Some of North Carolina’s most beautiful landscapes include miles and miles of forests and trees that are protected by sustainable forest management practices introduced to the United States by a German immigrant whose name might be familiar to many in the Triangle.
Carl Alwin Schenck was a German forester who came to the country to work on the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville in 1895. Schenck is the namesake of an N.C. State University research forest on the west side of Raleigh that is also a popular place to hike.
On Friday, the N.C. Museum of History will host a free screening of a documentary that tells Schenck’s story. “America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment” was produced and distributed by the Durham-based Forest History Society and explores the impact Schenck had on American forestry and the subsequent creation of the Pisgah National Forest, the first national forest acquired from private land.
Schenck was 27 and had just completed his Ph.D. in Germany when he arrived in the United States in 1895, the year millionaire George Vanderbilt II’s house at Biltmore was completed. Frederick Law Olmsted, the chief landscape architect for the estate, had encouraged Vanderbilt to explore sustainable forest management in the lands surrounding the Biltmore mansion and recommended Gifford Pinchot to serve as estate forester in 1892. Schenck replaced Pinchot and managed more than 100,000 acres of Vanderbilt’s forests, helping implement Olmsted’s vision for scientific forest management.
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“I was almost the only forester in America in 1895,” Schenck said in an interview with The New Yorker magazine in 1951.
At that point in America, sustainable logging and replanting of forests was nonexistent. Logging companies would buy contracts to log an area, cut the trees indiscriminately and then move on to another forest.
“They would come in cut it and then just walk away because it was cheaper to let it revert back to the state than to pay the taxes on it,” said historian James Lewis, an executive producer of the film.
Schenck believed that if a logging company held on to the land and let the forests recover, it would in the long term be profitable while also maintaining the integrity of the forests.
While Germany had been practicing forestry this way for more than one hundred years, for America, Lewis noted, “It’s really a paradigm shift in the thought process.”
Ultimately, Schenck was unable to cultivate returns that satisfied Vanderbilt. He was dismissed from the estate, but not before he had established the country’s first forestry school. The Biltmore Forest School led by Schenck graduated more than 350 students that went on to become the next generation of foresters, lumbermen, loggers, and conservationists.
“When the school shut down in 1913, 70 percent of all foresters working in the United States had trained at the Biltmore Forest School,” Lewis said. “That’s a huge impact.”
Before he died in 1955 in his native Germany at age 87, Schenck donated thousands of pages of forest management papers and documents to NCSU, which in North Carolina is considered the heir to the Biltmore Forest School, Lewis said.
After Schenck left the Biltmore Estate, Vanderbilt wanted to sell a large portion of his forest land. He was unable to sell before he died in 1914, but his widow, Edith Vanderbilt, saw the completion of the sale to the federal government.
The land Schenck had used to introduce the country to sustainable forest management became the Pisgah National Forest, the first national forest east of the Mississippi River and the first national forest formed from private land. To top it off, the first supervisor of the newly minted forest, Verne Rhoades, was one of Schenck’s students.
“Though the conservation movement and professional forestry began on Biltmore’s forested lands,” Lewis noted, “Carl Schenck remains an unheralded early leader of both.”
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See the film
What: A screening of “America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment” followed by a panel Q&A session.
When: 7 p.m. Friday. Environmental education and conservation groups will be at the museum for visitors to talk to before the screening at 6:30 p.m.
Where: N.C. Museum of History, downtown Raleigh
More information: www.americasfirstforest.org