As the U.S. industrialized after the Civil War, logging and mining jeopardized the country’s vast western woodlands. Congress responded to the threat, authorizing the National Forest reserves in 1891. By 1897 millions of acres had been set aside, including the Flathead and the Bitterroot reserves in Montana.
In 1905 Congress created the National Forest Service and hired rangers to patrol these vast public lands. Most early rangers lived where they worked and built their own primitive log cabins. More fortunate rangers repurposed existing homes and farms. The spacious two-story Judith River Ranger Station, which still stands in central Montana, is a prime example.
As the Forest Service matured as a federal agency, it developed standardized plans for ranger stations and the thousands of fire lookout towers built after the 1910 “Big Burn” increased the agency’s commitment to enhancing fire suppression. The McCart Lookout follows the Forest Service’s L-4 design and features sliding glass windows and a two-foot catwalk surrounding the cab. Restored in the 1990s, the McCart Lookout is now a rentable cabin in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness.
Forest Service construction projects underwent a new phase of development during the Great Depression, as the federal government put the unemployed to work improving forest infrastructure. Facilities like the Ninemile Remount Station near Missoula and the Savenac Nursery in Sanders County today reflect the Civilian Conservation Corps’ contributions.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Forest Service’s mission expanded. Where once they had been primarily responsible for managing the nation’s forests as timber reserves, they now had to manage recreational areas in the forests. In the 1960s, Congress set aside portions of the national forests—including Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness—for recreation and conservation. At the same time, innovations in aerial fire suppression reduced the need to staff fire towers, some of which have been transformed into rental cabins. As the Forest Service’s operations have evolved, so has its footprint on the landscape; its history remains visible in the buildings that trace its evolution from its founding to the current day.