Chronicles of America 

Reclamation and Conservation

The first message of President Roosevelt to Congress contained these words: "The forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal questions of the United States." At that moment, on December 3, 1901, the impulse was given that was to add to the American vocabulary two new words, "reclamation" and "conservation," that was to create two great constructive movements for the preservation, the increase, and the utilization of natural resources, and that was to establish a new relationship on the part of the Federal Government to the nation's natural wealth.

Reclamation and conservation had this in common: the purpose of both was the intelligent and efficient utilization of the natural resources of the country for the benefit of the people of the country. But they differed in one respect, and with conspicuous practical effects. Reclamation, which meant the spending of public moneys to render fertile and usable arid lands hitherto deemed worthless, trod on no one's toes. It took from no one anything that he had; it interfered with no one's enjoyment of benefits which it was not in the public interest that he should continue to enjoy unchecked. It was therefore popular from the first, and the new policy went through Congress as though on well-oiled wheels. Only six months passed between its first statement in the Presidential message and its enactment into law. Conservation, on the other hand, had to begin by withholding the natural resources from exploitation and extravagant use. It had, first of all, to establish in the national mind the principle that the forests and mines of the nation are not an inexhaustible grab-bag into which whosoever will may thrust greedy and wasteful hands, and by this new understanding to stop the squandering of vast national resources until they could be economically developed and intelligently used. So it was inevitable that conservation should prove unpopular, while reclamation gained an easy popularity, and that those who had been feeding fat off the country's stores of forest and mineral wealth should oppose, with tooth and nail, the very suggestion of conservation. It was on the first Sunday after he reached Washington as President, before he had moved into the White House, that Roosevelt discussed with two men, Gifford Pinchot and F. H. Newell, the twin policies that were to become two of the finest contributions to American progress of the Roosevelt Administrations. Both men were already in the Government service, both were men of broad vision and high constructive ability; with both Roosevelt had already worked when he was Governor of New York. The name of Newell, who became chief engineer of the Reclamation Service, ought to be better known popularly than it is in connection with the wonderful work that has been accomplished in making the desert lands of western America blossom and produce abundantly. The name of Pinchot, by a more fortunate combination of events, has become synonymous in the popular mind with the conservation movement.

On the very day that the first Roosevelt message was read to the Congress, a committee of Western Senators and Congressmen was organized, under the leadership of Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, to prepare a Reclamation Bill. The only obstacle to the prompt enactment of the bill was the undue insistence upon State Rights by certain Congressmen, "who consistently fought for local and private interests as against the interests of the people as a whole." In spite of this shortsighted opposition, the bill became law on June 17, 1902, and the work of reclamation began without an instant's delay. The Reclamation Act set aside the proceeds of the sale of public lands for the purpose of reclaiming the waste areas of the arid West.

Lands otherwise worthless were to be irrigated and in those new regions of agricultural productivity homes were to be established. The money so expended was to be repaid in due course by the settlers on the land and the sums repaid were to be used as a revolving fund for the continuous prosecution of the reclamation work. Nearly five million dollars was made immediately available for the work. Within four years, twenty-six "projects" had been approved by the Secretary of the Interior and work was well under way on practically all of them. They were situated in fourteen States--Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Washington, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, California, South Dakota. The individual projects were intended to irrigate areas of from eight thousand to two hundred thousand acres each; and the grand total of arid lands to which water was thus to be brought by canals, tunnels, aqueducts, and ditches was more than a million and a half acres.

The work had to be carried out under the most difficult and adventurous conditions. The men of the Reclamation Service were in the truest sense pioneers, building great engineering works far from the railroads, where the very problem of living for the great numbers of workers required was no simple one. On the Shoshone in Wyoming these men built the highest dam in the world, 310 feet from base to crest. They pierced a mountain range in Colorado and carried the waters of the Gunnison River nearly six miles to the Uncompahgre Valley through a tunnel in the solid rock. The great Roosevelt dam on the Salt River in Arizona with its gigantic curved wall of masonry 280 feet high, created a lake with a capacity of fifty-six billion cubic feet, and watered in 1915 an area of 750,000 acres.

The work of these bold pioneers was made possible by the fearless backing which they received from the Administration at Washington. The President demanded of them certain definite results and gave them unquestioning support. In Roosevelt's own words, "the men in charge were given to understand that they must get into the water if they would learn to swim; and, furthermore, they learned to know that if they acted honestly, and boldly and fearlessly accepted responsibility, I would stand by them to the limit. In this, as in every other case, in the end the boldness of the action fully justified itself."

The work of reclamation was first prosecuted under the United States Geological Survey; but in the spring of 1908 the United States Reclamation Service was established to carry it on, under the direction of Mr. Newell, to whom the inception of the plan was due. Roosevelt paid a fine and well-deserved tribute to the man who originated and carried through this great national achievement when he said that "Newell's single-minded devotion to this great task, the constructive imagination which enabled him to conceive it, and the executive power and high character through which he and his assistant, Arthur P. Davis, built up a model service--all these made him a model servant. The final proof of his merit is supplied by the character and records of the men who later assailed him."

The assault to which Roosevelt thus refers was the inevitable aftermath of great accomplishment. Reclamation was popular, when it was proposed, while it was being carried out, and when the water began to flow in the ditches, making new lands of fertile abundance for settlers and farmers. But the reaction of unpopularity came the minute the beneficiaries had to begin to pay for the benefits received. Then arose a concerted movement for the repudiation of the obligation of the settlers to repay the Government for what had been spent to reclaim the land. The baser part of human nature always seeks a scapegoat; and it might naturally be expected that the repudiators and their supporters should concentrate their attacks upon the head of the Reclamation Service, to whose outstanding ability and continuous labor they owed that for which they were now unwilling to pay. But no attack, not even the adverse report of an ill-humored congressional committee, can alter the fact of the tremendous service that Newell and his loyal associates in the Reclamation Service did for the nation and the people of the United States. By 1915 reclamation had added to the arable land of the country a million and a quarter acres, of which nearly eight hundred thousand acres were already "under water," and largely under tillage, producing yearly more than eighteen million dollars' worth of crops.

When Roosevelt became President there was a Bureau of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture, but it was a body entrusted with merely the study of forestry problems and principles. It contained all the trained foresters in the employ of the Government; but it had no public forest lands whatever to which the knowledge and skill of these men could be applied. All the forest reserves of that day were in the charge of the Public Land Office in the Department of the Interior. This was managed by clerks who knew nothing of forestry, and most, if not all, of whom had never seen a stick of the timber or an acre of the woodlands for which they were responsible. The mapping and description of the timber lay with the Geological Survey. So the national forests had no foresters and the Government foresters no forests.

It was a characteristic arrangement of the old days. More than that, it was a characteristic expression of the old attitude of thought and action on the part of the American people toward their natural resources. Dazzled and intoxicated by the inexhaustible riches of their bountiful land, they had concerned themselves only with the agreeable task of utilizing and consuming them. To their shortsighted vision there seemed always plenty more beyond. With the beginning of the twentieth century a prophet arose in the land to warn the people that the supply was not inexhaustible. He declared not only that the "plenty more beyond" had an end, but that the end was already in sight. This prophet was Gifford Pinchot. His warning went forth reinforced by all the authority of the Presidential office and all the conviction and driving power of the personality of Roosevelt himself. Pinchot's warning cry was startling:

"The growth of our forests is but one-third of the annual cut; and we have in store timber enough for only twenty or thirty years at our present rate of use . . . . Our coal supplies are so far from being inexhaustible that if the increasing rate of consumption shown by the figures of the last seventy-five years continues to prevail, our supplies of anthracite coal will last but fifty years and of bituminous coal less than two hundred years . . . . Many oil and gas fields, as in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the Mississippi Valley, have already failed, yet vast quantities of gas continue to be poured into the air and great quantities of oil into the streams. Cases are known in which great volumes of oil were systematically burned in order to get rid of it . . . . In 1896, Professor Shaler, than whom no one has spoken with greater authority on this subject, estimated that in the upland regions of the States South of Pennsylvania, three thousand square miles of soil have been destroyed as the result of forest denudation, and that destruction was then proceeding at the rate of one hundred square miles of fertile soil per year . .. . The Mississippi River alone is estimated to transport yearly four hundred million tons of sediment, or about twice the amount of material to be excavated from the Panama Canal. This material is the most fertile portion of the richest fields, transformed from a blessing to a curse by unrestricted erosion . . . . The destruction of forage plants by overgrazing has resulted, in the opinion of men most capable of judging, in reducing the grazing value of the public lands by one-half."

Here, then, was a problem of national significance, and it was one which the President attacked with his usual promptness and vigor. His first message to Congress called for the unification of the care of the forest lands of the public domain in a single body under the Department of Agriculture. He asked that legal authority be granted to the President to transfer to the Department of Agriculture lands for use as forest reserves. He declared that "the forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the shortsighted greed of a few." He supplemented this declaration with an explanation of the meaning and purpose of the forest policy which he urged should be adopted: "Wise forest protection does not mean the withdrawal of forest resources, whether of wood, water, or grass, from contributing their full share to the welfare of the people, but, on the contrary, gives the assurance of larger and more certain supplies. The fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of forests by use. Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend upon them. The preservation of our forests is an imperative business necessity. We have come to see clearly that whatever destroys the forest, except to make way for agriculture, threatens our wellbeing."

Nevertheless it was four years before Congress could be brought to the common-sense policy of administering the forest lands still belonging to the Government. Pinchot and his associates in the Bureau of Forestry spent the interval profitably, however, in investigating and studying the whole problem of national forest resources and in drawing up enlightened and effective plans for their protection and development. Accordingly, when the act transferring the National Forests to the charge of the newly created United States Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture was passed early in 1905, they were ready for the responsibility.

The principles which they had formulated and which they now began to apply had been summed up by Roosevelt in the statement "that the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given the first consideration." Until the establishment of the Forest Service, private rights had almost always been allowed to overbalance public rights in matters that concerned not only the National Forests, but the public lands generally. It was the necessity of having this new principle recognized and adopted that made the way of the newly created Forest Service and of the whole Conservation movement so thorny. Those who had been used to making personal profit from free and unrestricted exploitation of the nation's natural resources would look only with antagonism on a movement which put a consideration of the general welfare first.

The Forest Service nevertheless put these principles immediately into practical application. The National Forests were opened to a regulated use of all their resources. A law was passed throwing open to settlement all land in the National Forests which was found to be chiefly valuable for agriculture. Hitherto all such land had been closed to the settler. Regulations were established and enforced which favored the settler rather than the large stockowner. It was provided that, when conditions required the reduction in the number of head of stock grazed in any National Forest, the vast herds of the wealthy owner should be affected before the few head of the small man, upon which the living of his family depended. The principle which excited the bitterest antagonism of all was the rule that any one, except a bona fide settler on the land, who took public property for private profit should pay for what he got. This was a new and most unpalatable idea to the big stock and sheep raisers, who had been accustomed to graze their animals at will on the richest lands of the public forests, with no one but themselves a penny the better off thereby. But the Attorney-General of the United States declared it legal to make the men who pastured their cattle and sheep in the National Forests pay for this privilege; and in the summer of 1906 such charges were for the first time made and collected. The trained foresters of the service were put in charge of the National Forests. As a result, improvement began to manifest itself in other ways. Within two years the fire prevention work alone had completely justified the new policy of forest regulation. Eighty-six per cent of the fires that did occur in the National Forests were held down to an area of five acres or less. The new service not only made rapid progress in saving the timber, but it began to make money for the nation by selling the timber. In 1905 the sales of timber brought in $60,000; three years later the return was $850,000.

The National Forests were trebled in size during the two Roosevelt Administrations with the result that there were 194,000,000 acres of publicly owned and administered forest lands when Roosevelt went out of office. The inclusion of these lands in the National Forests, where they were safe from the selfish exploitation of greedy private interests, was not accomplished without the bitterest opposition. The wisdom of the serpent sometimes had to be called into play to circumvent the adroit maneuvering of these interests and their servants in Congress. In 1907, for example, Senator Charles W. Fulton of Oregon obtained an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriation Bill forbidding the President to set aside any additional National Forests in six Northwestern States.. But the President and the Forest Service were ready for this bold attempt to deprive the public of some 16,000,000 acres for the benefit of land grabbers and special interests. They knew exactly what lands ought to be set aside in those States. So the President first unostentatiously signed the necessary proclamations to erect those lands into National Forests, and then quietly approved the Agricultural Bill. "The opponents of the Forest Service," said Roosevelt, "turned handsprings in their wrath; and dire were their threats against the Executive; but the threats could not be carried out, and were really only a tribute to the efficiency of our action."

The development of a sound and enlightened forest policy naturally led to the consideration of a similar policy for dealing with the water power of the country which had hitherto gone to waste or was in the hands of private interests. It had been the immemorial custom that the water powers on the navigable streams, on the public domain, and in the National Forests should be given away for nothing, and practically without question, to the first comer. This ancient custom ran right athwart the newly enunciated principle that public property should not pass into private possession without being paid for, and that permanent grants, except for home-making, should not be made. The Forest Service now began to apply this principle to the water powers in the National Forests, granting permission for the development and use of such power for limited periods only and requiring payment for the privilege. This was the beginning of a general water power policy which, in the course of time, commended itself to public approval; but it was long before it ceased to be opposed by the private interests that wanted these rich resources for their own undisputed use.

Out of the forest movement grew the conservation movement in its broader sense. In the fall of 1907 Roosevelt made a trip down the Mississippi River with the definite purpose of drawing general attention to the subject of the development of the national inland waterways. Seven months before, he had established the Inland Waterways Commission and had directed it to "consider the relations of the streams to the use of all the great permanent natural resources and their conservation for the making and maintenance of permanent homes." During the trip a letter was prepared by a group of men interested in the conservation movement and was presented to him, asking him to summon a conference on the conservation of natural resources. At a great meeting held at Memphis, Tennessee, Roosevelt publicly announced his intention of calling such a conference.

In May of the following year the conference was held in the East Room of the White House. There were assembled there the President, the Vice-President, seven Cabinet members, the Supreme Court Justices, the Governors of thirty-four States and representatives of the other twelve, the Governors of all the Territories, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Porto Rico, the President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, representatives of sixty-eight national societies, four special guests, William Jennings Bryan, James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, and John Mitchell, forty-eight general guests, and the members of the Inland Waterways Commission. The object of the conference was stated by the President in these words: "It seems to me time for the country to take account of its natural resources, and to inquire how long they are likely to last. We are prosperous now; we should not forget that it will be just as important to our descendants to be prosperous in their time."

At the conclusion of the conference a declaration prepared by the Governors of Louisiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Utah, and South Carolina, was unanimously adopted. This Magna Charta of the conservation movement declared "that the great natural resources supply the material basis upon which our civilization must continue to depend and upon which the perpetuity of the nation itself rests," that "this material basis is threatened with exhaustion," and that "this conservation of our natural resources is a subject of transcendent importance, which should engage unremittingly the attention of the Nation, the States, and the people in earnest cooperation." It set forth the practical implications of Conservation in these words:

"We agree that the land should be so used that erosion and soil wash shall cease; and that there should be reclamation of arid and semi-arid regions by means of irrigation, and of swamp and overflowed regions by means of drainage; that the waters should be so conserved and used as to promote navigation, to enable the arid regions to be reclaimed by irrigation, and to develop power in the interests of the people; that the forests which regulate our rivers, support our industries, and promote the fertility and productiveness of the soil should be preserved and perpetuated; that the minerals found so abundantly beneath the surface should be so used as to prolong their utility; that the beauty, healthfulness, and habitability of our country should be preserved and increased; that sources of national wealth exist for the benefit of the people, and that monopoly thereof should not be tolerated."

The conference urged the continuation and extension of the forest policies already established; the immediate adoption of a wise, active, and thorough waterway policy for the prompt improvement of the streams, and the conservation of water resources for irrigation, water supply, power, and navigation; and the enactment of laws for the prevention of waste in the mining and extraction of coal, oil, gas, and other minerals with a view to their wise conservation for the use of the people. The declaration closed with the timely adjuration, "Let us conserve the foundations of our prosperity."

As a result of the conference President Roosevelt created the National Conservation Commission, consisting of forty-nine men of prominence, about one-third of whom were engaged in politics, one-third in various industries, and one-third in scientific work. Gifford Pinchot was appointed chairman. The Commission proceeded to make an inventory of the natural resources of the United States. This inventory contains the only authentic statement as to the amounts of the national resources of the country, the degree to which they have already been exhausted, and their probable duration. But with this inventory there came to an end the activity of the Conservation Commission, for Congress not only refused any appropriation for its use but decreed by law that no bureau of the Government should do any work for any commission or similar body appointed by the President, without reference to the question whether such work was appropriate or not for such a bureau to undertake. Inasmuch as the invaluable inventory already made had been almost entirely the work of scientific bureaus of the Government instructed by the President to cooperate with the Commission, the purpose and animus of this legislation were easily apparent. Congress had once more shown its friendship for the special interests and its indifference to the general welfare.

In February, 1909, on the invitation of President Roosevelt, a North American Conservation Conference, attended by representatives of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, was held at the White House. A declaration of principles was drawn up and the suggestion made that all the nations of the world should be invited to meet in a World Conservation Conference. The President forthwith addressed to forty-five nations a letter inviting them to assemble at The Hague for such a conference; but, as he has laconically expressed it, "When I left the White House the project lapsed."