Visiting the birthplace of American forestry

Courtesy photo
Visitors behold the view of the birth of American forestry.
Courtesy photo Visitors behold the view of the birth of American forestry.

Vacation last month took me on a drive through North Carolina. In Durham, I spent several happy hours exploring Duke Gardens. In Asheville, on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I spent a day touring the Biltmore estate.

Completed in 1895, the French chateau-style mansion remains the largest private home in America. I learned that the house has 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms. About 40 rooms are open to the public, including the indoor swimming pool, gym and bowling alley.

I learned that the property encompasses 8,000 acres of woodlands and gardens, vineyards and a winery; just a fraction of the original 125,000 acres. The gardens—including an Italian water garden, conservatory, walled garden, shrub garden and azalea garden—were beautiful, as one might expect of outdoor areas designed by premier landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

In my landscape design courses at Temple University many years ago, we learned about Olmstead, who is probably best known for designing New York City’s Central Park. What I didn’t learn then is that Olmsted played a pivotal role in American forestry, and he did it on the Biltmore estate.


George W. Vanderbilt first saw the surrounding land on a trip with his mother. In a letter to Olmsted he said, “We found the air mild and invigorating . . . I enjoyed the distant scenery. I took long rambles and found pleasure in doing so. In one of them, I came to this spot . . and thought the prospect finer than any other I had seen. It occurred to me that I would like to have a house here.

“The land was beyond the field of speculation and I bought a piece of it at a low rate . . . and step-by-step, without any very definite end in view, I have acquired about 2,000 acres. Now I have brought you here to examine it and tell me if I have been doing anything very foolish.”

Vanderbilt’s phrase “beyond the field of speculation” described land that had been over-logged. Farmers had then cropped the acres opened up by lumbering, and let their cattle and pigs graze at will. Nothing was put back into the soil. By the time Vanderbilt arrived, only scrub pines — the poorest of trees — grew over much of the land. No one wanted it.

Rather than ridiculing what Vanderbilt had done, Olmsted painted an epic picture for the young, multi-millionaire of what could be accomplished on his new property: “Such land in Europe would be made a forest . . . if it belonged to a gentleman of large means.” With Vanderbilt’s approval and money to support the project, Olmsted carefully planned out not only the “park,” on the acreage closest to the house, but also laid out a system of restoring the rest of the land to forest, leaving the “bottomlands” open for growing food crops and grapes.

Olmsted hired Gifford Pinchot, founder of The Society of American Foresters, to develop a management plan for the formerly forested acreage. This became the country’s first scientifically managed forest. As author Bill Alexander describes in The Biltmore Nursery: A Botanical Legacy, Olmsted’s plans went beyond mere aesthetics. He “advised reforesting the abandoned hillside pastures and improving the existing woodlands to create a systematically managed forest as a much-needed model for the country.”

To make the project more feasible, a nursery was started at the estate to supply the millions of trees, shrubs and ornamental plants needed for the forest and gardens. The nursery grew into a commercial enterprise. At its height, the nursery catalogue listed more than 1,700 varieties.

Today, visitors enjoy the results of Olmsted’s grand vision and Vanderbilt’s desire to create something of value for America as well as beautifying his grand house—acres and acres of restored forest, ranging over the gentle hills and up into the mountains beyond.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.