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.