The Conservation of Our Natural Resources

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.

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