To protect against natural hazards in mountainous areas, the French government has implemented a number of forestry and civil engineering works such as check dams in public forests since the 19th century. Specifying each dam's objective and protective functions is the first requirement for their continued maintenance. The potential technical functions of check dams have been clarified in a recent publication (Piton et al. 2016). In the first part of a series of papers on the analysis of the context and objectives, this paper focuses on how they were implemented in public areas by the Water and Forestry Administration from the end of the 19th century to the 1960s. We detail the objectives over time and the geographical locations. This national overview will help managers consider their present local protection structure management problems within an historical perspective.