To early Arkansas settlers, the state’s forests were obstacles that had to be cleared for farming and raising livestock. It was not until the development of railroads after the Civil War that large-scale timber production and export was possible.
Northern businessmen purchased Arkansas timberland, established companies, constructed sawmills, and built additional railroad track. Lumber camps and company towns were established with shops, schools, and churches to accommodate workers and their families. Early production practices typically cut all trees from an area. When an area’s timber was cleared, sawmills were often dismantled and relocated to uncut lands.
Just prior to Arkansas’s height of timber production in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests in 1907 and 1908, and the U.S. Forest Service began protecting those lands. In the 1910s and 1920s timber yields in Arkansas and throughout the United States began to decline due to the previous decades of exploitation. A trend toward sustainable forestry, and therefore sustainable production, began in Arkansas.
In 1931, the Arkansas Forestry Commission (AFC) was created and made responsible for fire control, fire safety, and forest management for non-federal lands in the Arkansas. Fire detection was often performed from the air and used an infrastructure of watchtowers, or fire towers. Over the years the commission’s duties have expanded to include tree seeding and genetics, as well as forestry and fire safety educational services for Arkansas schools, volunteer fire departments, and private landowners.
Over the years, Arkansas’s wood products have included lumber, paper goods, chemicals, charcoal, and more. Sawmills, specialty wood and paper product factories, and chemical plants have been built throughout the state. The timber industry remains one of Arkansas’s top industries and top employers of manufacturing jobs.
This online exhibit offers insight into Arkansas’s forests and timber industries.
For additional resources see the Timber industry resource guide.
Lunch menu for the Arkansas Wood Products Association Board of Directors meeting on October 31, 1953, at the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, printed on thin plywood. There is a depiction of a woodpecker in the top left corner, drilling at wood. Lumber industry terminology is used to describe items on the menu.
Map of Arkansas showing the distribution of the forests from the tenth census of the United States, 1880
Color map of Arkansas showing the distribution of the forests throughout the state. Includes a legend distinguishing yellow pine, loblolly pine, hardwood, region from which all merchantable pine has been cut, and prairie. From the tenth census of the United States.