A Forest Policy in Suspense

WHEN a superintendent of one of our city parks causes some misshapen or halfdead tree to be cut down for the benefit of its neighbors, loud voices are raised in protest against what so-called lovers of nature describe as vandalism ; and this untaught and false sentiment has so influenced the guardians of public parks that in nearly every American city the pleasure-grounds of the people are in serious danger of permanent injury from the overcrowding of trees, although as a nation we look with indifference on the annual destruction of uncounted thousands of acres of forests on the public domain by unnecessary fires, the unlawful browsing of sheep, and the reckless ravages of fraudulent cutting. There is nothing new in this, for needless forest destruction has been going on in the West for more than a quarter of a century, and the story which Mr. Muir tells so well in this number of The Atlantic Monthly is not a new one.

Western forests, however, are so remote and difficult of access, being confined for the most part to the slopes of high mountain ranges, that it is hard to make the people of the East understand their importance or realize the dangers which assail them ; and yet the preservation of the forests on the public domain is of incomparably greater importance to the well-being of this nation than the future of the Cuban insurgents, the ownership of Hawaii, or the settlement of the tariff or the currency. A bad tariff and a dangerous currency can be set right in a few weeks, if their defects are fully understood and the country Is in earnest to reform them ; but a forest, whose individual trees often represent the growth of centuries, when once destroyed cannot he restored by an act of Congress, although in the tiny streams flowing along the rootlets of the trees which fires and pilfering log-cutters are now exterminating is the life of western North America; and when these springs have dried up, Western valleys, deprived of the water which is needed for their irrigation, must become wildernesses, and the fertility and beauty of the land will he things of the past.

It was considered, therefore, by students of the rural economy of the Western States and Territories, a hopeful sign when the Honorable Hoke Smith, Secretary of the Interior, in February, 1896, asked the National Academy of Sciences — the highest scientific tribunal in the country, and by its constitution the scientific adviser of the government — an expression of opinion upon the following points : —

(1.) “ Is it desirable and practicable to preserve from fire, and to maintain permanently as forested lands, those portions of the public domain now bearing wood growth for the supply of timber ? ”

(2.) “ How far does the influence of forest upon climate, soil, and water conditions make desirable a policy of forest conservation in regions where the public domain is principally situated ? ”

(3.) “ What specific legislation should be enacted to remedy the evils now confessedly existing ? ”

The president of the National Academy appointed a committee to prepare replies to these questions, and its report, signed by Charles S. Sargent, chairman, Henry L. Abbot. A. Agassiz, William H. Brewer, Arnold Hague, Gifford Pinchot, and Wolcott Gibbs, has recently been published. (Report of the Committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences upon the Inauguration of a Forest Policy for the Forested Lands of the United States, May 1,1897. Washington : Government Printing Office.) Already familiar, by many previous visits and by long studies, with Western forests and the conditions of Western life, the members of the committee further prepared themselves for this labor by a journey of many months through the principal forested regions of the public domain, and their recommendations, therefore, are the result of ripe judgment refreshed by special observations.

By an act of Congress approved March 3, 1891, authority is given to the President of the United States to set apart and reserve parts of the public domain bearing forests as public reservations. Under this act a number of forest reservations had been established by Mr. Harrison and Mr. Cleveland previous to 1896, aggregating 17,500,000 acres, and the committee of the National Academy, during its journey, having become impressed with the importance of increasing the reserved area, recommended the establishment of thirteen additional reservations with a total estimated area of 21,379,840 acres ; some of the reservationshaving been selected for the influence of their forests on the flow of streams important for irrigation, and others for the commercial value of their timber. The recommendations were made effective by Mr. Cleveland on the 22d of last February in a series of proclamations, and the reserved forest land was increased to nearly 40,000,000 acres, exclusive of the national parks. This, the last important act of Mr. Cleveland’s administration, it is needless to say was unpopular with that part of the Western people, always the noisiest, which lives by pasturing sheep or stealing timber on the public domain, and efforts were made, during the final days of the last Congress, to annul the action of the President. The effort failed, but, renewed again under the present administration, it has been successful, and Mr. Cleveland’s forest reservations are suspended until the 1st of March next. This simply means that during the next eight months any one who cares to take the trouble to do so can establish claims in these forests which the government will have to pay an exorbitant price to abolish, if the reservations are ever reëstablished, and that the big mining companies will be able to lay in timber enough, cut on the public domain, and of course not paid for, to last them for several years; and when the 1st of March comes, if there is any valuable timber left in Mr. Cleveland’s reservations, uncut or unclaimed, no great difficulty will be found in suspending the order for another year or two.

All this is bad enough, but it is not the greatest damage Congress has inflicted on the reservations : for an amendment to the Sundry Civil Bill gives authority to the Secretary of the Interior to permit free use of all the reservations, but it does not furnish him with any money or machinery for enforcing such regulations as he may think it necessary to make for this purpose. To those familiar with the present methods of the Interior Department it will be apparent that this authority given to the Secretary will mean that a man with sufficient pull can now legally pasture his sheep in the reservations, or cut timber from them for his own or commercial purposes; and it is evident that, unless some further legislation can be obtained, the practical extermination of the Western forests, so far as their commercial and protective value is concerned, will be a matter of only a comparatively short time.

What this legislation should be, in the opinion of the men who have given the most careful study to the subject, and whose experience and judgment entitle their recommendations to careful consideration, is found in the final pages of Professor Sargent’s report, in which the questions submitted to the National Academy by the Secretary of the Interior are answered. The report finds that it is not only desirable, but essential, to protect the forested lands of the public domain for their influence on the flow of streams, and to supply timber and other products; and that it is practicable to reduce the number and restrict the ravages of forest fires in the Western States and Territories, provided the army of the United States is used for this purpose permanently, or until a body of trained forest rangers is organized for the service. The committee does not believe, however, that it is practicable or possible to protect the forests on the public domain from fire and pillage with the present methods and machinery of the government. Doubting that the precipitation of moisture in any broad and general way is increased by forests, the committee believes that they are necessary to prevent destructive spring floods, and corresponding periods of low water in summer and autumn, when the agriculture of a large part of western North America is dependent on irrigation.

In answer to Mr. Smith’s third question, the committee, mindful of the good results which have followed the employment of soldiers in the Yellowstone National Park, recommends that the Secretary of War, at the request of the Secretary of the Interior, be authorized and directed to make the necessary details of troops to protect the forests, timber, and undergrowth on the forest reservations, and in the national parks not otherwise protected under existing laws, until a permanent forest bureau in the Department of the Interior has been authorized and thoroughly organized. Dully understanding the necessities of actual settlers and miners and the demands of commerce, and realizing that great bodies of forested lands cannot be withdrawn entirely from use without inflicting serious injury upon the community, the committee urges that the Secretary of the Interior shall receive authority to permit, under proper restrictions and the supervision of an organized forest service, farmers, miners, and other settlers to obtain at nominal prices forest supplies from the public domain. It insists, however, that as the whole future of the forests depends upon the character of the officers of the forest service it proposes, in order to secure the highest efficiency in this service, forest officers, specially selected and educated, shall be appointed for life and pensioned on retirement, that the forest service may be as permanent and highly esteemed as the army and navy.

As long as the people of the West, taught by the workings of defective and demoralizing land laws, look upon the public domain as their own property, to plunder and devastate at will, and as long as the Western States allow themselves to be represented in Congress by the attorneys of a few great mining companies, notorious plunderers of public property, there is little hope that such legislation as the gravity of the situation demands can be secured in Congress ; but it cannot be repeated too often that unless there is a radical reform in the management of the forests on the public domain, the prosperity of the whole country west of the one hundredth meridian must gradually diminish with the vanishing forests, and that without active and energetic military control nothing can save these forests from extermination. The National Academy of Sciences, in pointing out the dangers which threaten the West as natural results of the destruction of its forests, and in suggesting simple and economical measures by which these dangers can be averted, has performed a difficult public service of first-rate importance, and the report should be carefully read by every one interested in this country.