07 September 2011

Conservation Ethos

My Pacific Northwest history class watched Clearcut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon (2005) last night. This film never fails to generate enthusiastic and contentious discussion. The film is ostensibly about timber, the decline of the prosperous timber industry, and community dissension that resulted from the spotted owl controversy. But, the film hones in on community controversies in the early 2000s that are as much about dress code, religious values, gay awareness groups, body piercings, and a real estate exchange that resulted in litigation.

That film was part of the entry point for tonight's lecture and discussion concerning the construction of the Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railways in the late nineteenth century, the land grants given to the Northern Pacific to facilitate construction, the sale of many of these lands by Jim Hill to George Weyerhaeuser, and the advocacy of environmentalists Derrick Jensen and George Draffan in Railroads and Clearcuts: Legacy of Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific Land Grant (1995). I bought Jensen and Draffan's book in Republic, Washington in 2001, emailed Draffan to receive additional supporting materials a week or so later, and have been developing a critical narrative response to this text ever since.

Jensen's and Draffan's contention that the excessive land grants claimed by the Northern Pacific in the late nineteenth century were a breach of the public trust is hard to contest. Nor is it easy to set aside their claim that such land grant claims were unlawful abuses of a law that had expired. However, their contention that Congress can and should restore these lands to the public domain is more difficult to swallow. In any case, it is the job of a historian studying such texts of environmental advocacy to investigate the historic claims.

A central claim of this text, other papers by Draffan, Jensen, and others writing for Endgame Research and similar groups, and of critics of the timber industry generally is that the timber companies have irresponsibly over-harvested our national forests, and private forests.

In assessing these claims, as well as historicizing the spotted owl controversy of the early late 1980s and early 1990s, it seems necessary to understand some of the history of notions of forest conservation. Such an inquiry led me to reading the early chapters of John Ise, The United States Forest Policy (1920). This text reviews federal and state legislation affecting forests from the beginnings of English colonization of New England to the time of writing in the early twentieth century.

A Lesson in Sourcing

Ise offers a remarkable passage attributed to Richard Upton Piper, The Trees of America (1855):
When Canada has exhausted her supply, which she must at some time do, where are we to go? In our enjoyment of the present we are apt to forget that we cannot without sin neglect to provide for those who are to come after us. It is a common observation that our summers are becoming dryer and our streams smaller, and this is due to forest destruction, which makes our summers dryer and our winters colder.
Ise, United States Forest Policy, 28
That over-harvesting might have been an issue in the mid-nineteenth century is less surprising than Piper's anticipation of the science of climate change. Naturally, I went looking for this passage in Piper's book. The absence of a footnote and page number in Ise did not facilitate my quest. Even so, I can confidently assert that the quote is spurious. All of the words appear in Piper's book, but in four paragraphs spread across three pages. The punctuation has been altered in the third sentence, and the words are not Piper's, but are words he quoted from some letters of William C. Bryant (the poet). Ise crystallized Bryant's comments into a briefer statement.

"When Canada has exhausted her supply, which she must at some time do, where are we to go?" appears after (8) "In our enjoyment of the present we are apt to forget that we cannot without sin neglect to provide for those who are to come after us" (6).

The third sentence derives from a longer passage:
"It is a common observation," says this correspondent [Bryant], "that our summers are becoming dryer, and our streams smaller. Take the Cuyahoga as an illustration. Fifty years ago large barges loaded with goods went up and down that river, and one of the vessels engaged in the battle of Lake Erie, in which the gallant Perry was victorious, was built at Old Portage, six miles north of Albion, and floated down the lake. Now, in an ordinary stage of the water, a canoe or skiff can hardly pass down the stream.

"Many a boat of fifty tons burden has been built and loaded on the Tuscarawas, at New Portage, and sailed to New Orleans without breaking bulk. Now the river hardly affords a supply of water at New Portage for the canal. The same may be said of other streams — they are drying up. And from the same cause — the destruction of our forests — our summers are growing dryer, and our winters colder." Or perhaps it should be stated, the seasons are becoming subject to greater extremes of heat and cold — of dryness and moisture. Humbolt says, "The clearing of a country of trees has the effect of raising the mean annual temperature; but at the same time greater extremes of heat and cold are introduced." These very extremes are the great sources of mischief to vegetation, and also to the health of man and animals.
Piper, The Trees of America, 51 (emphasis added)
Piper's science, or Bryant's, may differ from science in our day, but both a conservation ethos focused upon the affects of deforestation and incipient concerns about global temperatures were present in the mid-nineteenth century. Piper's book was published the same year that Isaac I. Stevens, who had led previously the Pacific Railroad Expedition to survey a northern route for a rail line, conducted treaties with the Makah, Nez Perce, Yakama, and other tribes.

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