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'America's First Forest' premieres Wednesday

Forestry students construct volume tables as they measure logs felled in the forest. Forestry students construct volume tables as they measure logs felled in the forest.

America’s First Forest, the first full-length, in-depth documentary film ever made about legendary forester and educator Carl Schenck, will have its broadcast premiere on UNC-TV at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

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The new film explores Carl Schenck’s work at the Biltmore Estate and its impact on the conservation movement. Beginning in April, the film will be distributed to public television stations around the country by American Public Television.

America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment is produced by the Forest History Society in cooperation with Bonesteel Films, the film company of Paul Bonesteel of Asheville and Flat Rock.
The film tells the story of how Carl Schenck, a German forester, realized Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of introducing forestry to America. It was on George Vanderbilt’s magnificent Biltmore Estate in Asheville that a 120,000-acre forest became America’s first scientifically managed forest. There the nation’s first forestry school was founded, and the call for creating national forests in the eastern United States was inspired. Today the Biltmore Forest School grounds and buildings are now preserved and celebrated as the Cradle of Forestry in America National Historic Site near Asheville. The site lies in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest, which turns 100 this year. Its establishment is another part of Dr. Schenck’s legacy.

Although Dr. Schenck only worked in the United States from 1895 to 1913, he became nationally renowned for his work as an educator, forester, lumberman, and forest conservation advocate. Central to Dr. Schenck’s extraordinary career and impact was establishing the Biltmore Forest School—America’s first and arguably most influential. With the Biltmore Forest School and his experiments on the ground, Schenck laid the foundation for the conservation movement in the twentieth century and still inspires people today.

Drawing on his memoir Cradle of Forestry in America: The Biltmore Forest School, 1898–1913, the new documentary America's First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment is the first film to examine the pivotal role of Biltmore Estate chief forester Carl Schenck and America’s first school of forestry in American history. Though the conservation movement and professional forestry began on Biltmore’s forested lands, Schenck remains an unheralded early leader of both.

When millionaire George Vanderbilt decided to build his dream house in Asheville, he hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds and gardens of the sprawling estate, which eventually would encompass more than 100,000 acres in all. Olmsted recommended that Vanderbilt use the forest to demonstrate to Americans that forests could be managed sustainably and profitably for timber, recreation, and game. Vanderbilt first hired Gifford Pinchot, later founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and then Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck, a German-born and trained forester, to manage the forest.

With so much land to oversee and replant, Schenck began hiring young men to help with the work. In September 1898, at their request, Dr. Schenck opened the first forestry school in the United States and began teaching them in a more formal setting. Schenck lectured in the mornings and the students worked the land in the afternoons, gaining practical forestry training in the one-year program. As Schenck noted with pride, “My boys worked continuously in the woods, while those at other schools saw wood only on their desks.” Schenck’s emphasis on logging as part of the study of forestry and his advocacy for private forest land owners as the best path to restoring America’s forests brought him into conflict with national forestry leaders, including Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1909, after a disagreement with Vanderbilt, Schenck was dismissed. Undeterred, he continued teaching his students as they traveled around the country and even to Germany and France examining forestry and logging operations. Losing money, he shut down the Biltmore Forest School in 1913. Schenck then returned to Germany, where he continued to consult and publish on forestry the rest of his life. Carl Schenck died in 1955, the same year his memoirs were published by the Forest History Society.

America’s First Forest is produced and distributed by the Forest History Society, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization located in Durham. The Society links the past to the future by identifying, collecting, preserving, interpreting, and disseminating information on the history of interactions between people, forests, and their related resources—timber, water, soil, forage, fish and wildlife, recreation, and scenic or spiritual values. Through programs in research, publication, and education, the Society promotes and rewards scholarship in the fields of forest, conservation, and environmental history while reminding all of us about our important forest heritage. The film is made in cooperation with Bonesteel Films of Asheville, creator of The Day Carl Sandburg Died (PBS’s American Masters, 2012) and The Mystery of George Masa (PBS, 2003).

To learn more about the Forest History Society and the America's First Forest film, visit www.americasfirstforest.org.