In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, which gave the President the authority to create forest reserves from land in the public domain.
This might not sound like an event with much significance to Kansas, particularly the western part of the state. But it was.
The person who made the Forest Reserve Act significant to western Kansas was Theodore Roosevelt. As you undoubtedly know, Roosevelt loved the outdoors and promoted the creation of national parks. Toward the end of his presidency, he had more than doubled the forest reserve acreage nationwide.
One of the forest reserves that Roosevelt created was the Garden City National Forest, covering 97,280 acres southwest of Garden City. This forest reserve, established in 1905, was located in the sand hills of the southern Arkansas River Lowlands and represented efforts to make the West resemble the East, a popular idea in that day. Western Kansas was still being settled at that time, and very slowly, too. Homesteaders from back east missed the rain and trees of their old homes, and longed to transform Kansas into something similar. By plowing, they hoped to draw moisture to the region. By planting trees, they hoped to recreate their ideal of good farmland.
Plantings began in 1906 with 50,000 yellow pines and 30,000 locust, hackberry, and Osage orange trees. More trees followed the next year, but disaster struck in the form of a prairie fire. Over 200 acres burned, destroying many of the young trees.
However, the promoters of forestry were not daunted. In 1908, the Garden City National Forest was renamed Kansas National Forest and expanded to include a total of 302,287 acres. The forest then included parts of Finney, Haskell, Kearny, Grant, and Hamilton counties and stretched all the way to the Colorado state line. About 125,000 new trees were planted, as well. Most of these were pines, but in subsequent years experiments were made with hardwood trees, particularly locust and Osage orange. Drought hit in March 1911, however, and killed off about 90% of the forest.
For four more years foresters struggled against the elements, but the hot, dry climate of the region prevented the Kansas National Forest from ever thriving. In December 1915, the forest was abolished. The land returned to the public domain once more and was gradually settled under the rules of the Homestead Act.
According to the Kansas Historical Society, the strongest trees in the forest were a few yellow pines from the original 1906 planting. They grew to be two feet tall.