Maria Sanford & the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs

Have you ever asked yourself how a national forest or park gets designated? Who decides to protect the land? Why is the land so special? This process is often a long battle between groups who want to use the land for different purposes, and there is no better example for this than our country’s first national forest, the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota, and the women who fought to protect it.

Maria Sanford (1836-1920)

The Chippewa National Forest would likely not stand today without the influence of the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs. The federation was viewed as the “brainy women of Minnesota” and consisted of educated middle and upper class women like Maria Sanford, Florence Bramhall, and others. Maria Sanford, a professor at the University of Minnesota, led the charge to protect these lands by writing several editorial pieces when it became apparent that a new law would allow lumbermen into a large amount of federally owned lands in north-central Minnesota to “saw down, chop off, and drive out every pine tree the region contains.”


“[The forest was] precious for beauty, for health-giving ozone, for influence on climate, breaking as it does the high winds sweeping down from the North and West”  –Florence Bramhall

However, the Federation of Women’s Clubs recognized the value of this land, and Florence Bramhall, the head of the federation’s Forest Reserve Committee, worked closely with other conservationists in MN to build public support and brought a congressional group to see the beauty of the forest firsthand. Thankfully, it was decided that the forest land was too valuable to lose.  At the time, trees like white pine had become a rare commodity and the lumber industry was prepared to cut and haul away large amounts of this forest. Florence Bramhall and the federation were able to work out a compromise with these loggers to reduce the size of the national forest but also promote scientific management and limit logging practices to ‘rational cuts’ of timber under the latest practices in scientific forestry.

In 1902, the forest was officially listed as a preserve and was signed into law as a congressionally-managed national forest by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. Today the Chippewa National Forest stretches across some 1.6 million acres, including 1,300 lakes and nearly 1,000 miles of streams. As the first forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Chippewa has served as a unique laboratory, both in a scientific sense and in terms of its relationship to the forest’s many visitors. The forest is also home to one of the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states!

FUN FACT: The Chippewa National Forest contains an area known as the Lost Forty. This area, which has a total of 144 acres (0.58 km2), was incorrectly mapped when the original maps of the region were laid out in 1882. As a result of the mapping error, the Lost Forty was never logged and contains some of the oldest forest in the state, with some trees more than 350 years old!

The efforts of Maria Sanford, Florence Bramhall, and the federation helped to define the forest conservation movement in the early 20th century and started to persuade the public, government leaders, and progressive executives in the timber products industry that the US needed to take steps to conserve one of its most valuable resources—our forests.