Monday, June 4, 2018

Pettigrew Amendment Clarifies Forest Reserves Management [otd 06/04]

Senator Pettigrew. Library of Congress.
On June 4, 1897, President William McKinley signed a "Sundry Civil Appropriations" bill, which included an amendment crucial to the development of our national forests.

The "Pettigrew Amendment" – for South Dakota Senator Richard F. Pettigrew – addressed issues that had rendered previous forest legislation "ineffectual and annoying."

Initially, the Federal government saw the public lands as simply a source of revenue. The General Land Office sold them off to private interests for whatever money they would bring [blog, Feb 1]. Then the Homestead Act of 1862 sparked a crucial change in the handling of the public lands.

Before, even the supposed bargain prices charged by the Land Office barred most people from ownership. An ordinary workman might make only $50-60 a month. Thus, the $200 cost of a quarter section amounted to about four months income. Although living expenses were proportionally smaller, a family might need years to set aside enough savings to buy land.

Under the Homestead Act, fees came to only $18, and that was not even due all at once. The settler had only to “prove” the plot – build some sort of home, and work the land for five years.

Newcomers settled thousands of homesteads within just a few years, and around a million within a half century. So, in that sense, the Act was successful. However, opportunists inflicted much abuse under the law. (A whole story in itself.) Some of that abuse hit forested public lands, which were already under assault. Timber pirates routinely found ways to clear cut forests, take their money, and run.

The Homestead Act allowed them to give a semblance of legality to their depredations. They paid the fees for a whole host of “settlers,” who then filed for homesteads. Besides “improving” their properties, the settlers could work for the timber company for as long as the trees lasted.

With these and their other tactics, big timber companies had razed vast expanses of forest in the East and Midwest. To combat them, in 1891 Congress authorized the President to set aside "forest reserves" encompassing tracts in the public domain [blog, Feb 1]. However, lack of any regulatory guidance or budget made the law "ineffectual" at managing the reserves.
Boise National Forest. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Worse yet, placing those lands legally off-limits for "beneficial use" annoyed locals who depended upon them for their livelihood. As a result, they often connived with lumber companies to circumvent the reserve provisions.

The 1897 law clarified the conditions under which a reserve could be established. Thus, the legislation declared that it was "not the purpose or intent of these provisions" to tie up acreage that was more valuable as farmland or for its mineral resources. Moreover, one specific goal was "to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States."

Thus, the amendment initiated the development of effective methods for managing the nation's forests. A major revision –  The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 – tried to reinforce the multiple-use concept for the national forests. It required that “the public lands be managed in a manner which recognizes the Nation’s need for domestic sources of minerals, food, timber, and fiber from the public lands … ”

However, more recent Federal interpretations have largely ignored that provision. The Forest Service is responsible for over 16 million acres of timber land in Idaho – roughly five time that held by private interests. Until 1995, the two sectors each produced over 650 million board feet of lumber annually.

Since then, however, production on national forest land has fallen drastically: The Forest Service now allows less than 15% the production sustained for over sixty years by private interests. In fact, state timber lands – a bit more than a million acres (7% versus the National Forests) – have out-produced the Federal forests since about 1999.
References: [French], [Hawley]
Philip S. Cook, Jay O’Laughlin, Idaho’s Forest Products Business Sector, Report No. 26, Policy Analysis Group, University of Idaho, Moscow (August 2006).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford University Press, New York (1965).
Harold K. Steen, The U. S. Forest Service: A History, University of Washington Press (1976).
United States Department of the Interior (eds.), The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976: As Amended, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Washington, D.C. (2001).

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