Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, Part 4

Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, Part 4

This is the fourth part of "Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy," a series of essays tracing the history of the conservation movement in the United States, and its influence on the nation’s ever-shifting forest policy.

The series expands significantly on a half-day lecture Evergreen founder, Jim Petersen, delivered to a graduate-level forestry class at the University of Idaho in February 2017.

The term “felt necessities” is taken from The Common Law, a book of essays assembled in 1881 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which he explains the historic underpinnings of the nation’s legal system. President Theodore Roosevelt thought so much of Holmes’ essays that nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1902.

We hope you enjoy this series and find it informative. Your comments are most welcome. "Felt Necessities" will subsequently be available in book form. Click on the number to be directed to Parts 1-3 of the series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

One of the great questions debated by members of the National Forest Commission in 1896 and 1897 had been whether private timberlands should be regulated along the same lines as the Forest Reserves. Pinchot, among others, thought they should. But during his Forest Service tenure, Greeley, who had been hand-picked by Pinchot, wrote a lengthy report in which he said he favored cooperation with lumberman over regulation.

Pinchot was furious, so angry in fact that he made no mention of his former understudy in his autobiography. Greeley, on the other hand, had high praise for his mentor in his book, which wasn’t so much an autobiography as it was a treatise on the importance of managing forestland for the timber it could produce.

Pinchot was also enraged when Greeley abruptly resigned his Chief’s post in 1928 to become executive vice president of the struggling West Coast Lumbermen’s Association, a Seattle-based organization that represented the interests of lumbermen who had become favored punching bags for Pinchot and the congressional crowd that eschewed cooperation in favor of regulation. In Pinchot’s self-obsessed mind, Greeley’s resignation confirmed his suspicion that his one-time protégé was in bed with lumbermen who were laying waste to the west’s great forests.

Of course, it wasn’t true – at least not in the simplistic way that Pinchot portrayed it. Greed versus conservation was an easy story for the press to tell, but it barely scratched the surface of a more complex set of problems confronting early lumbermen, including market and financial distortions that did not encourage conservation, much less investments in good forestry.

Greeley’s unexpected departure from the Forest Service surprised many of his closest friends, but, in hindsight, I think he sensed the unfinished business of convincing rambunctious and outspoken lumbermen that protecting forests from wildfire was only half the job.

The other, more expensive half rested in replanting their cutover timberland – unthinkable until lumbermen and the federal government had marshalled sufficient equipment, manpower and know-how to run smoke out of the woods,” a popular phrase of the time that described the nation’s determination to stop deadly and wasteful wildfires in their tracks. Thus, was born the “ten o’clock fire,” a Forest Service commitment to try to stamp out every fire spotted from a lookout by 10 o’clock the following morning!

Long before Greeley left the Forest Service, he had recognized and written about the necessity of securing more favorable long-term financing for timberland and lumber manufacturing facilities. During the hell-roaring “cut out and get out era” most lumber wildcatters were tethered to eastern loan sharks who charged usurious interest rates and demanded payment as soon as the timber was harvested.

Lumbermen could easily walk away from cutover land because old growth timber was plentiful and cheap. It wasn’t until they had their backs to the Pacific Ocean that lumbermen in the now more settled West began to accept Greeley’s ideas about replanting cutover timberland rather than simply handing the title to their devastation to counties that could no more afford to replant than could poorly-financed lumbermen.

I think Greeley’s greatest contribution to American forestry – and to securing one of society’s most neglected felt necessities - was the formation of the American Tree Farm System in 1941.  But it would take the eternally patient Greeley thirteen frustrating years to nudge the right stars into the right political alignment. And it never would have happened had not some very farsighted timberland owners and loggers got behind the idea.

But the story of what Greeley and his industry backers did - and how they so flawlessly performed their high wire act - won’t have much in the way of historic perspective until you gain a clear understanding of the cacophony of events that drove American forestry forward following ratification of the Clarke-McNary Act in 1924 - especially the economic and social upheaval that followed Wall Street’s collapse in October of 1929.

The ruinous dawn of the Great Depression quickly destroyed Herbert Hoover’s hopeful presidency, but it also delivered unprecedented public momentum to Franklin Roosevelt’s White House tenure, most notably his daring New Deal initiatives –including the controversial National Industrial Recovery Act - that were the highlight of his first term, and the centerpiece of his unfinished four-term domestic agenda. More on this in a moment.

In 1927, six years after he hung out his shingle in a one-man office in downtown Portland, Oregon, a future forestry legend named David Mason staged his own coming out party in a thought-provoking essay titled Putting the Brakes on Lumber Production. At his own expense, he mailed mimeographed copies to hundreds of lumbermen from coast to coast, many of them men he had met during his years with the U.S. Forest Service and, later, the timber valuation division of the federal Bureau of Internal Revenue. He wanted them to know that if something wasn’t done to close the gap between annual forest growth and harvesting, the nation would run out of harvestable timber in 1969.

By Mason’s calculations, the nation’s annual timber deficit – growth minus harvesting and losses to insects, diseases and wildfire – stood at a jaw dropping 37 billion feet per year. His solution: sustained yield, a management edict that limited annual harvest to no more than annual growth. Easier said than done in a country that relied on wood for so many of its daily necessities: structural building material, railroad ties, paper and packaging material, fencing, utility poles and stove wood for heating and cooking.

Although Mason would have heard about sustained yield’s European roots during his years as a Pinchot protégé, his first practical experience with it came when he inspected a timber tract in New Brunswick. To his astonishment, the tract’s growth rate and the sawmill’s consumption rate were perfectly matched, and had been for 60 years.

But such harmony was not possible in the United States, not with what Mason called “the swarm of small mills” that were run by lumbermen who did not own timberland, and had no intention of buying any so long as they could buy their logs at competitive prices from other public or private sources. Mason’s contempt for them – and theirs for him - set up a conflict that would not be resolved until the 1950s.

But in 1927, Mason’s essay played to considerable applause among landowning lumbermen who shared his view that landless sawmill owners were “a menace” to be eliminated from perennially unprofitable lumber markets as quickly as possible.

What the normally cautious Mason failed to grasp in his determination to win wide support for putting the nation on a timber budget was that his ideas about balancing growth and harvest mattered less to nation’s timber barons than finding a politically attainable way to drive their upstart competitors from perennially unprofitable lumber markets without running afoul of the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

As a former Bureau of Internal Revenue examiner, Mason was privy to the financial records of hundreds of lumber companies.  In most cases, their unprofitability could be traced directly to the selling price of their lumber which, in turn, was a function of overproduction problems that could only be eliminated by constraining log supply long enough to drive the weakest competitors from the marketplace.

Mason reasoned that the best way to do this – while also addressing the over-harvesting problem - was to circumscribe sustained yield tracts composed of private and adjacent federal timberlands. The tracts would need to be large enough to provide a perpetual supply of logs for one, and perhaps two or three mills in common ownership.

To close the deal, the landowning millowner would be granted exclusive cutting rights on the adjacent federal tract, but the federal government would set a harvest level that matched mill production against annual growth. Thus, both overproduction and overcutting would be quelled in a way that starved out the smaller, landless mills.

Lumbermen loved the idea of having exclusive access to neighboring federal timber, but the whole idea of allowing a government they did not trust to set harvest levels on their land was preposterous. But again, there was the powerful lure of having exclusive access to timber they did not own. They could simply buy it from the government when they needed it. Meantime, the swarm of pariahs they detested would be starved out of business.

Mason took the input lumbermen offered in response to his early 1927 mailing, revised his essay and went public with his proposal in an October 1927 Journal of Forestry essay titled “Sustained Yield and American Forest Problems.” He repeated his prediction that the nation would run out of harvestable timber by 1969, even though the 1926 timber inventory from all sources was 1.755 trillion board feet.

Mason was particularly worried about the rapidly rising harvest level west of the Cascades in Oregon, Washington and northern California. By his calculations, the lush region’s 910 billion board foot inventory – by far the largest in the country - would fall to 55 billion feet by 1966, and zero by 1969. He would spend most of 1927 criss-crossing the country in search of support for his sustained yield ideas, but it would be another 10 years before he found a tract of timberland configured in a way that made it possible for him to rigorously test his concept.

By then, the Great Depression was in its eighth merciless year, and President Roosevelt’s hopes for securing federal control over the affairs of the nation’s businessmen had been quashed by the Supreme Court in the landmark Schechter decision. In a unanimous May 27, 1935 ruling, the Justices exonerated the Brooklyn-based chicken processor of eighteen violations of the byzantine “Code of Fair Competition for the Live Poultry Industry of the Metropolitan Area in and Around the City of New York.”

The poultry code, issued in April 1934, was but one of thousands of codes embedded in the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, the Roosevelt Administration’s sweeping attempt to raise rapidly falling industrial materials prices by limiting competition. But the Justices saw NIRA as nothing more than a government-run cartel whose only aim was to gain control of the nation’s businesses and industries.

In a sharp rebuke following the court’s unanimous ruling, Justice Louis Brandeis told Roosevelt aides, “This is the end of this business of centralization, and I want you to go back and tell the President that we are not going to let this government centralize everything.”

“Everything” included the nation’s wealthiest lumber manufacturers, especially those in the West who had purchased or stolen millions of acres of railroad grant lands in western Montana, northern Idaho, Oregon, Washington and northern California. The vast stands of old growth Douglas-fir that they “bought” west of the Cascades and Sierras for pennies per million board feet are widely believed to be the finest timber-growing lands on earth.

Today, people who favor public ownership of forestland argue that the federal government should never have sold the West’s public domain lands to private interests. What must be remembered is that every inch of the West purchased from the French, English and Spanish – or stolen from Indian tribes - was once part of the nation’s public domain.

Moreover, every President from Thomas Jefferson to Dwight Eisenhower – Democrats and Republicans alike - supported the idea of conveying public lands to private ownership. There was no other was to unleash the economic potential held in the millions of square miles of uncharted land that lay west of the Mississippi River. That glorious quest – our nation’s “Manifest Destiny,” complete with its own angelic representation in flowing gold and white robes - was supported by virtually every American and American politician for more than 200 years. Manifest Destiny was the reason President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery west in May of 1804.

Apart from our ever-evolving ideas about what constitutes good conservation, I can’t name a single felt necessity in our country’s history that is of longer duration or greater influence than Manifest Destiny. Even Teddy Roosevelt, a man many call our first “conservation President,” supported westward expansion. What separated him from his less colorful brethren was his frequent use of the bully pulpit to wage war on land speculators and robber barons.

Like Jefferson before him, Roosevelt believed the West’s Public Domain lands ought to be passed to settlers who were willing and able to brave the New Frontier. If you have ever toured Monticello - Jefferson’s magnificent Virginia estate – and I have – you no doubt noticed that many of his ideas about farming have taken root in today’s organic farms, yet another New Frontier in our nation’s long history of land use.

Likewise, the principles of good conservation and good forestry that both Pinchot and Greely preached are alive and well on thousands of family-owned Tree Farms from coast to coast. But all three men – Roosevelt, Pinchot and Greeley - would be flabbergasted by the sorry mess that is so visible in western National Forests they and dozens of Nineteenth Century visionaries fought so hard to create, protect and manage.

As we shall soon see, there are many reasons why this unfolding tragedy has unexpectedly befallen us in our twin pursuits of seemingly conflicting felt necessities.

Part 5, Coming Soon..

Copyright James D. Petersen and the Evergreen Foundation. All rights reserved. No part of this series can be copied in any electronic or written manner without the written permission of Jim Petersen and the non-profit Evergreen Foundation

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