The Writings of Carl Schurz/The Need of a Rational Forest Policy

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Members of the Forestry Associations, and Ladies and Gentlemen:—I cannot refrain from expressing my thanks to the Committee of Arrangements for doing me the honor of inviting me to take part in this meeting. It is true, not until yesterday could I see my way clear to come, and I have not been able to prepare an elaborate address, such as seems to have been expected of me. All I can offer is a few offhand remarks, more in the nature of a conversational talk than of a formal speech. I pray you, therefore, to divest yourselves of all solemnity of expectation.

Let me in the first place assure you of my most earnest sympathy in your efforts. I am heart and soul with you: nor is this to me a new subject. I know the advocates of the cause to which you are devoted are looked upon by many as a set of amiable sentimentalists, who have fallen in love with the greenness of the woods and break out in hysteric wails when a tree is cut down. I assure you I have been led to take an earnest interest in this subject by considerations of an entirely unsentimental, practical nature, and this, no doubt, is the case with most of you. The more study and thought I have given the matter, the firmer has become my conviction that the destruction of the forests of this country will be the murder of its future prosperity and progress. This is no mere figure of speech, no rhetorical exaggeration. It is simply the teaching of the world's history, which no fairminded man can study without reaching the same conclusion.

I am aware that there are people who turn with a sneer from the expression of any fear that our country may become sterile; who profess to be highly amused when those countries in Asia are pointed out to them which once were called lands “flowing with milk and honey”; whose mountains were covered with forests, whose hills with the vine and the fig-tree and whose plains with waving grainfields, which nourished teeming and prosperous populations, building up mighty cities and great monuments of the civilization of their times; now bare soil, barren and desolate wastes and deserts, roamed over by wild beasts and robbers, the ancient prosperity changed into misery, famine and decay, the people relapsed into barbarism; or when we point to Spain, once covered with a luxuriant vegetation, one of the most fertile countries of antiquity, the granary of the Roman Empire; at the close of the middle ages still the realm in whose dominions the sun never set; now in a great measure stripped bare, the old fertility gone, the people in large districts struggling with poverty and want.

Infatuated persons among us turn up their noses at these and similar lessons and superciliously exclaim: What do we in this great and free country of ours care about abroad? Let me say to you that the laws of nature are the same everywhere. Whoever violates them anywhere, must always pay the penalty. No country ever so great and rich, no nation ever so powerful, inventive and enterprising can violate them with impunity. We most grievously delude ourselves if we think that we can form an exception to the rule. And we have made already a most dangerous beginning, and more than a beginning, in the work of desolation. The destruction of our forests is so fearfully rapid that, if we go on at the same rate, men whose hair is already gray will see the day when in the United States from Maine to California and from the Mexican Gulf to Puget Sound there will be no forest left worthy of the name.

Who is guilty of that destruction? It is not merely the lumberman cutting timber on his own land for legitimate use in the pursuit of business gain; it is the lumberman who, in doing so, destroys and wastes as much more without benefit to anybody. It is not merely the settler or the miner taking logs for his cabin and fence-rails and fire-wood, or timber for building a shaft, but it is the settler and the miner laying waste acres or stripping a mountain slope to get a few sticks. It is all these, serving indeed legitimate wants, but doing it with a wastefulness criminally reckless.

But it is not only these. It is the timber thief—making haste to strip the public domain of what he can lay his hands on, lest another timber thief get ahead of him—and, in doing this, destroying sometimes far more than he steals. It is the tourist, the hunter, the mining prospector who, lighting his camp-fire in the woods to boil water for his coffee or to fry his bacon, and leaving that fire unextinguished when he proceeds, sets the woods in flames and delivers countless square miles of forest to destruction.

It is all these, but it is something more, and, let us confess it, something worse. It is a public opinion looking with indifference on this wanton, barbarous, disgraceful vandalism. It is a spendthrift people recklessly wasting its heritage. It is a Government careless of the future and unmindful of a pressing duty.

I have had some personal experience of this. The gentleman who introduced me did me the honor of mentioning the attention I devoted to this subject years ago as Secretary of the Interior. When I entered upon that important office, having the public lands in charge, I considered it my first duty to look around me and to study the problems I had to deal with. Doing so I observed all the wanton waste and devastation I have described. I observed the notion that the public forests were everybody's property, to be taken and used or wasted as anybody pleased, everywhere in full operation. I observed enterprising timber thieves not merely stealing trees, but stealing whole forests. I observed hundreds of sawmills in full blast, devoted exclusively to the sawing up of timber stolen from the public lands.

I observed a most lively export trade going on from Gulf ports as well as Pacific ports, with fleets of vessels employed in carrying timber stolen from the public lands to be sold in foreign countries, immense tracts being devastated that some robbers might fill their pockets.

I thought that this sort of stealing was wrong, in this country no less than elsewhere. Moreover, it was against the spirit and letter of the law. I, therefore, deemed it my duty to arrest that audacious and destructive robbery. Not that I had intended to prevent the settler and the miner from taking from the public lands what they needed for their cabins, their fields or their mining shafts; but I deemed it my duty to stop at least the commercial depredations upon the property of the people. And to that end I used my best endeavors and the means at my disposal, scanty as they were.

What was the result? No sooner did my attempts in that direction become known, than I was pelted with telegraphic despatches from the regions most concerned, indignantly inquiring what it meant that an officer of the Government dared to interfere with the legitimate business of the country! Members of Congress came down upon me, some with wrath in their eyes, others pleading in a milder way, but all solemnly protesting against my disturbing their constituents in this peculiar pursuit of happiness. I persevered in the performance of my plain duty. But when I set forth my doings in my annual report and asked Congress for rational forestry legislation, you should have witnessed the sneers at the outlandish notions of this “foreigner” in the Interior Department; notions that, as was said, might do for a picayunish German principality, but were altogether contemptible when applied to this great and free country of ours. By the way, some of the gentlemen who sneered so greatly might learn some lessons from those picayunish German principalities, which would do them much good. I recently revisited my native land and saw again some of the forests I had known in my younger days—forests which in the meantime had yielded to their owners or to the Government large revenues from the timber cut, but were now nevertheless as stately as they had been before, because the cutting had been done upon rational principles and the forests had been steadily improved by scientific cultivation. I passed over a large tract I had known as a barren heath, the heath of Lüneburg, which formerly, as the saying was, sustained only the “Heidschnucken,” a species of sheep as little esteemed for their wool as their mutton—the same heath now covered with a dense growth of fine forest. Instead of sneering, our supercilious scoffers would do better for themselves as well as for the country if they devoted their time a little more to studying and learning the valuable lessons with which the experience of other countries abounds.

What the result of my appeals was at the time I am speaking of, you know. We succeeded in limiting somewhat the extent of the depredations upon the public forests, and in bringing some of the guilty parties to justice. A few hundred thousand dollars were recovered for timber stolen, but the recommendations of rational forestry legislation went for nothing. Some laws were indeed passed, but they appeared rather to favor the taking of timber from the public lands than to stop it. Still, I persevered, making appeal after appeal, in public and in private, but I found myself standing almost solitary and alone. Deaf was Congress, and deaf the people seemed to be. Only a few still voices rose up here and there in the press in favor of the policy I pursued.

Thank Heaven, the people appear to be deaf no longer. It is in a great measure owing to your wise and faithful efforts that the people begin to listen, and that in several States practical steps have already been taken in the right direction.

As the chairman very truthfully and pointedly said, the forestry question divides itself into two branches, preservation and restoration. The first appears at present by far the most important. There are forests in this as in all countries, the preservation of which is absolutely necessary, because they perform an office which nothing else can perform. Whatever differences of opinion there may be as to the influence of the forest on climate in other respects, it is universally conceded that the forest is in an important sense the regulator of the flow of waters. It is a well-known story. Springs and watercourses which flow with steadiness while the forest stands, are, when the forest has disappeared, dried up or at least largely reduced in volume one part of the year, to be transformed into raging and destructive torrents during another part. In the shape in which it would be a blessing, the water fails. It appears in the shape of a curse. Of paramount necessity, therefore, is the preservation of the forest which covers the headwaters of the great rivers and their affluents, especially in the mountain regions with steep and rocky slopes, where the forest once destroyed can never be restored. Once strip the precipitous mountainside, and the rain and melting snow will soon wash down the scanty soil; the naked rock will appear on the surface, and the growth of a protecting vegetation will be impossible forever. The mountain torrents, swelled by rain and melted snow that no longer find any earth to soak, will then periodically rush down with undiminished volume, inundating the valleys below, and in many cases covering them with gravel and loose rock swept down from the steep slopes, gradually rendering them unfit for agriculture and sometimes even for the habitation of men. I have had occasion to observe such results in more than one instance.

The preservation of mountain forests of this kind is therefore of supreme importance, and where they are still in public possession they should be set apart as permanent reservations, either by the several States or by the General Government—or when they are in private hands, they should, if possible, be regained by the Government and reserved.

Steps of that kind have fortunately been taken with regard to the Adirondacks in New York, but those steps have unfortunately been too long delayed, for, as is reported, the destruction of the Adirondack forests has already gone far enough to cause a diminution of the reliable water supply in the Mohawk and Hudson rivers of from thirty to fifty per cent.; nor have they proved effective and comprehensive enough, for that destruction is still going on at a distressing rate. As to Pennsylvania, a service of incalculable value would be rendered to her people if the State regained control over the forest lands in the heart of her mountain regions, for the hand of the destroyer is mercilessly active. A few years ago I happened, on a railroad inspection, to penetrate into the mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania and beheld a spectacle of direful import. A corporation, a large majority of whose stock was said to be held in Massachusetts, had acquired an area of forest land of, if I remember rightly, 200,000 acres. They not only cut down every tree, but they destroyed even the underbrush, not leaving a stick or a shoot standing. They made the mountainsides as bare as the palm of my hand. And when I asked the superintending officer of the company what was meant by this radical destruction, which would not even leave a chance for the forest to grow up on these slopes in the future, the answer was, that the company did not wish the forest to grow up there again; it was its object first to sell the logs and then to clear the land for the purpose of selling it as pasture. It is not hazardous to predict that when those mountainsides have been washed by rain for a few seasons, many, if not most of them, will no longer furnish verdure enough to nourish a goat. Such things are going on in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and unless in some way they be stopped, it will soon be too late.

There is a mountain region in the far Northwest which demands the earliest possible attention of our National authorities. It is the great area of mountain forest covering the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia. The Government cannot too soon take effective steps to protect these forests, which are among the most important in the United States, against destruction, by making them a permanent reservation and having them carefully guarded.

When speaking of the preservation of forests, we do not, as has already been eloquently set forth by our chairman, mean that they should be kept untouched and unused as the miser keeps his hoard, but that they should be made useful in a way preventing their destruction and even improving their value, as forests are made useful in other civilized countries.

In my first annual report as Secretary of the Interior, twelve years ago, I made some recommendations leading to that end, the main points being in substantial accord with the project of a bill drafted by your committee. Permit me to read them:

All timber lands still belonging to the United States should be withdrawn from the operation of the preemption and homestead laws, as well as the location of the various kinds of scrip.

Timber lands fit for agricultural purposes should be sold, if sold at all, only for cash, and so graded in price as to make the purchaser pay for the value of the timber on the land. This will be apt to make the settler careful and provident in the disposition he makes of the timber.

A sufficient number of Government agents should be provided to protect the timber on public lands from depredation, and to institute to this end the necessary proceedings against depredators, by seizures and by criminal as well as civil actions. Such agents should also be authorized and instructed, under the direction of the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture, to sell for the United States, in order to satisfy the current local demand, timber from the public lands under proper regulations, and in doing so especially to see to it that no large areas be entirely stripped of their timber, so as not to prevent the natural renewal of the forest. This would enable the people of the mining States and of the territories to obtain the timber they need in a legal way, at the same time avoiding the dangerous consequences above pointed out.

The extensive as well as wanton destruction of the timber upon the public lands by the wilful or negligent and careless setting of fires calls for earnest attention. While in several, if not all of the States, such acts are made highly penal offenses by statute, no law of the United States provides specifically for their punishment when committed upon the public lands, nor for a recovery of damages thereby sustained. I would therefore recommend the passage of a law prescribing a severe penalty for the wilful, negligent or careless setting of fires on the public lands of the United States, principally valuable for the timber thereon, and also for the recovery of all damages thereby sustained.

While such measures might be provided for by law without unnecessary delay, I would also suggest that the President be authorized to appoint a commission, composed of qualified persons, to study the laws and practices adopted in other countries for the preservation and cultivation of forests, and to report to Congress a plan for the same object applicable to our circumstances.

The provisions your project of a forestry bill has added to this plan are certainly appropriate, especially the proposed Forestry Commission to superintend the execution of this policy.

It has been objected that the introduction of such a system would involve an addition to the number of public officers, and cost money. Certainly it would, as the Army costs money, as the police costs money, as the building of sewers costs money, as public schools cost money and as so many other things necessary to the safety and well being of the people cost money. But I do not hesitate to say that the money spent for the Army, the police and public schools is not spent to greater public advantage than the money spent for the introduction of a rational forestry system would be. However, a part of the public service already existing might well be used for the purpose of guarding at least the forests belonging to the public domain of the United States. It may well be assumed that although trifling Indian disturbances may still occur here and there, the danger of Indian wars on a large scale is now behind us. If a wise, just and humane Indian policy be followed, we may be sure that it is altogether over. Not a few of our outlying military posts may then be abandoned, and a part of our Army will become disposable for other purposes. Why should not two or three battalions be organized as forest guards or forest rangers, the men, perhaps, also to receive some useful instruction to fit them for their new duties? Surely, no soldier could, in time of peace and there being no prospect of war, be more usefully employed.

Of the influence of forests on climate and of the necessity of planting or replanting them where they fall below the proportion which the area of forest should bear to the aggregate area of the country, men more competent than I am have spoken and will speak to you. We are all agreed also on the necessity of spreading information on this important subject. No respectable university or agricultural college should be without a department in which forestry as a science is taught; and most of us will no doubt see the day when the importance of that science will be recognized by every thinking American. Let us hope that this appreciation will come in time. I regret we cannot forcibly enough impress upon the American people the necessity of speedy measures looking to the preservation of our mountain forests which, when once destroyed, cannot be renewed. Unless this be done in time, our children will curse the almost criminal improvidence of their ancestors; but if it is done in time, those who are instrumental in doing it will deserve and will have the blessings of future generations.

To bring up the public opinion of this country to the point where it will command such measures, a vigorous and unceasing agitation is required. I do not underestimate the difficulties it will have to overcome. It is the shortsighted greed which acts upon the rule to grab all that can be got at the moment, and “let the devil take the hindmost,” not stopping to consider that he who does so may be among the hindmost himself, and that in this case his children certainly will be. It is that spirit of levity, so prevalent among our people, which teaches to eat and drink and be merry to-day, unmindful of the reckoning that will come to-morrow. It is the cowardice of the small politician who, instead of studying the best interests of the people, trembles lest doing his full duty may cost him a vote, and who is not seldom apt to fear the resentment of the thieves more than that of honest men.

Such influences you will have to overcome, but you will meet them in the future as bravely as you have met them in the past, and may a speedy and complete triumph crown your patriotic efforts.

  1. Address delivered before the American Forestry Association and the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, at Horticultural Hall, Philadelphia, Oct. 15, 1889.