Try to imagine this scene… it is the late 1800s. Pennsylvania leads the country in lumber production, cutting 2.3 billion board feet in 1899 alone! The “cut out, get out” mentality for lumbering impacts several million acres of “Penn’s Woods”, creating a landscape prone to devastating erosion and wildfires, choking our rivers and streams with sediment and polluting our air. Many voices expressed their concern for this unsustainable and hazardous clear-cutting of Pennsylvania’s forests – one of those came from Joseph T. Rothrock.
Rothrock was born in Mifflin County, PA in 1839. After college, he set off as a botanist and surgeon for several expeditions out West, collecting new species of plants and getting recognized by the international botanical community. For a few years he was a professor of botany before setting off on the “Michaux Forestry Lectures”, where Rothrock traveled the state by horse and wagon for two decades to help the public understand the importance of Pennsylvania’s forests and how what was happening to them had a negative effect on everyone. These lectures helped lead to the creation of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association (the first forestry organization in the country), which was charted in 1886 to “promote forest stewardship to ensure the sustainability of all forest resources”. Rothrock was its first President.
Rothrock and colleagues worked diligently to create a Forestry Commission that would work to protect the forests that still existed in the Commonwealth and those to grow in the future. He also spent two years visiting as much of Pennsylvania’s northern and central forests as he could, documenting what he saw through his camera lens. Because of his work, three legislative acts to develop forest policy in Pennsylvania were created: one creating a permanent Commissioner of Forestry in 1895, one to create and fund a state forest reservation in 1897, and one to purchase uninhabited land for the non-payment of taxes to help pay for and create the aforementioned state forest reservation.
Governor Pattison named Rothrock the first botanist and Forestry Commissioner from 1895 to 1904. He continued as a member of the Forestry Commission off and on through 1922. Thanks in large part to his leadership, along with pioneering forestry and “City Beautiful movement” pioneer, Mira Lloyd Dock, more than 1.13 million acres of land were purchased by 1924 and the number of acres of forest being burned dropped from 225,000 acres in 1896 to just 19,369 acres in 1907.
It wasn’t just enough to slow the burning and cutting of Pennsylvania’s forests; something had to be done to get those bare lands back under tree canopy to prevent erosion and the resulting water pollution. In 1902, Rothrock, Dock, and others established the Mont Alto Tree Nursery and first forestry school in Pennsylvania, which is now known as Penn State Mont Alto. The nursery provided the seedlings required to reforest much of the Commonwealth, while the school cultivated the foresters who would plant and care for the young forests.
Rothrock’s legacy as the “Father of Pennsylvania Forestry” is visible to anyone who has ever visited the more than 2 million acres of sustainably managed PA State Forests. That is why the Pennsylvania General Assembly proclaimed the last week of April as “J.T. Rothrock Memorial Conservation Week”. Since that day in 1961, all Pennsylvania citizens are “encouraged to consider through suitable activities the broader subject of the conservation of all of the natural resources from which the wealth of the Commonwealth is derived.”
At the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation (PPFF), we provide a voice for the Commonwealth’s state forestland. This April 24th through 30th, you can too! Please take a moment to thank Rothrock for all this hard work and dedication to Pennsylvania’s forests and waters. Get outside, take a hike, and breathe in the fresh air that is possible thanks to people like him. And if you can, post some of your photos online and use the hashtags #RothrockWeek, #ProtectOurParksAndForests, and #PaForests to not only keep his legacy going, but to help PPFF compile a record of activities that demonstrate to the general assembly the important need to invest in the operations and maintenance of these special places.