The Conservation of Our Natural Resources

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.

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