Joseph Rothrock, surveying the beauty and the damage
Numbers show the success of Joseph Trimble Rothrock, “the father of Pennsylvania forestry.” When he began seriously advocating for the state’s trees, his goal was modest. “Don’t let forest land area fall below 15 percent of the state’s surface,” he wrote in 1892. “Save land with trees, for the air we breathe, to protect watersheds and for future timber.”
In 2009, Pennsylvania’s forest cover totaled 59 percent—almost four times Rothrock’s goal.
Born at McVeytown in Mifflin County, Rothrock was the grandson of a German settler who’d arrived in the Juniata Valley about 1740. His father, Abraham, was a physician and a former surgeon for the Pennsylvania Canal Co. when it built through the area in 1828-29.
Rothrock was sickly. At age 12, he was so delicate that he hadn’t attended school for two years. At that point, his parents sent him to a relative’s farm, where he played with other children, helped with chores, and developed what turned out to be a lifelong enthusiasm for the outdoors. “My mother was fond of botany,” Rothrock later wrote. “So, from her, I inherited this fondness.”
Family connections were also helpful. Famed botanist William Darlington of Chester County was a relative of Rothrock’s mother. “His old Flora Cestrica was one of three books which constituted my botanical library,” Rothrock wrote.
Country life seemed to help. When he attended Tuscarora Academy as a teen, he walked 28 miles—one way to get there for Monday classes, the other to get home for the weekend. The trip took him over the ridges of Blue and Blacklog mountains.
From Tuscarora, Rothrock went to Freeland Seminary (now Ursinus College). After a year, however, his health broke down—something that, according to biographer Eleanor Maass, tended to happen when he “spent too much time indoors at a stressful occupation.” The headmaster wrote to Rothrock’s father: “He’s ambitious, but he doesn’t seem to have that command of his energies, or doesn’t use them in the direction he should. He’s too fond of sport and adventure.”
Rothrock took the hint. He quit school for a job as an axman with a survey crew, scouting Elk and Forest counties in search of a route for the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad. In the 1850s, the area was covered with virgin timber—massive white pines, hemlocks and beech, plus birch and maple hardwoods. His memory of this period would be a powerful goad in later years, when he campaigned to create a permanent state-forestry commission and implement its recommendations. “Sixty years ago, I walked from Clearfield to St. Marys, thence to Smethport—60 miles—most of the way through glorious white-pine-and-hemlock forests,” he said in 1915. “Now these forests are gone.”
In the short term, the experience made Rothrock think more seriously about a career that would keep him outdoors. He imagined himself as a western explorer, but was savvy enough to realize that such unexplored territory was shrinking rapidly. So, in 1860, with a recommendation from Darlington, Rothrock began botany studies at Harvard College under Asa Gray. The foremost U.S. botanist of the 19th century, Gray is credited with organizing the previously fragmented understanding of North American plant life. His book, A Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, is still the standard in the field. “No youth was ever more fortunate in his teacher,” Rothrock recalled in later years.
In 1862, while home on vacation, Rothrock was swept up in war fever and joined the 131st Pennsylvania Volunteers, a nine-month unit. In letters to a friend, he demonstrated a flair for detailed writing that would later prove useful. “One rebel was wounded in the neck and killed,” wrote Rothrock from the Antietam battlefield in September. “His shirt was open and from his breast had rolled out about a dozen fine, large apples which he had taken from a neighboring orchard. One of our regiment, with the utmost ‘sangfroid,’ walked up, took an apple and, after paring it, ate it with an evident relish.”
At Fredericksburg, Rothrock took a ball in his thigh when the regiment charged to within 30 feet of Confederates shooting from behind a stone wall. But he was luckier than most; in 90 minutes of fighting, the 131st had 177 killed, wounded and missing. Through it all, Rothrock carried his botanical atlas, even throwing away his overcoat to lighten his load, rather than the text.
In 1864, Rothrock returned to Harvard, where his graduating thesis was a clarification of the taxonomy of the evening primrose. Three years later, he earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “American science was in its infancy,” explained Maass.
And there was no postgraduate education in science. “But a medical student, in the course of his studies, learned the basics of chemistry, botany, physiology and zoology,” Maass added. “So that was the best education possible for a scientific career.”
Rothrock became an academic, teaching botany, human anatomy and physiology at the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania (now Penn State). He also worked as a surgeon and helped found a hospital in Wilkes-Barre.
But it was all inside work. In 1873, Rothrock joined an exploratory expedition to British Columbia and Alaska. A recommendation from Gray had led to a quick acceptance. He was part of the Wheeler Survey, the main purpose of which was to map the western states. But it also gave Rothrock opportunities to gather specimens for botanical lectures.
At this point, Rothrock had no real plan. He confessed as much to his future wife, Martha May of West Chester, which became his home in 1877. “I have gathered many facts that will be of use to me in future years, whatever vocation I may follow,” he wrote from California. “I do hope it will not be medicine, for I never want again to be bound down to its practice.”
As it happened, Joe Rothrock came home to an opportunity. Pennsylvania had received a bequest from a French botanist to promote improved management of the state’s forests. Its managers were tasked with setting up a series of lectures. Rothrock was the speaker. The Michaux Lectures, wrote Maass, “were to be the seed from which the ‘forestry agitation,’ as Rothrock termed it, sprouted, flourished and grew to full flower.”
The state of the forests was deplorable. Industry and population had boomed in the post-Civil War years. Loggers took the best trees and, for the first time, were logging the hilltops. There was no attempt to replant. Forests were left full of tree waste, which fed forest fires. There had always been fires, of course. Even the Indians had used fire to clear fields for planting. But few understood that fire was a worsening problem.
Rothrock’s lectures gave him a reputation. In 1886, he was approached by a group of prominent Philadelphians, who proposed an organization to promote his ideas. At its organizational meeting, the Pennsylvania Forestry Association argued that, to prevent timber shortages, mountain regions shouldn’t be cut. Pennsylvania, said the PFA, should also abolish taxes on timbered land, and cultivate forests on land unsuitable for agriculture.
Activism worked then as it does now. Prodded by the PFA, the governor appointed a committee, which recommended creation of a forestry commission. The 1888 proposal died in the legislature, but efforts continued. By 1892, the PFA was Rothrock’s full-time job, and he crisscrossed the state building support.
Another bill came up for a vote in 1893. In its support, Rothrock delivered one of his colorful lectures on the Senate floor. He described losses from fire, flood, cattle grazing and lack of reforestation, and mountains washing to the sea. Lantern slides showed badly eroded stream banks, desolate wastes of brush and barren mountainsides.
The bill passed, and Rothrock was named the commission’s first botanist. His immediate assignment: a survey of the state’s forests. To carry it out, he traveled the state in a buckboard drawn by two horses, interviewing county commissioners about flooding and water supplies and gathering data on fire losses. “I wish I could devote a week exclusively to photography along the banks of the Clarion,” he wrote in a letter home while in western Pennsylvania. “Mile after mile is simply laid waste. I could not get ‘abomination and desolation’ out of my mind.”
The bill passed, and Rothrock was named the commission’s first botanist.
He knew that logging interests were not the enemy. “I have it in mind now to bring about a convention of lumbermen, who will write in a radical fire law and have it reported to the legislature for action,” Rothrock wrote from Williamsport.
Passed in 1897, House Bill No. 27 authorized the arrest, without a warrant, of anyone suggested of starting fires. Additional legislation allowed the state to buy up and replant deforested land. In 1902, as forest commissioner, Rothrock used his medical background to create the first fresh-air camp, in Mont Alto State Park, for tuberculosis patients.
“I have witnessed the growth of the forestry idea in my native state from a time when the one thought was to turn our trees into cash to a time when, by common consent, the restoration of these forests is one of the urgent demands of its citizens,” said Rothrock at his retirement in 1922.
The numbers bear him out.