the late 1880s, Vanderbilt enlisted famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to manage the gardens and grounds. Olmstead advised Vanderbilt that the sort of park he envisioned for the land wouldn’t be possible due to the topography and soil; he suggested planting trees for timber crops, which would not only beautify the land and restore it to its natural state, but would also be a business investment. By this time, unsustainable logging practices in the region had already done significant damage to both naturally occurring forests and plantation lands.
While Olmstead implemented many smart forestry techniques, like selective thinning, he also recognized that a trained forester would be needed to bring the forests to their full potential – especially after Vanderbilt acquired an additional 120,000 acres of what is now the Pisgah National Forest.
German forestry expert Carl A. Schenck founded the Biltmore Forest School in 1898, introducing new forestry techniques through a one-year course of study that involved plenty of hands-on, practical forest management field training. The school was established using abandoned farm buildings on the estate grounds, and a three-day Biltmore Forest Fair brought Schenck’s teachings to a wider audience. The school was open for a brief nine years, closing in 1909 when Schenck left his job a a forester on the Vanderbilt estate, but it paved the way for American forestry education.
Visitors can see many of the original school buildings and other structures on Vanderbilts’ former lands in the Pisgah National Forest near the cities of Asheville and Brevard, North Carolina, at the Cradle of Forestry in America historical site.