During more than a century our government has been engaged in the alienation of an enormous domain. On a scale unequaled in history, and which probably never will be equaled, we have distributed land in generous homesteads to the land‑hungry of the world, transforming a tenant peasantry into a responsible electorate. In the pursuit of this business we have enlarged a simple policy of dispersal until the public domain has become a public grab‑bag; and pleading for the more rapid and profitable "development" of what we chose to call the unlimited resources of America, we have developed, instead, a national recklessness, spendthriftness, and wasteful extravagance, in which we have thrown away everything but the very richest part of our takings. The public land and the public water, in the form of fuel, power, timber, navigable streams, irrigable plains, and valuable minerals, have been so administered as to beget both a confidence in the eternal bounty of nature and a habit of treating public property as a source of private fortune.
To‑day, a number of things coming simultaneously to our attention call a halt. Our timber resources, sufficient, if not radically conserved, for barely a score of years; our rivers suffering from deforestation; our decreasing waterpowers falling into the hands of an increasing monopoly; our mineral fuels becoming more costly to mine, and amazingly less abundant; our farm lands losing millions of tons of their most fertile portions by soil wash,—all these things, and many more, bring us face to face with the certainty that this policy of spendthrift alienation and waste must be abandoned, and that its direct converse, the utmost conservation of our remaining natural resources, public private, must be adopted. More: it must be adhered to rigidly, not only to preserve a livable land for our children's children, but even to assure a modicum of prosperity for our own old age.
It is to bring this fact most startlingly to the general notice that President Roosevelt has called upon the governors of all the states and territories to meet him in conference at the White House during the present month (May), to consult and confer, not only with but with one another, and to set on foot a movement for the adoption of uniform legislation over the whole country at an early date. This is to be not only an unusual but a precedent‑making conference, since it is the first time the Chief Executive has called into consultation the coordinate officials of the states; but its importance from this point of view, great though it is, appears but slight beside the significance of the policy which it brings to public notice.
It is essential that we should get very clearly in mind at the outset precisely what this new policy is intended to effect. Its inception has been so promptly followed by the withdrawal from entry of the fuel lands remaining in the public domain, and the establishment of large forest reserves, and the opposition of the executive authority to any further development of water‑power by private interests on navigable streams or on public lands, that many persons have supposed that conservation was the opposite of alienation, and have imagined that President Roosevelt's plan was to hold all remaining public property in common and develop it on a more or less socialistic basis. Nothing could be further from the truth. The resources which are to be conserved are natural, not national. He plans to direct the organization of public sentiment, and the formulation of laws by which all such resources, whether in land or in water, whether national, state, or privately owned, shall be administered in a way to preserve intact or to increase the principal of them, and to give to each succeeding generation a larger wealth from the interest.
In the consideration of this proposition two questions immediately arise: first, what are these resources and how are they to be conserved? second, how can the states and the federal government cooperate to attain this result? Leaving the first of these for the moment and considering the second, the immediate motive of the present conference, we find an attempt to solve by a master stroke a problem for which no solution is provided in our form of government: that of bringing about parallel legislation in several states at the same time. Our government is organized from the point of view of the individual states, and it is so made up that both the people of these states as individuals, and the states themselves as governing entities, may have effective influence in shaping national legislation at Washington. There is nothing whatever of a reciprocal nature whereby the whole nation may either force, impel, or request a single state to legislate in a manner common to all. Any movement toward such interference within a state would be considered such an infringement of the rights of the states as might possibly plunge us again into the abyss of civil war. The tendency of the present administration toward centralization is well known; yet even the President would hesitate to attempt to bring about his purpose by other means than those which he has adopted. Yet these means, "spectacular" as one governor has called them, appear before trial to offer a happy means of bringing about co‑legislation without infringing upon the dignity of any member of the Union. Calling the Democratic South and the Republican North into a common conference has become necessary, too, just because of their political difference; for any measure which might be brought to the notice of their respective congressmen would obtain favor or disregard according as the congressmen were with or against the party of the President.
The immediate purpose is to bring about three sorts of legislation: that which controls national resources, that which controls state resources, and that which directs the development of resources privately controlled. In this the cooperation of the states is not only desirable, it is absolutely essential. The federal authorities may enact laws for the maintenance and development of the public domain, both in land and in water; they may enter into partnerships, and do so enter, for the improvement of navigation and power in navigable streams and for carrying on irrigation; they may acquire land and establish reservoirs where such reservoirs can be shown to be necessary for the purpose of maintaining navigation; they, may shape the methods of taking fuel from the public land by inserting their requirements in the lease or deed under which the land is partially alienated. In addition, they may carry on a campaign of education aimed to persuade individuals to adopt rational methods. But a state can go much farther. It may buy land and plant forests without regard to the purpose for which the forest is established. It may drain local swamps. It may create reservoirs on small and insignificant streams, for the purpose of providing a town water‑supply, of improving water‑power, or for any reason whatever. It may enter into partnership, with its citizens and cooperate with them in forest development, in guarding against fires, in the erection of dams, in the management of mines, in any way it may choose. It may exercise its police power to provide that those who own private forests must police them, must cut fire‑breaks, must burn their slashings, and may not cut to exceed the increment in any year. It may encourage tree‑planting by direct legislation and by passing taxes on wooded lands. It may by law put land in escrow during the carrying out of large improvements; and it may even direct the economy of fuel at the furnace.
In the White House conference, therefore, President Roosevelt, who will himself preside, will present to the governors a number of expert investigators and engineers who will tell them of the need and of the proper method of obtaining the necessary reforms. Deliberation upon these things, and the bringing together of the governors upon a definite purpose, will bring about mutual understanding and intelligence. Committees will be appointed to consider the requisite legislation and the possibilities of action in the several states, and the governors, or those of them who are so disposed, will present these measures for the consideration of their legislatures. How successful this will be it would be idle to prophesy; but it is certain that in the present temper of the country the several executives, stirred by the emphasis with which the President is accustomed to debate this subject, will obtain a modicum of what is desired.
Though it might at first alarm those who fear centralization, and appear to be a curious reversal of government plans, it would be in many ways a source of benefit if this conference should prove to be the forerunner of annual gatherings of our executives, or perhaps of annual or biennial interstate meetings of legislators, in which common local legislation on such other subjects as incorporation, railway regulation, and the conduct of those affairs which affect other than individual states, might be discussed.
Returning to the first question, the manner of conservation, we find that all these resources are so closely allied that any scheme for their final development must consider all of them, and in many relations. Thus the forest cover must be used to aid in reservoiring streams for navigation, for irrigation, and for water‑power; the improvement of the range and the regulation of grazing must go hand in hand with free‑planting and farm improvement to prevent soil wash; the development of water‑power by the forests and by the creation of storage basins must be connected with any movement to conserve our fuel supply.
The forests now standing in the United States and Alaska aggregate probably 500,000,000 acres, of which something more than one‑fifth — probably about one‑fourth— is in national reserves, and a few million acres more in state reserves. Much of this, and especially of the national reserve, is extremely thin forest, being more used for or suited to grazing than tree—growing; and there are large barren areas in it. A large part of the unreserved forest is in Alaska. At the present rate of cutting and of growth, these forests are not sufficient for a score of years. That is to say, there will be forests standing longer than that, but the shortage in many kinds of timber will before then become more acute than is now the case with white pine; and only the importation of large supplies duty‑free from Canada, Siberia, and Mexico can tide us over until our new methods have been given years for their effect.
When the cutting up of the public domain began, a century ago, the lands so cut, as well as large parts of the original states, contained the most abundant forests then standing in the temperate zone. To illustrate what their destruction has been, and how needless, it is only necessary to consider the pine forests about the Great Lakes. There were in that region sixty years ago upward of 350,000,000,000 board feet of white pine lumber, standing in almost continuous forests over northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and a good half of Minnesota. The cutting of this timber began in a small way, a few million feet a year. Gradually this increased until it reached three, and even four billion, and then swept upward with a rush, to aggregate nearly 8,000,000,000 in a year. Then as the forests gave out it dropped, until to‑day, it is less than 3,000,000,000 feet a year, at which rate the end is fast approaching.
Although many of the trees which made up that big forest were several hundred years old, and several feet in diameter, the white pine reaches its profitable growth there in eighty years, at which time it is from twelve to fifteen inches in diameter breast‑high, and produces 18,000 feet of boards to the acre. Had the woodsmen who cut over the first pine forests done so in a sensible manner, had they burned their slashings so as to save the woods from fire, and had they left a few trees to the acre for seed, we would now have great tracts of new growth well along toward maturity. But they did no such thing. In fact, the history of our country contains no such tale of devastation as that which they wrought. Sherman's army, sweeping across Georgia, did nothing to equal it.
Cutting with mad haste through the heart of the big timber, they left the broken trees, the culls and the slashings where they lay, to become the source of cyclones of fire which, driven by the wind, swept mile after mile in advance of the timbermen, destroying in a week more forest than would have been cut in a year. More than the trees themselves, the soil, slow accumulation of ages, together with the possibility of reseeding, all were burned. So terrific were these fires that navigation was interfered with by the smoke two hundred miles away; and across the northern peninsula to‑day reach barren stretches of sandy waste, scarred by blackened stumps or tangled with fallen and wasted trees. As if these accidental fires were not enough, the lumbermen rushed their men and their machinery to turn out and market only the very best lumber. So cheap did they consider their product that nothing else could be sold. Whatever seemed too poor to be carried to market was dumped, with the sawdust and shavings, the slabs and the bark, into gigantic furnaces,— waste‑burners,— the smoke from a score of which poured up night and day beside the tiniest of the little harbors on the Lakes. The timber that was burned in those insatiate maws, the bark and slabs that went into them, would to‑day more than duplicate the fortunes of the forest pirates, had they been saved for the still and the box—factory.
As the forests were cut and the forest cover burned, the sandy regions of the pine woods began to suffer from soil wash. The rivers were filled with bars, the land gullied, and the fertile top‑soil, or as much as the fire had left, was washed away into the larger waters. The damage was immense, the loss irretrievable. The forests which should have enriched the state possessing them, and have supplied the nation for all time to come, were slaughtered unmercifully by men whose only object was to get their money out at the earliest possible moment, without regard to what might follow. And as with white pine, so with other woods. The yellow pine of the south and the hardwoods are now following, and the famine in hickory is upon us.
Yet this state of affairs is easily remedied. Germany, a century ago, faced just such a situation as now confronts us. Then there began the work which we must now undertake. New forests were planted, wherever the land was unsuited for other purposes. This planting was done year after year, so that each year a new tract would come to maturity. Forest wardens watched for fires, and laws forbade careless hunters setting fires in the woods. Timbermen were forced to gather and burn what twigs from the slashings could not be used in the still or burned for charcoal, and broad lanes were left through the forests as stops for fires. In this way there arose those magnificent German forests which now return the empire an average net annual profit of two dollars and a half for each acre, on land which is otherwise unusable; and, besides, give their services free for the storage of water and for the retention of the soil.
In our own land something of this sort has already been done. New York has nearly two million acres of land in forest reserves which are being carefully tended. Pennsylvania has half as much. Minnesota is already securing considerable profit from the management of its white pine reserves and is seeding down large areas; and the other lake states are also moving; but all this is being done slowly, and lacks much of the energy and the cooperation which should accompany it.
We cut at present about 17,000,000,000 cubic feet of wood for all purposes —‑ ties, cooperage, lumber, firewood, pulp, shingles, mine‑timber, all included. An acre of average forest land in a wild state increases about ten cubic feet of wood a year; an acre properly conserved and managed according to the best methods of modern forestry increases from forty to seventy, and in Saxony even ninety cubic feet a year. If the average under conservation be forty cubic feet, the existing half‑billion acres well tended would be just sufficient for our present needs. But much of this is unavailable, much of it is of poor wood. Before another generation has passed away we shall need double that area; and it must be located in every state of the union. It must be planted under laws which will release the taxes upon planted land, assessing a timber crop but once, on its valuation at maturity; under laws which will require that for every tree cut down a new one be planted; and under laws which will make for fires impossible.
One of the first effects of thorough tree‑planting will be the reduction of soil wash. This constant theft of our fertile layer is heaviest in the Missouri valley. Humphrey and Abbott, who are always to be believed, estimated that the Mississippi— receiving most of it from the Missouri— carried out to sea every year enough earth to make a prism a mile square and more than three hundred feet high. Most of this comes from the Bad Lands, and from the Yellowstone River. The barren Bad Lands, washed by the rain, sweep into the larger rivers to make bars and to give rise to many problems for the engineer. Irrigation of the lands along the river by the use of storage‑reservoirs, pumping‑stations, and canals will do much to prevent this; but the forestation of the banks of streams will do even more.
One of the greatest of American resources is the western range. Decades ago the succulent grasses supported millions of buffalo, and later millions of cattle; but as the farmers pushed westward the herds retreated to the shortgrass country, where they roamed at large upon the public domain, their owners paying no charge for their feed. This happy, free‑for‑all state of affairs could have but one ending. The rush to get something for nothing crowded the ranges till the grass was eaten and trampled out. Cattle were followed by sheep which ate the very roots of the grass; and at last thousands of acres were deprived of the last sign of herbage and turned over into sage‑brush desert. Here again was a loss which all the country felt, not alone because of the loss of cheap cattle‑food, but most of all because the soil was now as free to wash away as in the deforested lands; the barren surface did not retain the rains; the rivers rose higher in flood and fell lower in dry seasons; and there began to manifest themselves the signs of desert country.
For its proper conservation great areas of the range must be re‑seeded and kept from the cattle until the grasses have made a fresh start and have choked out the sage‑brush. Then it must be grazed under lease, for at least a nominal rent, so that every tract may be controlled and supervised and the supervision paid for by the cattle‑owners. This must be so arranged as to prevent overstocking, and the number of cattle to a given area must be prescribed. These methods are so simple that it would appear that a child would appreciate them; yet the simple statement of them is enough to arouse the old cattlemen to anger; and to obtain the passage of such laws in western states in cooperation with the government will prove difficult. This difficulty is, in a measure, lessened, however, by a recent court decision holding that the cattle—owner, and not the federal authorities, is responsible if cattle enter unfenced public domain.
Like the range, the lands suitable for irrigation add another to the problems. Their improvement is already well advanced under the direction of the Reclamation Service, and several million acres either already have been or are about to be furnished with water. Under the new laws these lands are divided into small tracts for individual farmers, and the full benefit to the nation of the responsible land‑owning electorate is being obtained, at the same time that the soil is being retained in place and developed. The swamp lands offer a question more immediately for the states to solve. Most of these lands, which are spread over a very large area, and aggregate more than 75,000,000 acres, were originally given by the federal government to the states, to be sold to create a fund for their own drainage. This has never been done, except in the lower Mississippi valley, where levee systems have been erected and the lands thus drained have been found to be enormously fertile. Min‑nesota is now engaged on a heroic task of drainage, and has withdrawn from sale much of its undrained land because it can be sold at a much higher rate when drained, and gives a considerable profit to the state. Swamps often lie in more than one state, however, and the outfall stream often runs through a different state from that in which the swamp lies, so that cooperation or federal direction becomes necessary.
Our mineral fuel supply, the remaining "land" element in the natural resources of the country, is at present being exhausted at the rate of 400,000,000 tons a year; at which rate it will not be a generation before it will become an economical problem how to supply cheaply some parts of the country. Large and unexploited areas of bituminous coal still remain in the public domain in the western states, and these have been withdrawn from entry by the President until such time as the existing frauds could be stopped and the laws so modified as to enable him to force the conservative use of these fuels. There are also large areas of lignite, this softer coal cropping out in many places and in thick veins on nearly every tributary of the Missouri in North Dakota and on the Big Muddy itself. It is in these lignite fields that the government has taken the most active steps toward the proper conservation of fuel, in developing the mine's central power‑station. As the transportation of coal is costly, and as it deteriorates badly in shipping, there is a great deal of the cheapest grade which it does not pay to ship from the mine, and which yet contains a considerable source of power. It has always been a matter of prophecy by electrical engineers that in the future power‑stations would be erected at the shaft, and power, not fuel, shipped about the country. To test the value of this system and give a working basis for computation, the government has installed a mine‑central station at the side of a lignite mine on the upper Missouri. There power is generated, which is distributed to moto‑pumps, some of them forty or fifty miles away. These pumps elevate the water of the river to high‑level canals, eighty feet or more above the river surface, whence it successively irrigates the lower levels. The plan has been found economical, and there is no doubt that a great saving will be made eventually in this way. The mine‑central of the Buford‑Trenton project contains another new development, or rather a somewhat novel factor, in a gas‑producer, consuming lignite coal. Experiments with producers and internal combustion engines show that the present average expenditure of two pounds of coal per horse‑power hour can be decreased to a horse‑power hour for each pound of coal consumed; which, if generally followed, would double the duration of our coal supply. In addition, the producer will make gas from the dust and slack in the waste heaps, so that there remains a vast source of power in these unshippable materials.
Such developments as these, together with methods of mining less wasteful than now practiced, will not only go far to conserve our fuel supply but will lighten the congesting burden of our railways. There is a third factor to be considered, however, in the water‑power from our running streams. And this brings us to consider the other types of resource, those which lie in running water.
Though the administration has been extremely agitated by the threatening approach of a timber famine, there is probably no other element in this new conservation policy which has so stirred it as the fear of a monopolization of the water‑powers of the country. Not a day goes by which does not bring to light the activity of some big corporation to secure rights in a public stream. Bills are now pending in Congress giving to such concerns rights in perpetuity, without any return whatsoever, in public streams, and depriving the government of the power to benefit from any of the improvement by forestation or river improvement. Sites for dams are being surveyed, and there is indication of a race to secure "vested" rights in order that capital may fatten on the results of the public work. Already large corporations have combined their holdings into larger corporations; and it is not hard to imagine a single concern, like the Steel Company, in complete possession of our natural powers and able to utilize and direct them as it will.
It is because of the extreme importance of this feature of our situation, and the general tendency to ignore it, that I have chosen to present here the stories of two typical streams, developed, one under the old give‑away policy, the other under the new policy of conservation in the highest degree to which it has yet been carried. These are the upper Mississippi and the Wisconsin. The upper Mississippi heads in Minnesota in level plateau, rock‑rimmed, full of lakes and ponds and containing several million acres of swamps, generally heavily wooded. The stream for about five hundred miles after leaving Itasca flows alternately through still deep reaches and over abrupt rapids and falls, culminating at St. Anthony's and in the rapid water between that point and the mouth of the Minnesota River. Any comprehensive plan for the development of this stream should take into consideration the maintenance and well‑being of the forests, first for timber supply and second for the retention of a forest cover to aid in storage of water; the drainage of the swamp area, so that better forests might grow on some of it and the rest be used for agriculture; the enlargement of the lakes, and ponds, so as to provide storage of the snow and flood‑waters during high months; and the release of the stored' waters during the low season, so as to obtain the greatest benefit to navigation: and at the same time to water‑power Any private concern undertaking this work— and it would be futile to deny that the government should in such activities approximate the economies of a corporation for profit— would first have obtained the cooperation of the owners of water‑powers, or would have bought them out altogether. Then it would have called upon states and individuals to cooperate in the control of the forests, or would have bought and managed for itself these timber tracts as far as possible. Then, as it developed its storage reservoirs, it would have placed them so that the greatest amount possible should be discharged at low water from the highest point upstream— so that all the falls should have the benefit of it. The progress of the work thereafter would have involved straightening and improving the stream and its approaches in order to bring about simplicity in the drainage problems— the whole aim being to prevent an excess of water where and when it was not wanted, and to direct an abundance where it was wanted.
The government began the care of this region at the close of the Civil War, at a time when practically every dam site was still held in federal or Indian fee, and when almost or quite all of these woods were under government ownership except the swamp tracts which had by law been transferred to the state. In the development of the river no interest what ever except navigation has been considered, and that navigation below the falls. Accordingly, .the reservoirs have been placed at points where they would discharge above St. Anthony's without regard for their effect upon the several powers above; and during the progress of the reservoiring the mill sites and the forests have been steadily alienated without regard to sharing the cost of improvements. There exist now almost innumerable privileges granted without cost by Congress for dams across the upper Mississippi, many of these dams being in actual operation. The government has provided 2,000,000 acre‑feet of storage,— 90,000,000,000 cubic feet,— from which the water is released at low water to maintain an increased flow of 1000 cubic second feet over the falls of St. Anthony, and an added depth of one foot at St. Paul at low water. All this has been done at government expense, and solely with attention to the reservoirs. Every dam site on the upper river owes its value to the government pondage above it, and commands value according to the proportion of pondage above and below, because it is peculiarly this pondage which gives value at the busy low‑water season. Yet not one cent of the cost of the work has come on the mill‑owners; these mill‑owners have themselves steadily cut off the forests and reduced the value of the storage, cutting the lumber by government power; they are now continually complaining because all the water is not released above them; and the State of Minnesota, having the swamp lands to drain, is in a quandary as to how to go about the development of a river already in government hands in order to attain drainage channels to and through it. The falls of St. Anthony, always a valuable power, have been nearly doubled in value by government storage, and powers immediately above this fall, aggregating 100,000 horse‑power, have been acquired by a thrifty individual who is preparing to bond the value of the federal pondage and sell electricity at Minneapolis. Not one cent has been repaid to the government for its addition to these private fortunes,— given away free originally by the government,— and neither state, nation, nor individual has yet obtained the highest good which can be obtained by proper forestation, reservoiring, and drainage of the headwaters country.
Exactly the opposite policy is now being developed upon the Wisconsin, a river which in its early days was easily navigable during most of the year, but which with the rapid destruction of the forests became so unreliable, so subject to extreme changes, that it was abandoned by the government engineers and pronounced unnavigable. Millions of dollars spent in connection with its development return not one cent of interest to the people. This river heads with the Menominee and some other streams in a mountainous region on the northern, Michigan, border; and there,— for his purposes the strategic centre of the state systems,— the forester, Mr. Griffiths, has chosen to make his principal campaign. He has begun the establishment of a forest reserve which is expected to reach a total of 8,000,000 acres, and of which a tenth is already in possession of the state. Whatever lands suitable for agriculture the state owns, or whatever isolated forest tracts not suitable for reserve, he is selling at high market prices to buy up the remaining cheap, rocky, mountain lands of the proposed forest reserve.
It is inevitable that this reforesting will have a great effect upon the rivers which drain it. During all its upper course, as far down as Kilbourne, the Wisconsin plunges over fall after fall, creating water‑power which is of especial value because there is no fuel in or near the state. These powers, which are drowned out now in freshets and almost idle at low water, are depended upon to drive the rapidly growing manufactories of the state, just as the forest—reserve timber must eventually be relied upon to supply the high‑grade lumber for these manufactories. Some time ago the power owners— that is, following the old idea that whoever owns the land beside a waterfall owns the right to use the power of the running water ‑ began to agitate and at last presented a bill which enabled them to enter upon the forest reserve, impound water, and do as they pleased with state property for the benefit of their private powers. This was opposed by the forester, supported by the enlightened sentiment which Mr. Roosevelt's new policy embodies. As a result there was eventually passed a cooperative bill which provides in large measure for all the interests involved. The forester is empowered to indicate what lakes and ponds can be used for storage, to designate the location of the controlling dam, and to establish, with his surveyors, stone monuments marking the level to which the impounded waters may be raised without injury to the forests, is also given the state railway commissioners to appoint engineers who shall compute, from a careful survey, drainage area from which every power site collects its water, the amount of flow now in every week of the year, and the horse‑power developed or capable of development. The power owners are authorized to incorporate as the Wiseo River Valley Improvement Association and to issue bonds for the purpose of obtaining money with which to establish the dams designated by the forester, and to operate the storage system. These bonds are, if memory serves me, guaranteed by the state. At any rate the law carefully safeguards the control of the corporation, to prevent monopolization.
The dams being installed, the railway commissioners are required to examine each power each year, and to determine the total and the proportionate amount of betterment; from which the owner has a right of appeal. Upon their findings the commissioners then determine amount to be paid by each power owner that year toward the interest and sinking fund of the bonds and toward the maintenance of the somewhat elaborate system necessary for operation.
As a result of all this activity, of course, the Wisconsin will again become navigable river. Some years ago the government engineers examined the stream, selected reservoir sites, and made a report upon the feasibility of storing water and thus aiding navigation. But by the reversed process now in operation navigation obtains its full flow— needing only the channel work to complete it; the forest interests of the state are conserved; the greatest possible power is obtained; the private as well as the public interests are all safeguarded, and the whole cost is to be paid by a small proportion of the betterments received by individuals. This is conservation of resources in a high degree, and I have gone into it at length because it is almost the only instance of this magnitude which one can quote.
It is just such a plan which is in the minds of those who are advocating the establishment of the Appalachian forest reserve— for which a bill may have passed before this appears in print. In the Appalachian forests there head some of our most important rivers: the Tennessee and the Cumberland, already navigable; the Big Sandy, the Tombigbee, the Catawba, the Neuse, Peedee, Santee, Coosa, and many, many more. The estimated horse‑power of these streams is, all told, about 5,000,000, of which three‑fifths is capable of easy developinent. With the reduction of the forests, however, this waterfiow becomes even more capricious than on northern streams, and the value is made very small. Three million continuous horsepower represent the consumption by present methods of more than 26,000,000 tons of coal a year, or one‑sixteenth of our total fuel consumption; and as the increase in water‑power economy may be expected to keep pace with coal economy, this proportion may be considered a fairly stable one. That is, an amount of power equal to one‑sixteenth of our total coal consumption ‑ including steamships, railways, and dwellings, as well as factories ‑is in jeopardy through the cutting of the forests on the southern mountains.
The question has many other sides. Thus the Tennessee River, already navigable after a fashion, is interrupted by a long series of rapids and falls in northern Alabama and by swift water near Chattanooga. A power company owning the bank, and therefore claiming the running water, offered to allow the government t erect f or it a dam across the river below Chattanooga and put in a lock, from which the power company would furnish power to operate the lock. Even the final settlement, by which the company builds the dam and furnishes the power for the privilege of obstructing a navigable stream, gives this company free of charge the full amount of betterment which may accrue from the improvement of conditions on the upper waters; and other companies are already endeavoring to get into similar favorable positions at Bee Tree and Muscle Shoals. On the Cumberland another concern has already been formed to secure the privilege of damming and using all the waters above the present government dams, and we as a nation have taken no steps toward using the power at the dams we own.
One of the most intricate problems involved, and one which must be cleared before we have gone far with the management of water‑power, is that of the ownership of running water, ‑ a matter to which both Congress and the Supreme Court have given considerable time with very inconclusive results. Under old conditions, when the erection of a dam was the whole apparatus of power‑development, the man who owned the dam site was considered by that possession to own the power in the water during the time it was passing his land. When water‑power was the only power, and larger development was necessary, this dam‑owner was given the right to take for flowage the lands of his immediate neighbors, for a fair price. But now that we have passed far beyond that stage, to a time when the improvement of a river begins at the fountain from which it springs and in the forests which cover the slopes of the surrounding hills, we can no longer follow this old procedure.
The work which is done at headwaters actually creates a power, since it enlarges and steadies the flow; and that power is possible of utilization over and over again, for every foot of fall from the fountain to the sea. The Supreme Court has often held that the government has but a navigation right in streams, and that the states themselves own the water, and the land‑owners the use for power. But old usage must give way to new needs, and a new body of law describing and establishing the owner‑ship and the extent of the several rights in a river is one of the urgent needs of the new movement.
In an earlier article in the Atlantic the present writer called attention to the need of a national Department of Public Works which should have charge, among other things, of the control of our rivers and harbors. It must in the long run be through such a department that all these methods of conservation are correlated. If it should come to be established, it would require sufficient power to enable its directors to cooperate readily and of their own volition with the authorities of the states within which they were working, and even with individuals and corporations. It must be able to follow out the suggestion made by President Roosevelt at Memphis, where he begged the assembled Southerners to see to it that this question of conservation was kept above party politics, and was carried on without regard to the change of administration or of party at Washington. It must be able to plan for years ahead and to enter into comprehensive plans for systematic work.
We are accustomed to think and to speak of America as a land of unlimited resources. Suddenly we are confronted with the appalling fact that these resources are, in fact, very limited, and that the limit is in sight. Yet this is but our own misunderstanding. The real resources of America lie in the intelligence and ability to cooperate, which its people have always manifested, and with which they could make a habitable and delightful region of the Sahara itself. It this resource, most of all, which we must conserve and which we must cultivate; and if the President shall by his present conference succeed in drawing us into a movement for that purpose above the plane of party politics, if he shall have led us into a business—like association which will enable us hereafter to live upon the interest from our fortune, and no longer to impair the principal, he will have established his largest claim upon the graitude and the memory of our people.