This is the fifth 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 and learn from this series. Your comments or criticisms are most welcome. Felt Necessities will subsequently be available in book form. To read the first part of the series, click here. Part two can be found here, and part three can be found here. To read the previous installment, Part 4, click here.
On September 21, 1932, in the waning days of his first run for the White House, Franklin Roosevelt stood on the steps of the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland, Oregon and laid out his plans for building a series of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.
During his years as New York’s governor, Roosevelt had helped orchestrate a series of publicly-financed and owned hydroelectric projects along the St. Lawrence River, which drained Lake Ontario and formed the border between Quebec and New York State.
The economic horsepower unleashed by the project had been significant, so no one should have been surprised that even before he was elected the nation’s thirty-second President, Roosevelt had concluded that harnessing the Columbia’s enormous water resources was an essential step in electrifying the rural west, and irrigating the vast arid landscape that lay east of the Cascade’s in Oregon and Washington.
Until the late 1940s and early 1950s, many rural homes – including my grandfather’s ranch north of Sandpoint, Idaho – were lit by kerosene lamps. I still have one of them, so I know that, while they were ornate – even beautiful – those old lamps didn’t illuminate much beyond the tables on which they sat.
Roosevelt held populist instincts that were fueled by the Great Depression’s crushing impact on workers who knew nothing of his family’s enormous private wealth, the source of the gilded age life he enjoyed on his grandmother’s estate north of New York City. Well-bred and well connected, Roosevelt learned early in life that private wealth and public funding frequently traveled in the same limousines.
Likewise, the “full faith and credit” of the United States Government meant that it could borrow vast sums of taxpayer-guaranteed money from private markets controlled by the Roosevelt family’s wealthier Hyde Park neighbors: the Astor’s, Vanderbilt’s and Rockefeller’s. Thus, was the monetary genesis – the beginning of the beginning of the New Deal – a government-backed jobs cartel that included the Works Progress Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Collectively, these programs formed a bureaucracy larger, more complex and more expensive than anything the country had ever seen.
But make no mistake: it was Roosevelt who personally guided the country through its pain and tumult with the soothing tones of his voice, heard on a series of 30 “fireside chats” aired nationally on radio between March 12, 1933 and June 12, 1944. The broadcasts, so named by his press secretary, Stephen Early, who explained that the President liked to visualize himself seated at his fireside with a few good friends, explaining the affairs of the country.
Roosevelt clearly understood that his administration’s success in its first anxiety-filed term rested on his ability to deliver his messages to some 60 million Americans without fear of being misquoted by critics who opposed his government-funded New Deal from Day 1. It was vital that he connect – as directly as he possibly could – with the unseen faces of millions of struggling families gathered around their radios from coast to coast
Although he never said so publicly, Roosevelt recognized that the nation could not be any more broke than it already was, but he thought it could build itself out of the Great Depression with a series of massive public works projects. Only time would tell.
Roosevelt had accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency in a July 1932 speech in which he laid out his plans for converting millions of acres of abandoned farmland into timberland. He estimated that the endeavor would employ “a million men,” and could be financed “by the issuance of bonds which are made secure by the fact that the growth of tremendous crops will provide adequate security for the investment.” He further explained that every European nation had had a land policy for generations, but that the U.S. had none, and faced the prospect of a timber famine if one was not soon established by the government.
Whether Roosevelt had seen a copy of David Mason’s 1927 Journal of Forestry essay in which he, too, had predicted a timber famine, isn’t known. What is known is that Roosevelt fancied himself a forester, even though he had no formal training in the profession. In his youth, he had planted thousands of trees at Springwood, his grandmother’s palatial estate on the Hudson River at Hyde Park. He had even hired a Syracuse University forestry professor to help him select the correct tree species – Norway spruce, white cedar and yellow, white and red pine. Years later, he allowed the university’s forestry school to use the 1,200-acre estate as an experimental forest.
Two days after Roosevelt took the oath of office, he called the secretaries of Agriculture, Interior and War into the Oval Office, along with his director of the Bureau of the Budget, the Army’s Judge Advocate General and the Interior Department’s chief lawyer, to advise them that he wanted to put at least a half-million unemployed men to work rehabilitating the nation’s forests, parks and rangelands. By April, the Civilian Conservation Corps was up and running, and by the fall of 1932, 300,000 young men were bivouacked in 1,500 Army-run CCC camps scattered across the nation. In the nine years that the “Tree Army” existed, more than one million young men found employment building 97,000 miles of roads, stringing 89,000 miles of telephone lines and planting more than 1.3 billion trees.
When Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan in December of 1941, hundreds of thousands of them, already schooled in the Army’s regimented approach to work, enlisted in the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps.
After the war, many CCC recruits pursued careers in the U.S. Forest Service, while others went to work logging and milling National Forest timber that eased the nation’s post-war transition from wartime to peacetime footing. Most of the new homes built in the western United States in the 30 years following World War II were constructed from timber harvested from National Forests in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Montana.
Between 1942 and 1945, the nation’s armed forces consumed about 90 billion board feet of timber, most all of it harvested from privately-owned forests in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast. President Roosevelt reluctantly signed off on plans to overcut private lands because there were no other domestic wood sources available. The West’s National Forests were still largely inaccessible, and – following Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor -there was precious little time in which to launch a major National Forest roadbuilding program. That would have to wait until after the war.
Roosevelt’s on again, off again relationship with the country’s private timberland owners got off to a shaky start when the President signed his National Industrial Recovery Act into law in June of 1933. Although it was the centerpiece of his New Deal with Americans whose lives had been crushed by the onset of the Great Depression, businessmen from coast to coast were not happy about the regulatory powers Roosevelt had appropriated for himself. There were somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 NIRA directives and 3,000 administrative orders detailed in 10,000 pages of regulation. No businessman – large or small – had time to read it, yet they were all required to abide by its edicts.
Fortunately for lumbermen, former Forest Service Chief, Bill Greeley, had anticipated the President’s next move three weeks before he signed NIRA. Greeley, who had taken the helm of the beleaguered West Coast Lumbermen’s Association in 1928, boarded a Chicago-bound Great Northern passenger train in May of 1933 in the company of several of his most influential members. Enroute, they drafted voluntary regulations limiting lumber production and establishing new fire prevention measures designed to reduce the risk of logging-caused wildfires. Greeley’s hope was that his preemptive strike, which included wording obligating timberland owners to new reforestation standards, would also provide legal cover for rules he believed to be a direct violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
Greeley’s reading of Roosevelt’s abiding interest in forestry was right on target. The President loved the draft regulations, which became Article X of a 10-part code prescribing regulations dealing with wages, prices and limits on lumber production.
“In the final session at the White House the President beamed his approval and urged the lumber delegates to adopt the ‘top lopping’ of slashings, which had greatly aided fire control in the Adirondacks,” Greeley wrote in his autobiography. “We left the Capitol with shiny new halos on our heads.” How Roosevelt knew about “tree lopping” is anyone’s guess, but the fact that his grandmother’s estate was within a short drive of the Adirondacks probably contributed to his knowledge of the practice.
Greeley was the son and grandson of New England Presbyterian ministers, so he was on firm footing when he later recalled that the White House meeting had reminded him “a bit of the baptism of armies of Franks and Gauls in the Middle Ages by the simple rite of wading through the river.” Greeley and his lumbermen disciples had waded into the deepest part of the nation’s swift-moving political river.
David Mason would soon be named to head the Lumber Code Authority, a NIRA bureaucracy charged with overseeing compliance with Article X, officially titled “Conservation and Sustained Production of Forest Resources.” Before him lay 38,000 companies that employed 450,000 workers. If it looked like an impossible task in the making, it was because it was.
In October of 1933, Roosevelt’s Justice Department filed suit against an aging Alabama lumberman named William Belcher, charging him with violating 61 provisions of the Lumber Code. Belcher readily admitted his guilt, but he argued that the code’s regulations covering hourly pay and weekly hours worked were unconstitutional. Federal Judge William Grubb agreed with Belcher. Government-mandated wage rates were unconstitutional.
Freed of the risks associated with having to prove Belcher’s guilt, the Roosevelt Justice Department confidently went to work on a Supreme Court appeal that would test NIRA’s presumed constitutionality. But Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard Law professor that Roosevelt had nominated to the High Court in 1939, advised the President against appealing Belcher until NIRA had “a solid background of achievement.”
Roosevelt, a lawyer himself, quietly agreed. Mason was aghast. The President had, in effect, nullified the Lumber Code. A year later, the Supreme Court would unanimously strike down NIRA in its landmark Schechter ruling.
Undaunted, Mason pleaded with lumbermen to voluntarily abide by Article X’s provisions, and Greeley reminded his members that the code they had voluntarily drafted enroute to Chicago in 1933 had helped improve their tenuous relationship with the Roosevelt Administration. Eventually, most of Greeley’s members reluctantly agreed to follow hisadvice. Article X would later form the basis for the first forest practices acts ratified by the Oregon and Washington legislatures in the early 1940s.
Before Mason was appointed to head the Lumber Code Authority, he had been Secretary-Manager of the Portland-based Western Pine Association. He returned to his post following the May 1935 Schechter ruling, but he submitted his resignation in December of that year, not because he was dissatisfied with his job but because he wanted to devote his energies to finding a way – and a place – to test his ideas about sustained yield forestry. NIRA and Article X might be dead, but the need to balance growth and harvest in the nation’s forests was as great as it had ever been, and Mason was obsessed figuring out how to do it.
Mason found the timberland tract he had long sought in his own western Oregon back yard, a 2.3 million-acre political albatross that had bedeviled Congress since 1915. The fabled O&C Railroad lands spanned 18 western Oregon counties and held between 40 and 50 billion board feet of old-growth Douglas-fir. It had been part of an 1866 land grant to the O&C Railroad, approved by Ulysses Grant in the first year of his presidency,
The goal had been to connect western Oregon’s vast timber resources with flourishing San Francisco markets that sprang to life following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849. Three railroad ventures would subsequently go broke trying to find a route through the rugged Siskiyou Mountains before the deep-pocketed Southern Pacific Railroad finished the job in 1887. Congress had permitted the three railroads – and SP – to sell land along either side of the tracks to “actual settlers” in 160-acre parcels for $2.50 per acre. Hence, the checkerboard ownership pattern of the O&C tract.
Government auditors subsequently discovered that SPRR and the bankrupt O&C railroads had been selling parcels to unscrupulous land speculators masquerading as homesteaders for substantially more than $2.50 per acre to help recover larger than anticipated engineering and construction costs, most notably costs associated with crossing the torturous Siskiyou’s. Two nasty court battles ensued before the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter in August of 1915, returning 2.3 million of the original 3.7 million-acre grant to the public domain.
It would be another 22 years before Congress found the will – and a sure-fire way – to make peace with western Oregon counties that held O&C lands within their borders that contributed nothing of economic value to local economies. The solution was the still controversial O&C Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on August 28, 1937.