Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The Forestry Problem
It has often been said that the Americans are spendthrifts. This may not be true in all respects, but it is certainly true that the wanton wastefulness with which our people have squandered their magnificent forest resources stamps them as most reckless spendthrifts in that line. It is a fact, well known to all who care to inform themselves upon such subjects, that while a century ago no country had forests as rich and magnificent as ours, there will be none of those forests left in less than twenty years if the present rate of destruction goes on. But only very slowly does it seem to dawn upon the public mind that the loss of our forests, without adequate restoration, will be the deadliest imaginable blow to our future progress and prosperity. And yet there is no more invariable lesson taught by the history of countries and nations. What has become of those lands of Asia which once were said to “flow with milk and honey”; which among their then forest-clad mountains, and on their hills covered with vineyards and fig groves, and on their plains waving with grainfields, nourished teeming and prosperous populations; which reared great cities and astonishing monuments of the civilization of their time? Wherever their forests disappeared their mountain-sides were denuded of soil, their springs dried up, their watercourses disappeared at one season, and became raging torrents at another, inundating the valleys, and covering them with the gravel and loose rock swept down from the mountains; their vineyards and orchards wilted and died of want of moisture; their plains became parched and barren; and for many centuries they have been desolate deserts, roamed over by wild beasts, and nomadic tribes little better than robbers, poor, miserable, degraded, and relapsed into barbarism. What is the lesson taught by the history of Spain, in ancient times one of the most luxuriant garden-spots of the world, the granary of the Roman Empire? The noble forests which still existed in the times of the Moors were ruthlessly swept away, and it is not without good reason that learned historians ascribe the economic as well as the political decadence of Spain in a great measure to the evils which the destruction of her forests brought with it. Examples of minor consequence may profitably be studied in some parts of Italy and of southern France.
We may congratulate ourselves upon the fact that the warnings with regard to this subject, which so long were uttered in vain, are at last beginning to command the attention of the people at large. Earnest efforts are being made in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and in several New England States to preserve large stretches of forest, in most cases with a view to protecting against denudation the head-waters of the principal rivers. President Harrison set apart, by executive orders, about 13,000,000 acres as forest reserves in the far Western States and Territories, and President Cleveland in the same manner reserved various districts, aggregating about 27,000,000 acres, all for the same purpose. Thus a fair start has been made in a policy designed to avert the most disastrous consequences of our recklessness; and there is no doubt that these movements and measures have the hearty sympathy of every intelligent man in the country whose judgment is not warped by private interest. But we must not indulge in the delusion that mere popular sympathy will be sufficient for the attainment of the object. Every forward step for the systematic preservation of public forests will have to overcome the stubborn and crafty resistance of greedy persons who seek to enrich themselves by preying upon the public property; and that resistance will be supported by cowardly politicians in Congress or in the State Legislatures who have such greedy robbers among their constituents and wish to conciliate their political influence.
When, during the administration of President Hayes, the Interior Department made the first earnest effort to stop the plundering and devastation of the public timber-lands, a notion seemed to prevail that the public forests were everybody's property, to be taken or wasted as anybody pleased. Enterprising timber-thieves were appropriating to themselves not merely trees, but whole forests. Hundreds of saw mills were in full blast to manufacture public forests into merchantable lumber, not only to be used at home, but to be exported to foreign countries. The value of the stolen lumber so exported amounted to many millions of dollars every year. When the first steps were taken to arrest this wholesale robbery and destruction, the Interior Department was flooded with telegrams and letters indignantly remonstrating against such tyrannical attempts, and Senators and members of the House of Representatives came rushing in, asking in angry tones how the Department could dare thus to interfere with the legitimate business of the country! And when the Secretary applied to Congress for rational forestry legislation, he was contemptuously sneered at, even by “great statesmen,” for his outlandish notions, that might do for a little German principality, but were ridiculously out of place in a great country like this.
The supercilious sneering has ceased, but, as the protests of Western Senators and Representatives against President Cleveland's last forest-reserve order proved, that active resistance has not ceased. To baffle it will require much discernment, coolness, and intrepidity on the part of executive officers as well as legislators. They should take good care not to be stampeded by the ancient pretence of the timber-thieves that they are only providing for the urgent needs of the people, and that if they are prevented from stealing, the business of the country will come to a standstill — while, in fact, what timber the farmer and the miner need is comparatively very little and easily supplied; but the main business of the timber-thieves is to sell in the general market for their private profit what they steal from the public. The present Secretary of the Interior, who is hard pressed about the forest reserves recently ordered by President Cleveland, should keep this old experience well in mind. Nor will it be difficult to protect the public timber-lands against robbery if proper means be granted. Especially will this be easy to the national government. Indian wars are no longer to be apprehended. A large part of the army will be disposable for other objects. Why should not a few battalions be organized and specially instructed as forest guards for such service? There could hardly be a more useful employment for the soldier in time of peace.
The next problem will be to keep the forests so saved from devastation in a state of constant and profitable renewal, so as to make them a source of public revenue. This is a matter of science and of administration. In this respect several European countries present to us a noble example and a vast store of experience; and it is to be hoped that we have at last outgrown the childish notion that we are too great to learn anything from “abroad.” No respectable American university or college should be without its forestry department, manned with instructors perfectly familiar with European systems; and nobody should be intrusted with forest administration other than persons educated in such schools. The first requirement to be kept in mind is that this branch of the public service be kept severely out of politics; for scientific administration has no more dangerous enemy than the “practical” party politician. This is an experience which especially the Governor of New York, if he is in earnest with his forestry policy, should not a moment forget.
It may sound like an exaggeration to say that, as to the future prosperity of this country, the matter of forest preservation and renewal is far more important than the tariff or the currency. But it is the sober truth. Nor is there any time to be lost. We have already sinned overmuch; and unless we make haste to stop the progress of ruin and to repair the injury done, our children will curse the wanton recklessness of their fathers.