[Reprinted from the Single Tax Review,
The policy of the Federal and State governments with reference to
forest lands is of fundamental importance, not only to agriculture,
but to all other industries. According to the Conservation
Commission's estimate, one-third of the present area of the United
States was covered with forests when settlement began. One-fourth is
so covered today. Until a comparatively recent date, the only "policy"
pursued with regard to the forests has been that of destruction. This
has been carried on to such an extent that the effect upon
water-courses has become very appreciable in many localities.
The Act of Congress of June 3, 1878, put a specified price upon
public timber lands, and in 1891, the establishment of the first
reservation was begun. By 1909 these reservations comprised nearly two
hundred million acres. On about twenty per cent. of government forest
lands forestry is practiced. It is practiced on less than one per
cent. of private forest lands, and these contain four-fifths of all
the standing timber in the country.
The amount of standing timber converted into lumber every year is
more than three times the amount added by growth - forty cubic feet
worked up for every twelve cubic feet grown. Our annual per capita
consumption is two hundred and sixty cubic feet, while that of Germany
is only thirty-seven, and that of France only twenty-five. In
addition, there are enormous losses every year by forest fires. At the
present rate of consumption and destruction, the end will be reached
It is impossible, however, that in the next half century we may check
and even reverse the present tendency; wood has been so abundant and
cheap that it has been used far more extensively for building in this
country than anywhere else in the world. In many places where wooden
buildings should not be permitted, wood is still used, even in
considerable centres of population, a fact which accounts for the
larger part of our enormous consumption of lumber.
Our losses by fire, outside of forest fires, aggregate two hundred
million dollars per annum. They exceed the losses by fire of any six
foreign countries. We spend upon fire departments and other means of
prevention four hundred millions per annum-owing to our carelessness.
Outside of limited city areas, the insurance companies are the sole
censors of construction. In the scramble for a big volume of business
they take indefensible risks, making up their losses by excessive
rates on normal risks. Rates are far higher here than in any foreign
country. Out of between eleven and twelve million buildings in the
country in 1909, less than ten thousand were even nominally fire
proof.* Were not our fire departments the most efficient in the world,
our losses would be much greater.
What is the remedy for this enormous waste? Obviously nothing that
comes under the head of conservation or reclamation. The remedy is in
more substantial construction. Not only the fire insurance companies
should insist upon this, but wherever the concentration of population
warrants, municipalities should make it compulsory.
But more substantial construction means not only material increase of
cost, but material increase of the annual taxes imposed upon those who
build. The great obstacle to reform in this matter is not lack of
conservation, but that we fine people, not once, as for an ordinary
misdemeanor, but year after year for making improvements on land.
When this country began to be settled, and for a long time
afterwards, the main object of deforestation was of course, to clear
the land for cultivation. Only a tithe of the felled "lumber"
was needed for timber or fuel. The remainder was an incumbrance, to be
burnt or left to rot.
But when lumber became more valuable, and especially when invention
began to multiply the uses of forest products, deforestation increased
tenfold; the marketing of these products, not the cultivation of the
land, being its main object.
The history of the old world abounds with illustrations of what these
ravages will mean if they continue unchecked. Asia Minor, once a
heavily timbered region, and as the ruins of its cities abundantly
prove, sustaining ten times its present population, has its lesson for
us. So have Greece and Sicily; Germany, France and all the other
European countries have read that lesson and have made belated but
fairly successful attempts to profit by it. Germany, whose per capita
consumption of lumber is only one-seventh of ours, has put forth
.strenuous efforts to establish equality between consumption and
production. She has expended immense sums upon new forests, and prior
to the outbreak of the war of 1914, it was said that in a few years
she would be able to arrest their depletion.
At the conference of the governors, which was also attended by
representatives of many scientific bodies, it appeared to be the
consensus of opinion that forestry is the most important work of
conservation; that upon its success depends not only the success of
irrigation, but the future utilization of much of our water power, and
even the navigability of many of our streams, to say nothing of the
continued natural fertility of wide areas now under cultivation.
Merely to preserve for actual settlers what is left of the public
domain would not abate the present evil results of past land grabbing.
But there is no reason why the community should not begin whenever it
sees fit to take all the ground rent that it needs. To continue
private appropriation is to make those who own the land the special
beneficiaries of conservation, as they have been of all other
successful public administration.
Intelligent conservation can preserve our forests; it can even
restore them, as far as may be necessary. Intelligent conservation can
make the most of our mineral resources.
If it is necessary to preserve forests in order to protect the water
supply, the proper way is to make forest reserves or parks of the
timber lands, as has been done in the Adirondacks and in the
Yellowstone. So also if the coal is to be kept for our descendants,
the State should refuse to part with the mines or perhaps take them
over, rather than try to accomplish the same objects by the indirect
method of laying or remitting taxes.
Taxes should be laid so "as least to check the increase of the
general wealth," but the proper use of taxation is not
encouragement or regulation of avocations, nor is it prohibition.
It may be very desirable to have a cotton mill in a southern State
and very undesirable to have a bone factory, but it would be an abuse
of the taxing power to exempt the land of one and to double the tax
upon the other. The evils of using taxation as a mere check upon that
which seems undesirable is shown in the unhappy effect of raising
revenues from liquor which, as in Russia, led to encouraging, for the
sake of revenue, the traffic which the tax was intended to restrain.
If a thing is wrong the State may prohibit it; if it is undesirable
it may limit it, but to tax it is to go into partnership with the
Students of conservation seem to agree that as a deterrent to
reforesting, taxation is insignificant compared to the fire risk,
which is perhaps the reason that so far there has been little
discussion of it based upon any principle. In general, however,
economists are agreed that it is unwise to tax growing timber annually
during the many years it is reaching maturity.
It seems clear that there should be a tax upon the value of land
suitable for timber growth just as upon any other land that offers an
opportunity for the employment of labor, but that the timber itself
should be exempt. We refrain from taxing growing crops lest we
discourage their production; we should refrain from taxing growing
timber for the same reason. Winter wheat requires seven months for a
crop, ginseng takes seven years, some timber takes nearer seventy
years, but they are all crops. Virgin forest timber is only a natural
crop, just like prairie grass. It would be unwise to exempt from taxes
the land that produces one or the other.
The same principle of taxing the natural opportunity afforded by
ownership of land should be applied to mines. The taxation of mineral
land, however, is complicated because it is often impossible to
ascertain the extent of the deposit, consequently the value is merely
a guess. For practical purposes a tax sufficiently heavy should be
imposed on the ascertainable value to discourage the owner from
holding the land out of use; and further a royalty on the net income
from the product as it is brought above the ground seems justifiable
in order to compensate the community for the exhaustion of the mine.
Imaginary fears are more real than actual dangers. No terrors are so
dreadful as those conjured up in the imagination, mere bugaboos with
no foundation in fact. We are always conjuring up such terrors to
In this way we have for centuries if not for aeons, been scaring
ourselves with the notion that the food supply of the world must soon
be exhausted. Learned "scientists" have prepared tables to
show how soon our coal, timber and minerals must run out; how the
earth could not continue to bring forth enough for the sustenance of
the race because people multiply too rapidly; and as the crowning
terror of all, they have held out to us the assurance that at the end
of a few thousand years the sun's heat would be exhausted and
We have felt ourselves on the brink of extinction, and have wept and
paled before the awfulness of it.
We have talked of the failure of the food supply and the danger of
overpopulation, and have suggested various remedies.
We have evaded the dangers and responsibilities of rearing families
on the ground that there are already more mouths than can be fed.
Having reduced the family to the vanishing point - race suicide, as it
is called - we pride ourselves upon the superior mental and moral
development which has led to this.
But all the time it is simply the outgrowth of the unreasoning terror
of the child and the bogey man.
When we look about and weigh conditions we find little cause for
terror. Notwithstanding the hideous poverty and man-made famines which
we see and even look for, there never was a time when anything like so
many persons in the world were well fed and safely housed, and we are
no nearer want from failure of food supply today than ever.
Indeed, we seem further from it, for we have now a new science that
puts the failure of supply into the far distant future, so that we may
reasonably expect the earth to sustain humanity for countless ages
We are only beginning to discover the productive possibilities of the
earth. A yard may produce as much as half an acre once yielded, and no
one has yet found the limit.
It isn't necessary that we should find it, for pressure is not yet
great enough to demand that we wring the last farthing's worth from
the beautiful earth. We have learned what Denmark and France can do,
and the products raised on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey prove
that one of our big States like New York or Texas could raise all the
foodstuffs needed for all the people of this country.
Many experiments had to be made by many different people on small
patches of land before this was accepted. But once having established
the truth of this, having once shown that the earth is ready and
willing to yield big returns to those who work it, we have only begun
The next question is, "Why should there be so much poverty and
suffering; why should children cry for bread in this great country?"
There is but one answer - "because people do not have access to
the land." If they had, and knew what could be done with even a
small piece of it, they would never again have to listen to the cry of
The new movement to bring people and- land closer together is doing a
great deal toward decreasing poverty and increasing the food supply.
Its plan is to get the people onto the land near the cities where they
work and live, that they may go on with their work while learning to
grow their food, until they know enough to get all of their living
from the land.
* Samuel Hopkins Adams in Everybody's Magazine, January,