U.S. Forest Service Buildings

As the U.S. industrialized after the Civil War, logging and mining jeopardized the country’s vast western woodlands. Congress responded to the threat, authorizing the National Forest reserves in 1891. By 1897 millions of acres had been set aside, including the Flathead and the Bitterroot reserves in Montana.

In 1905 Congress created the National Forest Service and hired rangers to patrol these vast public lands. Most early rangers lived where they worked and built their own primitive log cabins. More fortunate rangers repurposed existing homes and farms. The spacious two-story Judith River Ranger Station, which still stands in central Montana, is a prime example.

As the Forest Service matured as a federal agency, it developed standardized plans for ranger stations and the thousands of fire lookout towers built after the 1910 “Big Burn” increased the agency’s commitment to enhancing fire suppression. The McCart Lookout follows the Forest Service’s L-4 design and features sliding glass windows and a two-foot catwalk surrounding the cab. Restored in the 1990s, the McCart Lookout is now a rentable cabin in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness.

Forest Service construction projects underwent a new phase of development during the Great Depression, as the federal government put the unemployed to work improving forest infrastructure. Facilities like the Ninemile Remount Station near Missoula and the Savenac Nursery in Sanders County today reflect the Civilian Conservation Corps’ contributions.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Forest Service’s mission expanded. Where once they had been primarily responsible for managing the nation’s forests as timber reserves, they now had to manage recreational areas in the forests. In the 1960s, Congress set aside portions of the national forests—including Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness—for recreation and conservation. At the same time, innovations in aerial fire suppression reduced the need to staff fire towers, some of which have been transformed into rental cabins. As the Forest Service’s operations have evolved, so has its footprint on the landscape; its history remains visible in the buildings that trace its evolution from its founding to the current day.

Ant Flat Ranger Station

Little was known about Montana’s vast, unmapped wilderness when presidential proclamations set aside U.S. forest reserves during the 1890s. In 1904, this site became one of the region’s first year-round ranger stations. Ample water, land suitable for…

Spotted Bear Ranger Station

In 1921, the U.S. Forest Service USFS moved the original Spotted Bear headquarters compound, established in 1908 near Spotted Bear Lake, to this site. The Ranger District managed timber sales and was very successful in fire suppression. Following the…

Schafer Ranger Station

The U.S. Forest Service USFS moved the district headquarters for the Middle Fork drainage to Schafer Ranger Station in 1925. Schafer Creek was one of the few sites in a region noted for its rocky narrow canyons that had the water, building material,…

Big Prairie Ranger Station

An USFS administrative headquarters since 1908, Big Prairie primarily operated only in summer, but a small tombstone, marked “Roush Daughter,” provides a reminder of winter hardships. The two-year-old’s father, stationed here with his wife, tended…

Big Creek Ranger Station Historic District

The Big Creek Ranger Station served as an administrative center for managing logging and firefighting in the remote North Fork of the Flathead River valley. Set aside for a ranger station in 1908, the site was surveyed in 1911, after the 1910 “Big…

Judith River Ranger Station

Thomas Guy Myers arrived at this remote mountain meadow in 1906. Armed with this pocket-sized “Use Book” of Forest Regulations, Myers’ task as a ranger of the newly created Jefferson National Forest was to interpret and administer policies regarding…

Camp Paxson Boy Scout Camp

Seeley Lake is one link in a chain of five lakes nestled between the lofty Swan and Mission mountain ranges in western Montana. Two hundred acres of ancient larch trees surround the area, which has drawn visitors since the early 1900s. In 1924, the…

Savenac Nursery Historic District

Creation of the National Forest Service in 1905 brought Elers Koch, one of the nation’s first professional foresters, to inspect and evaluate the Forest Reserves of Montana and Wyoming. Appointed Forest Supervisor of the Bitterroot and Lolo National…

Ninemile Remount Depot

In the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, pack animals carried critical supplies and equipment to crews fighting forest fires. In 1929, a severe fire season exhausted the supply of trained mules and skilled packers. Forced to use unbroken…

Double Arrow Lookout

Pack mules provided the only access to this site in 1932, when U.S. Forest Service personnel constructed the Double Arrow Lookout. Built following the L-4 plan designed by Clyde Fickes, the structure overlooks the Clearwater River drainage from atop…

Mineral Peak Lookout

Sweeping views of the Mission and Swan mountain ranges at an elevation of nearly 7,500 feet aided the U.S. Forest Service in early fire detection. From 1957 through 1967, Mineral Peak was a primary lookout point. Lolo National Forest Service staff…

West Fork Butte Lookout

Unlike most fire lookout houses, which are typically placed on towers, the West Fork Butte Lookout sits directly on a rocky knob. The fourteen-by-fourteen hipped-roof structure features ribbons of nine-light windows, a testament to the building’s…

McCart Fire Lookout

McCart Lookout, built in 1939 and named for longtime district employee Bill McCart, is a classic example of the L-4 series developed in 1929 by Forest Service engineer Clyde Fickes. The prefabricated wood-frame house was packed in by mules, and…