The Forests and the Census

THE federal government has included in the census an exhaustive report on the forests of the country. If this had been done at the beginning of the century, the forestry department of the present census would show a singular contrast to the rest of that prodigious work ; for, while we should find everywhere else the record of an amazing growth, this part of the report would reveal an equally amazing decrease. This decrease has gone on with accelerating speed, and probably it was never so rapid as at this moment. Our forests are still of immense value for their marketable products, for the good effects they produce, and for the evils they avert; but it is clear that if the present wasteful ways of dealing with them are not changed, a time must soon come when the nation will have cause to repent its reckless improvidence.

Nothing, therefore, could be wiser or more timely than the introduction of this new feature into the national account of stock. It is now five years or more since the heavy task of gathering and arranging the forest statistics of the United States was placed in the hands of Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, Director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. The results of his work and that of his assistants has lately appeared in a quarto volume of six hundred and twelve pages, illustrated by maps, and accompanied by an atlas of sixteen additional maps on a larger scale. The book opens with a general description of the character and distribution of North American trees. Each part of the country has its characteristic forest growth. There is the forest of the North and the forest of the South, the forest of the Atlantic Slope and that of the Pacific; affording, as a whole, an unrivaled abundance and variety. Professor Sargent next gives a complete catalogue of American trees north of the Mexican line, including no less than four hundred and twelve species and varieties. This enumeration, along with the synonyms and descriptions, covers two hundred pages, and is a work of admirable industry and care. Specimens of the wood of all these trees, excepting seven rare and unimportant species, were subjected to a course of experiments, in order to test their value as fuel and as material for construction. These experiments were conducted by Mr. S. P. Sharples at the arsenal at Watertown, by means of apparatus belonging to the government, and the results are given in a series of tables which form Part Second of the report. From these may be learned, approximately at least, the practical value, both relative and absolute, of all the species in the United States, with the trifling exception just mentioned. Part Third, entitled The Forests of the United States in their Economic Aspects, shows the distribution, character, and present condition of the forests in every State and Territory of the Union.

The report reveals an enormous national wealth, which man did nothing to create, but which he is doing his best to destroy. Professor Sargent thinks that complete returns of the forest products of all kinds for the census year would show a value rather above than below seven hundred million dollars, and he believes that, even with the present wasteful management, this rate of production may still be maintained for some years longer ; but unless a wiser policy is pursued the consequence is certain. In the Northern and Middle States that valuable tree, the white pine, which once seemed inexhaustible, has already been consumed so far as concerns the heavy timber of the original growth, and the pines of the Northwest must soon share the same fate. A young growth is springing up in many places, and, under prudent regulation, this may be made to supply, in some imperfect measure, the place of its predecessors. The immense open pine forests of the Southern States produce a timber of no less value than that of the North, though of another species and widely different qualities ; and, by good management, these may still be preserved from destruction and made a permanent source of wealth, though under present conditions they are fast wasting away. The slopes of the Alleghanies in West Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee still bear a superb growth of hard-wood trees ; and it remains to be seen which alternative will be adopted, that of squandering the capital or living on the income. One course is as practicable as the other, but the latter requires forecast, self-control, and good sense, and the former does not. The same is true of the great hard-wood forests of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, as well as of less important tracts of woodland scattered throughout the Atlantic Slope and the valley of the Mississippi.

Unluckily, the American people are heirs of a tradition which, though perhaps inevitable under the circumstances, has become a source of serious mischief. The early settler regarded the forest as an enemy to be overcome by any means, fair or foul, as the first condition of his prosperity and safety ; and his descendants do not yet comprehend how completely the conditions are changed. The old enemy has become an indispensable friend and ally. The settler of the present day, who has passed the forest tracts of the East and made his home on the bare plains of the West, is learning perforce a lesson opposite to that which was too familiar to his precursor on this side of the Mississippi, He discovers that trees are necessary to him, and instead of hacking and burning he begins to plant and cherish them. But when he makes another move westward, crosses the Rocky Mountains, and builds his cabin in the magnificent forests of the Pacific Slope, among the matchless woods of Oregon and Washington, the old instinct springs up again with redoubled force. A selfish love of gain, the personal interest of the hour, overbears every consideration of ulterior good, and he attacks the great redwood forests of the coast with a rapacious vigor that has already robbed them of half their value, and threatens as it extends its scope to deprive posterity of an inestimable possession.

But the axe is not the worst enemy of the forest. Nature is strong in her resources. Give her but the opportunity, and in a soil and climate like those of the greater part of this continent she will renew and create with unbounded fecundity. There are forces, however, too strong for her. The most formidable of these is fire. The forests that cover the tops and sides of mountains generally draw their sustenance from a thin soil formed chiefly of vegetable mould, resulting from many centuries of decay, first of mosses, then of plants and low shrubs, and lastly of trees, each generation contributing something to the support of the next, till the barren ridge, where once nothing but a lichen could cling, is able at length to nourish an oak. But when the forest thus slowly and painfully prepared is swept away by fire, the mould burns out like peat, and the work of a thousand years is undone in an hour. In deep soils, on level ground, the mischief is much less ; yet even here a growth equal in value or similar in character to the last is rarely reproduced. Another source of evil is the browsing of cattle and sheep. These destroy the young seedlings, and when the old trees fall or are cut away none are left to take their places.

An attempt was made by Professor Sargent to learn approximately the loss to the United States by forest fires during the census year, and to this end more than thirty thousand circulars were sent to different parts of the country. The result showed a loss to New York, Minnesota, Montana, and Utah of more than a million dollars each ; to Pennsylvania and Wyoming of more than three million each ; and to Tennessee of more than five million,—the total destruction of forest property in all the States and Territories amounting to something more than twenty-five million. About eleven hundred fires were traced to the heedless burning of brush-wood and felled trees by farmers in clearing the land, about six hundred to the carelessness of hunters, and about five hundred to sparks from locomotives; while two hundred and sixty-two were reported to have been kindled maliciously.

It is evident that nothing but the intervention of the state and federal governments can arrest the waste of forests, and save us from the evils that must result from their rapid decline. Will such measures answer the end? There is no doubt that along with a roused sense of its necessity on the part of the people a well-considered legislation could be made effectual. In one State of the Union, and in one only, the public mind has learned to recognize the need of guarding and preserving the forests. This is the State of Maine, whose prosperity, depending mainly on the lumber trade, had greatly declined from the reckless manner in which the chief source of its wealth had been abused. A sensible and economical management has followed the old wasteful methods. Young trees are spared, and such precautions are used against fire that losses from that source have greatly diminished, amounting in the census year to only a hundred and twenty-three thousand dollars. “ Fires,” says Professor Sargent, “ do not consume forests upon which whole communities are dependent for support, and methods for securing the continuance of such forests are soon found and readily put into execution. The forests of Maine, once considered practically exhausted, still yield largely and continuously, and the public sentiment which has made possible their protection is the one hopeful symptom in the whole country that a change of feeling in regard to forest property is gradually taking place.” Let us hope that this solitary example of forecast and good sense may prove contagious.

There are reasons entirely independent of economic value which make the preservation of our forests a matter of prime importance, and would make their ruin a national calamity. It is not that they have much influence on the rainfall. Those who hold that they do so mistake effect for cause. The rain produces the forest, and not the forest the rain. A forest growth may not of necessity follow an adequate supply of moisture, but the supply of moisture is an indispensable condition of it. The utility of forests, aside from their marketable value, lies in their power not to cause the rainfall, but to regulate its distribution. In this they are of incalculable benefit. When they cover the ground about the sources of great rivers and their tributaries, the porous soil, with its mosses and its accumulations of fallen leaves, acts as a vast sponge to retain and slowly deliver the water that falls from the clouds in the form of rain or snow. When the sheltering trees are destroyed and the ground is laid bare, all the water runs off at once: the brooks that had before flowed continuously and with comparative regularity become roaring torrents in spring and dry channels in summer, while the rivers that depend on these sources of supply swell into freshets at one season and shrink into insignificance at another.

“The production of lumber,” says Professor Sargent, “ is not the only function of forests. They perform other and more important services in protecting the surface of the ground and in regulating and maintaining the flow of rivers. In mountainous regions they are essential to prevent destructive torrents, and mountains cannot be stripped of their forest covering without entailing serious dangers upon the whole community. Such mountain forests exist in the United States. In Northern Vermont and New Hampshire they guard the upper waters of the Connecticut and the Merrimac ; in New York they insure the constant flow of the Hudson. Such forests still cover the upper slopes of the Alleghany Mountains, and diminish the danger of destructive floods in the valleys of the Susquehanna and the Ohio. Forests still cover the upper watersheds of the Missouri and the Columbia, the Platte and the Rio Grande, and preserve the California valleys from burial under the débris of the Sierras. The great mountain forests of the country still exist, often almost in their original condition. Their inaccessibility has preserved them. It cannot preserve them, however, much longer. Inroads have already been made into these forests ; the axe, fire, and the destructive agency of browsing animals are now everywhere invading them. Their destruction does not mean a loss of material alone, which sooner or later can be replaced from other parts of the country ; it means the ruin of great rivers for navigation and irrigation, the destruction of cities located along their banks, and the spoliation of broad areas of the richest agricultural land. These mountain forests once destroyed can only be renewed slowly and at enormous cost, and the dangers, actual and prospective, which threaten them now offer the only real cause for general alarm to be found in the present condition of the forests of the United States. Other forests may be swept away, and the country will experience nothing more serious than a loss of material, which can be produced again if the price of lumber warrants the cultivation of trees as a commercial enterprise ; but if the forests which control the flow of the great rivers of the country perish, the whole community will suffer widespread calamity, which no precautions taken after the mischief has been done can avert or future expenditure prevent.”

The recent destructive floods in the north of Italy, and notably along the river Po, with all the misery they have brought, are ascribed, and no doubt with truth, to the partial denudation of the mountainous country about the sources of streams. The arid and comparatively valueless condition of certain parts of Spain is due to similar causes. It is for us to see, while there is yet time, that similar evils do not fall upon us. That wonderful region of the West known as the Great Divide gives birth to the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Columbia, the Colorado, and the North Fork of the Platte. The preservation of its sheltering forests is of vital interest to all the regions watered by these rivers. The same is true, in a different degree, of the sources of many lesser streams within our national territory. Sometimes, as in the case of the Hudson, the source of the river and its whole course lie within the limits of one State, and the local government is therefore master of the situation. If New York should permit the Adirondack forests to be destroyed, she, and she alone, would be answerable for the consequences. But, in most cases, our great rivers rise in one or more States or Territories, to flow through or by the domain of others on their way to the sea. Here the state authorities are powerless, and, if the remedy is to be applied at all, it must be applied by the federal government. Momentous interests are at stake, and the welfare of the whole nation demands careful consideration of them.

As a powerful aid in directing attention to these needs, no less than in its economic aspects, the thorough, able, and conscientious work of Professor Sargent is a public service of no ordinary kind.

Francis Parkman.