Becoming a forest ranger in the early 1900s required an intimate knowledge of the land being supervised, the draft animals used to help manage the land, the food needed to sustain man and beast, tree types and their uses, how to prevent forest fires, and grazing management. Applicants had to pass a practical written exam and field tests.

Rangers heliographing from Black Butte Fire Lookout, California, 1923. USFS photo.

(USFS photos, from left: Forest ranger meeting, 1907, Big Horn National Forest, Wyoming; field crew at Packer’s Meadow 1909, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho; ranger and staff meeting, 1938, Cleveland National Forest, California.)

A document titled The USDA Forest Service—The First Century provides this background into how forest rangers were selected in the early days of the Forest Service.

In the spring of 1905, management of the forest reserves (later called national forests) was transferred from the Department of the Interior’s GLO [General Land Office] to the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Forestry. On July 1, 1905, the Forest Service name came into being. Gifford Pinchot, as the first Chief of the agency, was intent on building a force of forest rangers who were trained in or had good knowledge of practical forestry. He considered the words on the “Invalids Need Not Apply” poster (circa 1905) to be “a slap at the Land Office…and certainly well deserved.” Pinchot was determined to transform the negative stigma of the GLO’s reign from 1897 through 1905 to a positive image of professional Forest Service employees, dedicated to “scientific forestry” and public service. When the forest reserves were turned over to the Forest Service, with a few exceptions, the GLO rangers quit Government service. The GLO rangers who did transfer to the new agency were very practical and greatly experienced men who helped form a cadre of highly talented rangers. Beginning in the summer of 1905, the new Forest Service required that applicants for the forest ranger position (now under Civil Service rules) take practical written and field examinations. The written test, although not highly technical, was quite challenging. Questions were asked to determine an applicant knowledge of basic ranching and livestock, forest conditions, lumbering, surveying, mapping, cabin construction, and so on. The field examination, held outdoors, was also quite basic. It required applicants to demonstrate practical skills such as how to saddle a horse and ride at a trot and gallop, how to pack a horse or mule, how to “throw” a diamond hitch, accurately pace the distance around a measured course and compute the area in acres, and take bearings with a compass and follow a straight line.

In the field examination’s early years, the applicants were also required to bring a rifle and pistol along with them to shoot accurately at a target. At some ranger examinations, the applicants were required to cook a meal, then EAT it! The applicants, as well as the rangers themselves, were not furnished with equipment, horses, or pack animals—they were required to have them for the test and for work, at their own expense. The pay was $60 per month. The forest ranger job changed little for several decades, with the practical forester serving the agency well. University-trained foresters, or “technical foresters,” began to enter the agency after 1910, coming from the few colleges and universities offering degrees in forestry. By the 1920’s, job specialization was becoming common. The changing needs of society after World War II prompted the agency to open the national forests to timber harvesting, which meant that the role of the general practical forester was outdated—university-trained specialists would take this agency into a new era. Today, agency employees are no longer required to take practical tests for employment and university-trained specialists are everywhere, but practical experience still “counts” highly in the Forest Service.

(USFS photos, from left: Deep Creek Ranger Station, office and residence, Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, 1945; Fenn Ranger Station complex, Selway River, Nez Perce National Forest, Idaho, 1940; log cabin ranger station, California, 1933.)

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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