By Park Baker
Staff Writer 

Documentary Chronicles Schenck, Forestry – Brevard NC

 

An actor portraying a young Dr. Carl Schenck measures a tree trunk as part of a documentary chronicling his life and the Biltmore Forest School. "First in Forestry - Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School," will premiere Aug. 30 at Brevard College. (Courtesy photos)

A new documentary honoring the pioneering forestry work of Dr. Carl Schenck will premiere Aug. 30 at Brevard College.

"First in Forestry - Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School" is an hour-long in-depth portrayal of the German silviculturist and how his recommendations set a precedent for what the U.S. Forest Service uses today for much of its policy regarding national forest management.

The Raleigh-based Forest History Society had been kicking the idea for the documentary around for about a decade, but the project really built steam around 2012 when staff began fundraising for the project. By 2014, they had a script and an Asheville-based film company, Bonesteel Films, to complete production.

The film was shot in Pisgah National Forest at the historic forestry schoolhouse in the Cradle of Forestry and at the pioneer's cabin, also located on Cradle grounds. Locations at DuPont State Recreational Forest were used, incorporating several recently finished logging projects, plus the Biltmore Estate is featured, with scenes shot in the grand dining room and on the grounds.


James Lewis, staff historian at the Forest History Society, served as the executive producer and historical advisor for the documentary. He said that one of the reasons the film was named "First in Forestry" was because there were so many "firsts" here.

For example, agitation for federal action to protect forested lands originated in Western North Carolina and was led by Dr. Chase Ambler, who established the Appalachian National Park Association in 1899.

Ambler and others in the Asheville area saw what was going at the Biltmore Estate and how scientific forestry was rejuvenating the exhausted farmlands.

In 1900, the U.S. Congress gave $5,000 to Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson to "investigate the forest condition in the Southern Appalachian Mountain Region of Western North Carolina and adjacent states."


In 1901, N.C. Sen. Jeter Pritchard, of Marshall, introduced a bill authorizing $5 million for establishing the Southern Appalachian Forest Reserve, which took 10 years before it made it to Congress.

Until 1916, the Biltmore Estate essentially made up the entirety of Pisgah National Forest. The state then purchased the land from the Vanderbilt family.

Much of the forest had been private hunting grounds for the family and friends. The grounds were heavily logged, with little regard for the environmental impact occurring.

"They recognized that the logging was having impact on some of the recreational areas," Lewis said. "In Ambler's case it was fishing. The Asheville area has always been a draw for recreationists. Ambler and other men at the time saw the devastation the sedimentation (from logging) was having on native trout populations and sought to stop it."

Pritchard also introduced a bill that protected waterways, but it ultimately failed. That drew attention from more conservationists to join in the battle and led to the Weeks Act, which was passed in 1911.

The Weeks Act passed because, it was argued, the Constitution's commerce clause could prevent the degradation of navigable waterways through the logging, which was important at the time because much of the lumber, livestock and other items were shipped via river merchants.


The Weeks Act allowed the use of federal funds to purchase private land.

(The act was named for John Weeks of New Hampshire.)

Lewis has been studying the Biltmore Forest School and its history since 1990.

"This (film) is basically a chapter or two out of my doctoral dissertation from Florida State," said Lewis. "The topic was the establishment of forestry education in the United States."

Lewis said that he chose to focus on Schenck, not only because he established the first school of forestry, the Biltmore Forest School in 1898, but because he is an interesting and compelling historical figure.

According to a 1951 New Yorker magazine article, Schenck had fallen in love with an English woman in Darmstadt, Germany, where his grandfather had been the chief forester.

The woman gave him a copy of William Shakespeare's "Richard II" to help him learn English.

He told the New Yorker that he learned it by heart, and when a group of Oxford University forestry students came to visit the school he attended, Schenck was asked to make a welcoming speech, where he recited a verse from "Richard II."

Sir Dietrich Brandis, the English forester and professor to the Oxford students, was so impressed by Schenck that he invited him to tour European forests with him, which he did for the next five summers.

George Vanderbilt then later asked Brandis for a forestry supervisor, when Gifford Pinchot left, and Brandis sent Schenck.

That, Schenck told the New Yorker, was how he wound up in America, "because of the King of England."

In 1909, Schenck quit working for Vanderbilt and then toured forests in the Americas and abroad.

He served in the German army during World War I, and afterwards was placed in charge of the Belgian breweries. Between World War I and II, he lectured in the U.S., mostly at the School of Forestry at Montana State University, at Missoula.

"Fifty years after the Biltmore School closed, students helped bring him back from Germany," said Lewis. "He was going to these different locations around the country, starting near Brevard, where he placed a memorial marker for the school, and then, in various locations, forests were named (in) his honor."

Those forests include Memorial Redwood Grove in Prairie Creek State Park in northern California, a portion of land in the Millicoma National Forest near Coos Bay, Ore., and a longleaf pine plantation in Aiken, S.C.

Lewis said that although "First in Forestry" is a story that takes place in Western North Carolina, it's a national story and one of national importance.

"We hope to remind people that forests benefit the most from active management," he said. "The other thing is really just reminding people of the role that Schenck had in the early forestry role in the United States."

Paul Bonesteel, owner of Bonesteel Films, said he normally doesn't get involved with projects where he won't learn something significant.

"You have to absorb a lot of information and turn it into a story that is usually a lot more simplistic than reality," he said. "I learned a lot. I certainly learned a lot more about Schenck him self. He was very intelligent, first off. That was enlightening. The story of him meeting the local people and working with them in the context of Vanderbilt's opulence was interesting to learn about. The merger of those two worlds has fascinated people for a long time: how European culture met the United States sensibility.

"I think the most fun part of the project was the opportunity to use both Pisgah National Forest and the Biltmore property to play the same part it played more than 100 years ago."

The filmmakers, Bonesteel said, "figured" that since they had both of those settings "the easy part, relatively, was putting people in believable period attire, moustaches and that kind of thing."

"It served two fold," he said. "One was to, hopefully, transport the viewer back in time a little bit, but in the story the people are using a lot of words from Schenck himself. A great story is one thing, but you've got to be able to illustrate it and be interesting to look at.

"I hope the story expresses that we're all better off for a story like this to have played out. A lot more forest and topsoil could have been lost due to impatience or a less conservative approach to modern forestry."

The Aug. 30 Brevard College screening will be held at 4 p.m. More information can be found at firstinforestry.org. The film will also be show on UNC-TV early next year.

Actors dressed in period costumes portray (left to right) Gifford Pinchot, Frederick Olmsted and George Vanderbilt for the new documentary film.

 
 

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