Joseph Trimble RothrockApril 9, 1839 - June 2, 1922
n the 1870s, Pennsylvania’s loggers were devastating the forests of northern and central Pennsylvania. The timber industry in Pennsylvania was a foraging operation in which lumberjacks cut only the best trees, then left fields strewn with unwanted logs, branches, broken timber and other tinder which fed massive forest fires that blackened the mountains and valleys. The rains eroded unprotected soils into the streams, silting their bottoms and killing the fish. Once rich forests of white pine, beech and hemlock had become what University of Pennsylvania botany professor Joseph Rothrock was calling “the Pennsylvania Desert.”
Born in McVeytown in 1839, Rothrock had first learned about plants and trees from his mother. A sickly child, Rothrock roamed the forests of Mifflin County to improve his health. A love of the outdoors led him to Harvard, where he studied botany under some of the nation’s greatest biologists and botanists, and from there to collecting expeditions in the American West.
In 1877 Rothrock began a series of lectures in Philadelphia to alert concerned citizens about the growing crisis in Pennsylvania’s forests. In 1886, some “public spirited ladies of Philadelphia,” many of them his former students, organized the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and elected Rothrock its first president.
To convince Pennsylvanians of the dangers facing their forests, Rothrock traveled through the abandoned forests of northern Pennsylvania in a horse-drawn buckboard taking pictures, which he made into lantern slides to show at lectures he gave throughout the state. He published Forest Leaves, a magazine in which he argued for the creation of a state forest commission. Many wealthy Pennsylvanians had made their money on the state’s natural resources, and Rothrock argued long and hard for direct, practical steps to restore “the material upon which this prosperity depends.” The forests that remained, Rothrock warned his readers, are “a picture of desolation and depopulation which cannot well be recognized without awakening most serious thoughts as to [its] present and fixture bearing on the prosperity of the Commonwealth. Millions of acres of state’s land was burned over, the soil unproductive and growing worse each year.” The best way to protect the state’s water, soil and wildlife was to replant trees.
To convince the lumber barons to drop their opposition to any state interference in their operations, Rothrock argued that in the long run everyone would benefit from responsible conservation and management of timber. “The art of forestry,” he wrote in 1895, “is the production of the largest crop of the most suitable timber in the least time and at the least expense on land that is unsuitable for remunerative agriculture or for profitable grazing.”
The hard work paid off. In 1895, when the state legislature created a Department of Agriculture, Rothrock became the state’s first Commissioner of Forestry. In the decade that followed, he shaped Pennsylvania’s forestry programs and supervised their implementation. Rothrock initiated a fire-warden system for the early detection and suppression of forest fires, wrote laws to punish those who started fires, created tree nurseries to replant the burnt-over districts and provide seedlings to private owners for reforestation. He also set up Mont Alto State Forestry School to train foresters and fire wardens for state service.
Confronted by humanity’s “tree-destroying instinct,” he also urged the creation of publicly owned forest reserves to protect the future prosperity of the Commonwealth. Many of the logging companies were happy for the Commonwealth to pay them five dollars an acre for their cut-over land, since they were already losing many acres to the state to cover unpaid taxes. By the time Rothrock stepped down as Commissioner of Forestry in 1904, Pennsylvania had acquired more than 443,000 acres of forest. By 2000 that figure had grown to more than 4 million acres.
In his retirement, Rothrock remained secretary of the Forestry Commission until a few months before his death. In his eighties he still joined other Commission members on tramps through his beloved woods, taking photographs and inspecting lands for purchase by the state. After his death in 1922, fellow forester and current state governor Gifford Pinchot would write, “What he did for Forestry in this state has never been equaled in the history of our country by any man in any other state.” In January 1965, Pennsylvania created the Rothrock State Forest in his honor.
(Text from ExplorePAHistory.com and the story of Rothrock’s historic marker. A full biography is available from the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, or view the Bureau of Forestry video for more information.)