Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/February 1903/The Economic Importance of Forestry

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EXPERIMENT has already demonstrated the value of practical forestry as a sound business measure. The general application of conservative methods in the handling of public and private forest lands in this country is no longer a remote possibility. Ten years ago, the prevailing attitude towards forestry was one skeptical of its practical advantages. To-day the lumbermen, at one time the strongest opponents of the movement towards conservative forest management, are its staunchest advocates.

Although the application of practical forestry already exerts marked local influence, it is not yet sufficiently extended to form an important factor in our national economy. The time is not far distant, however, when its more general adoption will be felt in all industries dependent upon the forest. Forestry alone can perpetuate lumbering, and the fullest development of the mining industry rests largely upon it. Irrigation, and therefore agriculture upon irrigated lands, can be permanent only through forest preservation.

Mr. Henry Gannett gives the value of the products of the lumber industry for 1900 as about $567,000,000, and $611,000,000 as the invested capital. There were employed, exclusive of those working in dependent logging camps, about 400,000 persons, who received during the year a total of $140,000,000 in wages. Estimating conservatively, the lumber industry gave support in 1900 to 2,000,000 persons, while the number engaged in dependent trades, to whom it indirectly afforded a means of livelihood, was many times greater.

The geographical movement of the lumber industry is significant of a rapidly waning supply of merchantable timber. Fifty years ago, the northeastern states contributed more than one half the total lumber product of the country. They now furnish less than one sixth. In 1880 the Lake states produced one third of the supply, which has already sunk to about one fourth. In the southern and Pacific states, on the other hand, there has been a steady increase in production. These facts show that in the two geographical divisions nearest to the great centers of population, the available supply of timber is rapidly nearing exhaustion. The southern and the Pacific states, therefore, already yielding nearly forty per cent, of the total lumber product, will soon become the chief sources of supply.

In spite of steady improvement in tools, in machinery and in facilities for transportation, the increase in the value of logs and lumber becomes more and more rapid. The American lumberman has always been remarkable for enterprise and effectiveness, while American saw-mills compare favorably with those in any other country. These conditions, which would naturally tend to a sustained decrease in the cost of lumber products, are more than offset by the scarcity of available timber.

To sum up, the lumber industry of this country is approaching the end of its resources with alarming rapidity. It has, by over-production, fostered an abnormal demand, and by methods aimed at present profit alone, hampered the production of a second crop upon the lumbered area. Notwithstanding the growing economy in the harvesting, manufacture and distribution of forest products, their value is each year higher, while there is enormous increase in the importation of softwoods from Canada and of hardwoods from the tropics. Existing data as to the quantity of standing timber in the United States is insufficient for a close estimate of how long it will last at the current rate of consumption. It is inevitable, however, that the present generation will see the exhaustion of our first growth timber. Nor is the supply now standing so secure that it may be counted upon with certainty. Forest fires destroy annually timber aggregating over $50,000,000 in value, and measures to prevent them so far have not proved generally effective. It will be understood, moreover, that the crippling of the lumber trade and of all industries dependent upon it does not await the actual exhaustion of our forests. The geographical distribution of the great timber regions in this country, with relation to the chief sources of demand, is such that the local and not the total available supply is the urgent question. The fact that the heavy forests of the Pacific slope are sufficient to yield for many years an amount equal to the present annual consumption will not prevent a timber famine in the East, when to the price of the bulk of the wood it consumes is added the cost of transportation across the continent. Statistics giving comforting assurance of an abundant yield still at hand do not consider the effect upon wood industries of the substitution of timber of a few kinds only to fill a widely varying demand. The presence of hardwoods in the southern Appalachians and pine in the southern pine belt, in quantity sufficient to replace for some time the waning supply of spruce in the north woods, offers no substitute for the latter species in the manufacture of paper pulp. The redwood, red fir and hemlock of the Pacific coast will in some respects take the place of the longleaf pine, the exhaustion of which, at the present rate of consumption, will soon be accomplished. They can not, however, serve as the source of naval stores, the production of which renders the longleaf pine the most important timber tree of the South. No general statements of large supplies of timber still available can disguise the gravity of the situation which now confronts the lumber industry. The solution of the problem can come only through a change in the policy and in the methods of the lumberman.

The history of lumbering in the United States has not differed essentially from that of the same industry in other countries. In the early days, the chief obstacle of the settler was the forest, while the growing need both of cleared land and of timber kept pace with the advance of colonization. The multiplication of demands for forest products developed feverish activity in the conversion of trees into money, while the methods employed in the harvesting of timber were the natural outcome of existing conditions. Forestry, with its perpetual but conservative returns, offered no financial inducement to the lumberman until the first crop of timber began to fail. With the forest stretched before him, large enough to feed his saw-mill for his lifetime, he had no need to consider the potential value of cut-over lands, often allowing them to revert in default of taxes to the state. His methods of lumbering were significant of his attitude. Skillful and effective in the cutting and transport of logs and the manufacture of lumber, he showed utter obliviousness to the productive capacity of the lumbered areas. Abuse of the lumberman is unmerited and unreasonable. His utilization of natural resources has been accomplished by mistakes similar to those incurred in the development of other industries in this country. The necessity for modification of his methods involves no emotional considerations. The question is one simply of the best business policy.

The attitude of the lumberman towards the source of his industry has so far been generally similar to that of the miner towards the gold mine. He has considered the value of the forest to lie only in the merchantable timber it contains, just as the mine is worthless when the end of the vein is reached. He has cut and burned with complete disregard of the welfare of immature trees, with the result that he has deprived the future of a supply of timber many times the value of the material he has actually utilized. There has been incalculable waste, which in some cases could have been avoided through slight expense, in others simply by the exercise of reasonable care, and which has hastened enormously the approaching exhaustion of the lumber supply. No one realizes more keenly than does the lumberman that the time for forestry has fully arrived.

The influence of the general adoption of practical forestry upon the lumber industry will be felt gradually, but it will eventually accomplish fundamental changes. It will substitute for an enterprise at present aimed only at the utilization of existing resources one embracing also measures for the production of its own supply. There will be steady and fair returns from lumbering, but spectacular opportunities for the investment of capital will cease to exist. The industry will assume normal proportions based upon the actual production of our forests, and will develop soundly with the increase in yield due to the improvement in conservative methods. A steady and sustained output, which may be estimated closely in advance, will tend to the maintenance of a constant scale of values, and to hamper speculation in logs or lumber. The size of the saw-mill will be regulated by the actual annual production of timber in the forest which supplies it. There will be a gradual elimination of enormous milling plants, and the general substitution of the saw-mill of medium size equipped for permanent use and under the same control as an area of forest land yielding a continued supply of timber equal to the capacity of the mill itself.

The general tendency towards wide distribution of the lumber industry will be an important economic feature of its development under conservative methods. The present movements towards centralization in the bodies of merchantable timber still remaining will cease with their consumption. In turning to second growth as a source of supply, the lumberman will establish himself wherever the productive capacity of cut-over lands under conservative handling offers him a fair return for his labor. The final result will be the development in each locality of a permanent class trained to forest work and a favorable geographical allotment of opportunities for the wage earner.

No man can foretell with certainty the value of timber produced under the application of practical forestry, nor the sustained supply which this country is capable of producing. The urgent necessity for the general adoption of conservative methods in lumbering does not rest upon the solution of these questions, but upon the established fact that the present value and the growing scarcity of timber render it profitable to foster the production of a second crop upon cut-over lands. It is to be remembered, also, that the results of forestry follow certainly but gradually. Its immediate adoption throughout the country would serve to shorten the period of decline which is the price the lumber industry must pay for phenomenal but unsound development, but the trees must have time to grow again. The new policy firmly established, the productive capacity of our forests fully utilized, it is believed— and the statement is amply sustained by the record of other countries with a proportionately smaller wooded area and a proportionately equal consumption of forest products—that neither will the value of timber be excessive, nor its supply inadequate to meet the home demand. The establishment of lumbering as a sound and stable industry will be attained only when it reaps, as well as harvests, the crop upon which its existence depends.

Of the indirect returns from conservative forest management, the most valuable is its influence upon the flow of streams. The arid lands comprise two fifths of the area of the United States, and cover nearly all the western half of the continent. Their character varies with the amount of rainfall, ranging from true desert conditions to those capable of supporting a nomadic kind of grazing and a form of farming so low in its production that it promises little in inviting settlement. In his timely and forcible volume, 'Irrigation in the United States,' Mr. Newell states that the utilization of the vacant public lands can come about only through irrigation, or the artificial application of water to the soil, to supplement the scanty rainfall or to supply its absence. The area within the arid region which is irrigable is estimated at not less than 60,000,000 acres. The streams which may be diverted for purposes of irrigation rise in the forests, whose conservation is necessary to the maintenance of an abundant and sustained supply of water.

The passage of the Irrigation Bill, on March 1, 1902, paves the way for the adequate reclamation of the public lands. It sets aside receipts aggregating about $5,000,000 per year, received from the sale of lands within the arid region, and provides that they shall be applied to the construction of works for water conservation. The success of this great undertaking may be assured only through the preservation of the forests which feed the streams available for purposes of irrigation. The careful protection of these forests can be accomplished only by the federal government, through their management as national forest reserves. The exclusion from settlement of forest lands comprising the catchment basin of streams important for irrigation began under President Harrison, and has resulted in the creation of fifty reserves, with a total area of 53,107,685 acres, or 82,981 square miles. These are administered with a view to timber production only in so far as their more valuable function of water conservation is not affected. Their management is still hampered by its distribution among three branches of the government, and by difficulty in the rapid building up of a force of thoroughly trained and effective executive officers. There has, however, been progress in the prevention of timber theft and of fire, and the development of the fullest usefulness of the forest reserves is beset by no insurmountable difficulties. Their extension to include all large bodies of mountainous forest within or tributary to the arid region is essential to the fullest development of the West. There is no more forcible statement of the dependence of irrigation upon forestry than the following extract from the first message of President Roosevelt to Congress:

In the arid region, it is water, not land, which measures production. The western half of the United States would sustain a population greater than that of our whole country to-day, if the waters that now run to waste were saved and used for irrigation. The forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal questions of the United States.

The forests are natural reservoirs. By restraining the floods and by replenishing them in drought, they make possible the use of water otherwise wasted. They prevent the soil from washing, and so protect the storage reservoirs from filling up with silt. Forest conservation is, therefore, an essential condition of water conservation.

Another function of the forest reserves, the regulation of which is at present the most urgent problem of their management, is the use of the grazing lands within their boundaries. Sheep and cattle raising are, and will continue to be, two of the great industries of the arid region. The over-grazing of lands important in the conservation of water supply is harmful in the dying out and hardening of the soil, as a result of the removal of its cover of herbs and grasses, and, in the case of over-grazing by sheep, in the destruction of seedlings and young trees. The purpose of forestry is not to impose unreasonable restrictions upon the development of the grazing industry within the reserves, but to regulate it with due reference to the interests both of the stockman and the irrigator.

The production of timber to fill the increasing needs of the mining industry is another great function of the national forest reserves. The laws governing their management confer upon the Secretary of the Interior power to designate, appraise and sell timber within them. The exercise of this provision under conservative measures can alone continue to permit an adequate supply of timber to the miner and for the home uses of settlers within the arid region.

Wood and water are the chief returns from forested areas. They produce the one and they conserve the other. So far, the treatment of our forests has tended only to impair their usefulness. Preservation without use is required neither of the private owner nor the federal government. Forest preservation by wise use alone can meet the national and the individual need.