National Forests in Idaho- History
People have been using Idaho's trees for a long, long time. Indians used small trees to make poles for their tipis - particularly lodgepole pine. They made dugout canoes by cutting and burning out the inside of larger trees. Lewis and Clark made canoes this way near Orofino in 1805. They rode these canoes down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean.

Henry Spalding built Idaho's first sawmill in 1840 on the Clearwater River. The mill sawed logs into boards, and ground grain into flour. It was powered by a water wheel.

Trappers and early gold miners built cabins from logs.

The nicer buildings in the mining camps were made from boards cut with a two-man whipsaw. This saw was six or seven feet long, with very coarse teeth and a handle on each end. A log was laid out so one man could stand above the log, and another man could stand under it. The man under the log pulled the saw down and got sawdust in his eyes. The man above pulled the saw back up. The saw was pulled back and forth until the log was cut from end to end. It was slow work, and it took two cuts to make the first board. Heavy timbers sometimes had each side squared off with a whipsaw. More often the sides were squared by a man using an ax.

Click here to learn more about the historyand development of forestry in Idaho.


Small water-powered sawmills appeared in all parts of Idaho during territorial times. These small mills served the needs of the mining and farming towns. There was a never-ending demand for lumber. Government laws allowed people to use trees for home and farm use. A person could buy as much as 160 acres of forest land, but when those trees were gone, he was out of the lumbering business. Large lumber companies were not allowed to cut Idaho timber until 1892, when the laws were changed. Even the railroads could not cut Idaho's trees. When the railroads built their tracks across Idaho, they had to haul their wooden ties from as far away as the Black Hills of South Dakota.

During the 1800's, lumbermen thought only of cutting down all the big trees in the forest, then moving on to a new forest. They gave no thought to saving the younger trees for later harvests, or to planting young trees for future forests. After the lumbermen moved on, other people burned the stumps and trash. Much of the trash was crushed trees which were too small for lumber. The cleared land was then plowed for farming. Those forests were lost forever. The state of Maine lost its fine forests very early.

During the 1880's and 1890's, most of America's lumber was being cut in the Great Lakes states. By 1900, most of the good forests of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota were gone. Lumbermen were looking for new forests to cut. The forests of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana seemed ideal. After the Northern Pacific Railroad was built across Idaho's panhandle in 1880-1882, lumber was easy to ship. Idaho's white pine was a special prize which sold for high prices.

Lumbermen from the Great Lakes country began buying Idaho forest land in 1890. At least one company had a mill at Coeur d'Alene as early as 1890, though it was against the law until 1892. The lumbermen bought great amounts of Idaho timber land. They began building mills, and the lumbering business spread to most parts of Idaho, both north and south.
Written and compiled by Jacqueline Harvey 1999.