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Flagstaff’s early opposition to Forest Reserves

United States Forest Service supervisors meet in Flagstaff in September 1906. Fred Breen is third from the right in the back row.

United States Forest Service supervisors meet in Flagstaff in September 1906. Fred Breen is third from the right in the back row.

“Hell and another Forest Reserve has been created at Flagstaff.”

This phrase greeted Fred S. Breen in August, 1898, at the railroad stop in Laury Junction, N.M. Breen was en route to report as supervisor of the Prescott Forest Reserve in Arizona, but was intercepted by U.S. Forest Service Superintendent John D. Benedict, who rerouted Breen to Flagstaff.

Accompanying Breen was his multi-page job description that detailed a lengthy list of duties including meeting with locals, establishing access rights for grazing and lumbering, weekly and monthly reports, hiring staff, forest fire fighting and a multitude of other tasks, all, of course, with a meager budget. At this time, pioneering efforts in managing public lands were just beginning and every procedure, method and system had to be established.

Breen’s assignment as supervisor of the newly created San Francisco Mountain Forest Reserve (SFMFR) meant he had charge of more than 3 million acres of even-numbered sections in heavily timbered northern Arizona. The odd-numbered sections were owned by the railroad. The checkerboard land strips created a management nightmare. Plus, as the train pulled into the Flagstaff depot, Breen was a bit apprehensive when he noticed a local committee there to meet him, because he knew of a recent news article that suggested the “tree agents” be hanged from the trees they were supposed to save.

When Flagstaff Mayor John M. Francis received a telegram stating the SFMFR would be created officially on Sept. 17, 1898, for purposes of timber conservation and watershed preservation, he was as surprised as everyone. No one thought the process of setting aside the forest had moved along in Washington, D.C. as quickly as it did. A headline followed in the Williams newspaper proclaiming: “The Evil Deed Done,”
referring to the impending controls on the use of forest resources.

The local economy was tied to the land in lumbering, ranching and farming, so Breen and the other supervisors had to carefully and slowly initiate forest-use changes without threatening residents’

Breen was a 28-year-old Illinois newspaperman with Republican ties, restless to move west. He used his connections to secure an appointment with the Forest Service.

As Breen worked to consolidate the SFMFR lands into connecting sections, he was opposed by area businessmen and residents reluctant to see the use of the resources dictated. The Coconino County Board of Supervisors sent attorney J.E. Jones to Washington, D.C. to lobby against the efforts to unite the acreage. It was 1902 before a presidential proclamation gave the odd-numbered sections to the Forest Service.

As supervisor, among Breen’s myriad tasks was protection of both cultural and natural resources.
In 1904, Breen banned pot-hunting at prehistoric cliff dwellings near Flagstaff that were frequently visited and where many artifacts were dug. This action helped the site receive national monument status in 1915.

He experienced many frustrations during his pioneer work in managing public lands. He wrote to a friend in 1906, “I honestly think it would be a great relief either to get fired or quit.” But, Breen stayed with the USFS and was delighted in July 1907, when the SFMFR became known as the Coconino National Forest because the majority of the acreage is in Coconino County. By this time, other national forests surrounding Coconino had been created.

The young town of Flagstaff appealed to Breen and he decided to stay, unlike many USFS administrators who move around to new locations as promotional opportunities arise. Breen married Carolyn E. Austin in
1906 – she was a teacher from New York who moved to Flagstaff in 1901 – and together, they were community leaders. He was known as “Colonel Breen” for his position as a lieutenant colonel in the Arizona National Guard. She led efforts to create a permanent Flagstaff library.

Breen died in February 1932, at age 63. He never recovered from the death of his wife three years earlier. They are both buried in Flagstaff. His memory lives on today on a street bearing his name. The successors in the Supervisor’s office of the Coconino National Forest continue to promote wise use of the Forest so it will be here for future generations.

- S. D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

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