Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/The Lesson of the Forest Fires



VOYAGERS on the upper lakes in August last were involved in clouds of smoke which settled over the waters. These were often so dense as to render navigation dangerous and to occasion frequent collisions. They obscured the sun, which appeared a dull red ball in the sky. This smoke extended as far east as the Atlantic and south to Georgia. The cause was soon apparent: forest fires were raging in the lands about the lakes.

By these fires in lower Michigan property to the extent of thousands of dollars was destroyed; in the Upper Peninsula the burned area is reported at over one thousand square miles.

But these devastations were insignificant compared with those in Wisconsin and Minnesota, in each of which States the losses amount to many millions of dollars. In Wisconsin the areas burned over ranged from fifty to one hundred and forty miles in extent. Individual lumbermen lost in standing pine from ten thousand to five hundred thousand dollars. All this was accompanied with the destruction of entire villages and crops as well as great loss of human life. A witness reports, "The bodies which dot the heated and black expanse give the scene the appearance of a battlefield."

From Minnesota the news is even more appalling. Between Pine City and Carleton, a distance of one hundred and thirty miles, whole towns were swept out of existence. In one alone, Hinckley, at least two hundred people perished. Nineteen villages are wholly or partially destroyed, and many million feet of lumber. It is fairly computed that in this State alone five thousand square miles in area have been thus devastated. Minnesota contains about seventy thousand square miles; supposing two thirds of this area to be timbered land, one may count on the fingers of his two hands how many years of such devastation will deprive this State of every vestige of its timber.

Terrible as has been the destruction from forest fires in 1894, the phenomena to which it has borne witness have been by no means unprecedented in our history during the last half century. I will recall those of a single year only.

The present generation can not have forgotten the year 1871, made memorable by the great fire in Chicago, preceded by forest fires in Wisconsin and Minnesota and followed by similar fires in Michigan. From July to November, a period of five months, the rainfall in the latter State did not exceed six inches, and the entire precipitation of the year was only two thirds the normal amount. Early in October disastrous fires overspread portions of Wisconsin and Minnesota, burning over three thousand miles of territory. On the 8th of October occurred the great fire which consumed a large part of Chicago. On the same night the cities of Holland and Manistee, in Michigan, were laid in ashes, and during the week succeeding came news of devastating fires in other parts of the State. The new county of Huron was almost entirely swept over, and a large part of Sanilac County. Nearly all the villages on the Lake Huron coast were destroyed, and at least five thousand inhabitants left houseless. Houses, fences, crops, timber, all were burned; and many people perished, being unable to escape the rapid march of the flames and smoke. Not less than two thousand square miles of country, wholly or partially timbered, were completely burned over in Michigan during this disastrous year. The Lower Peninsula contains forty-four thousand square miles. If we estimate about one half, or twenty thousand square miles, as timbered, it would require but ten such fires as that of 1871 to sweep the State clean.

Forest fires nearly as disastrous have occurred in other States and other years, but these will suffice for our purpose.

What is the origin of these forest fires? Are they preventable? Upon whom lies the responsibility? These questions open a large field of inquiry and involve the whole subject of our forest system, or want of system, and management good or bad of our woodlands, from the first settlement of the country. This is too large a subject to be treated as it deserves in a single paper, but even a brief consideration may make clear facts of the greatest scientific importance and serve to inculcate a lesson which can not be too strongly enforced.

The extent and magnificence of the forest growth of the United States at the beginning of our existence as a nation surpassed that of any land of equal extent on the globe. In the number of species and the size of its trees, both deciduous and evergreen, it exceeded by five times that of Europe. Such a forest spread almost unbroken from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. An equally dense forest, mostly conifers, and many of a size before unknown, occupied the Pacific slope; while between stretched an almost treeless region comprising nearly half the territory of the United States. What a treasury of wealth belonged to the new nation in its woodlands if properly husbanded! But to its first possessors these were an incumbrance, to be got rid of as speedily as possible, in order that place might be made for another source of national wealth—agriculture.

Since that early period how great has been the change! The forest area, which seemed to its first possessors so vast, and such an obstacle to civilized progress, has in a single century almost disappeared.

Computations have been made, from time to time, by competent persons, including our efficient forestry chief, Prof. Fernow, of the number of cubic feet of wood of all kinds annually used by our people for all purposes. Into these I do not propose to enter. It must suffice to say that the total annual consumption has been variously estimated at from four to eight million acres of woodland. Forest fires are responsible for ten million acres more, or nearly double all other causes combined.

The United States east of the Mississippi contains about five-hundred million acres. Assuming one half to be timbered land, and that ten million acres cover the actual annual consumption and destruction, our woodlands will practically last only another quarter of a century.

A peculiar feature about this excessive depletion of our forests is the wasteful and improvident manner in which it has been accomplished. Nowhere else has such waste been witnessed. Lands have been so cheaply obtained, and their resources have appeared so boundless, that it seems hardly to have occurred that there could be any limit. Not only have no means been resorted to for renewal of the woodlands, but all who have had to do with the forests—whether lumber barons or poor settlers—alike have looked to personal gain, with no regard to the future. Especially has this been the case with lumbermen in the pine districts. A noble pine tree is felled; one, two, or three saw logs are cut off, and the remainder left to litter the woods and to decay. Nor have the unsold Government lands escaped. Universally have these been plundered, as if Uncle Sam had no rights in his forest domain which his family were bound to respect. Nor has it been easy, if possible, to exact justice against plunderers, for juries will seldom convict, and are likely themselves to be particeps criminis. Besides, the law, or at least custom, allows settlers to take whatever timber they need for their buildings and fences, and the question is seldom asked where sawmills in a sparse community obtain their supplies.

Forest fires have accompanied the lumbermen, and it will be observed that the most extensive and disastrous ones have occurred in the pine districts. Nature's records show that before the advent of the white settler fires often swept the prairies and oak openings, and doubtless the peculiar character of these is largely due to this fact. The Indians were hunters, and the needs of the chase were met by the annual burning of the grass, which harbored game while it hindered the chase. Usually the damage to timber thus occasioned was but little, though in the course of years many a fine tree succumbed to repeated attacks. But the Indians never ruthlessly destroyed the woodlands. The white hunter, too, who roamed the woods before they were occupied by the tiller of the soil, left behind him no disastrous traces of' his presence, or, if a conflagration sometimes followed his camp fires, it occurred but seldom, and was never intentional. Both the aboriginal wood-dweller and his venatic successors looked upon the forest as the gift of the Great Spirit, to be reverenced by man as a sign of the bounty of a beneficent Creator, and not to be wantonly desecrated.

The practice of burning the old and dry grass in unoccupied lands, in order that a younger and more tender growth may give pasture to cattle, is still common in some of our States, and its results, though of benefit to a few, are disastrous to the general welfare. In Florida the cattle men have long been omnipotent. They have sway in the Legislature, which enacts laws to suit their wishes, even to the extent of prohibiting towns and villages from passing ordinances to prohibit the running at large of cattle. A considerable portion of the State is thus annually burned over. Nor is it the grass alone that burns, but fire communicates to the pine trees, thousands of which yearly succumb. Meantime fences must be maintained to keep out cattle commoners, only to be often burned in their turn. Worse than all, the humus in the sandy soil is burned out, and the future wealth and resources of the State are destroyed, to privilege a few, whose entire interests are not a thousandth part in value of the ruin they accomplish. At this day and everywhere may be encountered tracts of utterly barren and worthless land, in the midst of comparatively fertile, whose fertility has been thus destroyed. In northern California similar aggressions are committed by the sheep-herders, and the Government reserves have to be protected by the army, acting as patrols.

There is another aspect more important even than the value of the pecuniary loss to the country from the extraordinary and rapid consumption of its forests, and which still more strongly concerns the future of the nation. I refer to the effects of deforestation upon the climate and soils.

Although there is not entire agreement among scientists as to the effect of the removal of forests upon the climate, and especially the rainfall, the following propositions seem to be well established:

1. That the temperature is hotter in summer and colder in winter than when the country was covered with forests. This is a natural result of exposure of the soil to more active radiation and consequent frost.
2. The winds have a more uninterrupted sweep, and so the country is both dried up and refrigerated.
3. The rainfall is either less in amount, or its advantages are to a great degree lost. Forests retain the moisture that falls and do not allow it to go to waste.

4. The humus in the soil, and the soil itself on the hills and slopes, are washed away by the rains, and carried to the lower lands and to the rivers, a large part being lost altogether.

Abundant examples from the Old World might be adduced to fortify this position, and to show how numerous and great have been the changes from fertility to barrenness by the neglect to heed the warnings of Nature, But these are so well known to even the unscientific traveler and reader that I forbear.

Most of us who have lived in America, even a single generation, will recall many facts that warn us how closely we are following the path that has led older countries to ruin. Streams with which we were familiar in childhood have shrunken or dried up. Springs have failed; the hills are bare and desiccated. How different the aspect of the older settled portions from what they appeared to eyes that beheld them less than a century ago! How real this description by Bryant:

"Before these fields were shorn and tilled,
Full to the brim our rivers flowed;
The melody of waters filled
The fresh and boundless wood;
And torrents dashed, and rivulets played,
And fountains spouted in the shade."

Now these woodlands no longer echo the song of the poet, and the melody of waters is exchanged for the rush and roar of the torrent.

Droughts are now the rule rather than the exception. Our pastures dry up and are of little service for several weeks during the year. The more tender fruits can not be successfully grown where abundant crops greeted the days of old. Many of the most hardy trees and shrubs are killed by the depth to which frost penetrates the soil.

So great and so indiscriminate has been and continues to be the destruction of the protecting woods as to create in the statesman and the philanthropist a well-founded alarm lest our country be soon reduced to the condition of those regions of the Old World to which I have alluded.

Let us now inquire, What has been done in this country for the protection and preservation of the forests? In all the chief governments of Europe elaborate systems of forestry have long been established, to the end that the timber should be safe from all unnecessary destruction; that it shall be allowed to grow in situations where experience has proved its importance in the amelioration of climate and the preservation of the sources of river supply, and to secure the timber supply by replanting. In this country the general and State governments have only slowly awakened to the importance of legislative control and the establishment of a forest policy.

The first important forest movement began with the enactment by Congress of the Timber Culture Act of 1873, having reference to the comparatively treeless region west of the Mississippi River. By this act the planting to timber of forty acres of land conferred the title to one hundred and sixty acres of the public domain. Even this law was in advance of real knowledge on the subject of forestry and of other conditions. It failed to produce the expected result, and after a few years was repealed.

The first act of Congress looking toward a definite forest policy, enacted in 1876, required the Commissioner of Agriculture to appoint "some man of approved attainments, with a view of ascertaining the annual amount of consumption, importation, and exportation of timber and other forest products; the probable supply for future wants; the means best adapted to the preservation and renewal of forests; the influence of forests upon climate; the measures successfully applied in various countries, and to report upon the same." In 1878 Mr. Franklin B. Hough made his first report, a volume of six hundred and fifty pages. He alludes to acts of Congress, passed as early as 1817 and 1837, under which reserves were made of such lands as had a growth of live oak and cedar for shipbuilding purposes; and that in 1854 the heads of the several land offices were authorized to investigate the repeated spoliations of public timber, to seize any timber found cut without authority, and to bring the offenders to the attention of the proper officers of the law.

Many of the States had before this taken hold of the subject, so far as to offer premiums for the planting, and in some cases exemption from taxes, especially to encourage the planting of trees along the highways, and also laws for the preventing of forest fires. In some of these States, as in Michigan, forestry as a science is taught in the colleges, though as yet no school of forestry has been established, as is done in every country in Europe, in which the general or local government are owners of woodlands.

State forestry associations have also been formed, Minnesota claiming the first, in 1878. In 1875 a National Forestry Association was formed, which since 1882 has met yearly, in widely separated localities. All these have been instrumental in arousing public interest, in issuing information on forest subjects, and in procuring legislation, especially regarding public reservations.

This movement has resulted in the enactment of a law by Congress permitting the setting aside, by proclamation of the President, of portions of the public lands, in the Western States and Territories, for permanent forest reservations. Previous to 1892 the General Government had made several extensive reservations, as parks, for preserving and opening to pleasure-seekers some of the natural wonders of our land, besides others for military purposes—viz.:

Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, containing 2,888,000 acres.
Yosemite National Park, California, containing 960,000 "
Sequoia National Park, California, containing 100,000 "
General Grant National Park, California, containing 8,000 "
Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, containing 2,529 "
In all 3,953,529 acres.

During the administration of President Harrison several other and large reserves were added to these, so that we now have in all over seventeen million acres.

In the memorial presented to the President by the American Forestry Congress it is declared that the object of such reservations is to increase the sum total of the productiveness of our territory, the lands reserved being those that are unfit for agriculture, but capable, under wise management, of producing a greatly increased amount of forest products annually. Neither bona fide settlement of agricultural land, nor the right of prospecting for and opening mines, are to be interfered with. Demands for wood material are to be satisfied in a large and equitable manner; while it is sought to minimize the destruction by forest fires and wasteful and erroneous methods. The association further declared that such reservations would no tsatisfy the needs of forest protection unless the number is sufficiently large to embrace practically all the remaining public woodlands.

Several of the States have also recognized the importance of setting apart reserves of woodlands. In the great State of New York this sentiment had become so strong by 1872 that a commission was appointed to inquire into the expediency of legislation for vesting in the State the title to the timbered Adirondack region, and converting it into a public park. But public opinion was not sufficiently ripe, and the destruction of timber and absorption by corporations and individuals went on as before. It was not until 1893 that a bill was passed which provides for the acquisition by the State of the control of large districts, in addition to the half million already owned by the State, to be held in forest for the preservation of the sources of the chief rivers; for its future timber supply; for game preservation, and for the free use by the people for health and pleasure. Nearly one million acres have thus far been set aside. How far this legislation if perfected will prove valuable depends upon the wisdom of the management. In its inception there is the highest wisdom.

Notwithstanding the public interest awakened and the laws enacted, both by the General Government and the States, very little has yet been accomplished toward the restriction of waste, the preservation of timber, protection from plunder, or prevention of forest fires.

Senator Dawes, in speaking of the invasion of the public lands, declared that "the ingenuity of the lawmaker has not yet equaled that of the spoliator," And even Mr. Fernow has pronounced, as his private opinion, that the United States has not yet reached the stage in the depletion of its forests when it is possible to carry out a really protective forest policy, and that this will not be accomplished until the country is reduced to the same condition of deforestation that the countries of the Old World had attained before remedial means were adopted. If this be true, we can only sit with folded hands and pray that this consummation may be speedily reached. Others, too, have joined the pessimistic strain, and argued that, "so long as the present conditions continue, the destruction of the forests is inevitable, and any policy of forest preservation is impossible."

I, for one, will not believe that our citizens are so blind to experience, or so indifferent or so powerless in this matter.

It is true that no government can prevent wasteful methods of lumbering so long as timbered lands are held as private property, and virgin forests can be bought at a rate so cheap that careless management will still leave a profit. But governments can control the process on land owned by them, by withholding the land from market, awaiting the time—not far distant—when the timber can be sold under such regulations as will make the most of its resources. If this were done, lumber owners would soon find their interest to lie in more provident methods; and increased values would make them saving of their resources. As to forest fires, since no plea of the public welfare avails to induce lumbermen to burn their débris, or to get rid of it in any way that is not directly repaid, and appeals to patriotism or a regard for the interests of their neighbors are unheeded, the strong arm of the law must be stretched out to compel.

Why this has not been done it is hard to say: common if not statute law gives redress, and holds the owner of land accountable to his neighbor for negligence that endangers him. Is there warrant, either in a court of law or of common sense, that the owner of land may cut his timber and pile up the remnants to dry and become combustible material, with danger to his neighbor's timber or other property in case of fire, without being held accountable to him for the damage? Probaby the legal aspect of the case is not well understood, and the results have been so long submitted to—perhaps because the injured are themselves similarly situated toward others, and therefore can not come into court with clean hands—that sufferers have come to believe that such disasters are unavoidable.

It should be the practice of forestry associations to disseminate wholesome instruction on this head, and to present practicable plans for meeting the difficulties of the situation. Whatever the remedy suggested, it should ever be borne in mind that the owner of forest property, and especially corporations, have purchased for the purpose of converting the timber into money in the cheapest and most rapid manner possible, and that they are, as a rule, indifferent to the future of the region. They must also inculcate the principle that no legislation is effective, unless well-organized machinery is provided for its enforcement.

The mere holding of a man or a railroad liable in damages for such acts of carelessness and indifference as I have mentioned, and for setting fire to woods, is not sufficient. Infraction of the law should be made a criminal offense, punishable by the severest penalties. It should be made the duty of counties and townships to appoint fire wardens, as is provided in Pennsylvania and Maine—paid officials, who should exercise a vigilant watchfulness, and use extra precautions in exceptionally dry seasons. At such times the town should take upon itself the work of clearing away litter and all combustible material that add to the danger of fire. These should be burned or got rid of under constant inspection, at a time when the fire is not likely to spread. In case of a conflagration started, the wardens should be empowered when necessary to summon assistance. In France safety belts of trees not readily burned are planted on each side of the railway track where it passes through a pine forest. Roads, trenches, and cleared spaces are also so constructed as to prove a safeguard; the cost is paid partly by the authorities and partly by the landowners. Heavy penalties are imposed for kindling fires within certain prescribed limits.

Among many suggestions for a forest policy in the older States, that for Pennsylvania commends itself, in a bill now before the Legislature of that State. It provides that the Governor shall appoint a commission of two persons—a competent engineer and a practical botanist—who shall examine and report upon the important watersheds of the State, for the purpose of determining how far the presence or absence of the forest covering may affect the water supply; also the amount of standing timber, and a measure for securing timber supply in the future. The Pennsylvania Forestry Association, in recommending the bill, points out the fact that the vast forests once covering all the head waters of the principal streams are nearly gone; the splendid oak and other timber is almost exhausted; fires destroy two million dollars' worth of timber each year; timber thieves escape unpunished; cattle kill the young growing timber, and no effort is being made to protect and renew the forest growth.

There is not a State in the Union that does not need to adopt similar precautionary measures, and these should be accompanied with some practical plan for management. It would be well for each State to have a single forest commissioner appointed by the Governor, whose duty it should be, in addition to the collecting of such statistics as above, to organize in each county and township a system of fire wardens or patrols; to see that special precautions are taken in cases of unusual peril; to ascertain the causes of fires and who is responsible, and to prepare evidence. He should be a man fully instructed and thoroughly competent, should be well paid, and should be held personally responsible. All officials appointed to such service should be removed as far as possible from political affiliations, should be under civil-service rules, and the position should be permanent during good behavior.

The adoption by the General Government of a national forest policy can not be much longer delayed, although Congress is very slow to act. In the sale of the treeless portions of the public domain the Government may require that a certain portion be planted in trees as soon as the proper conditions, means of irrigation, etc., exist, and that a certain proportion of the timbered land be kept in timber, the title to be dependent upon the stipulated conditions. Whether the United States will eventually come to adopt the methods of administration of the timbered lands in vogue in Europe is a question that time must determine. The country has as yet few persons that have been educated to forestry as a profession, and simple rules must suffice for the present. Both the General and State governments possess, in the right of eminent domain, the power to preserve and condemn where necessary such lands as it shall be decided the public benefit requires to be maintained as forest in perpetuity. Private rights must give way to public utility. The owners of premises which have become a menace must be made to contribute their proper share of the expense of protective measures and forest police.

A forest policy is at last taking form. A bill, introduced by Senator Paddock at the close of the Congress of 1892, provides in the first place for a survey to determine the extent and location of all forest lands, after which the President is to withdraw from sale all such lands, except those found to be more favorable for agriculture than for forest these reserved lands to be transferred to the Department of Agriculture, where a Forestry Bureau exists.

It provides for a Commissioner of Forestry, to be appointed by the President, with consent of the Senate, who shall have control of all the forest reservations and timbered lands, subject to supervision of the Secretary of Agriculture, who shall appoint inspectors as assistants.

Each reservation to have one superintendent, who shall have full charge and control of the reservation for which he is appointed, and be responsible to the central bureau, and have such assistants as may be needed.

Rangers to be appointed by the Commissioner of Forestry to act as police, against trespass and fires, and to supervise the timber operations.

Full details of forest management are specified, into which I shall not here enter.

To create as quickly as possible an efficient protective service, the army may be employed for this purpose, as has already been done in the Yellowstone and California Parks. The system proposes a separate and complete administration, conducted by competent men under expert instruction, and, while the protecting of watersheds is of sufficient importance to warrant expenditure out of Government funds, the service should be made to pay for itself by the sale of surplus forest material.

The suggestion that the army be employed for policing the public forests is an admirable one. It has already done good service in this direction, and it will prove to be a constabulary force in which the country has full confidence. Military training has given the army a thorough organization and an esprit de corps, and it is free from political influence. Officers of the army made the best commissioners in Indian affairs which the country has ever had, and gained for themselves a just reputation for faithfulness, honesty, and courage. They will be equally good custodians of our forest domain. Were our army twice as large as it now is, it would be too small for war, but would find too little employment in time of peace, unless its services are used in civil channels. To supply qualities that are wanting for this particular service a chair of Forestry should be established at West Point, to give such instruction in forestry science as the case requires.

If the reforms here outlined, whether embodied in the Paddock bill or the McRae bill, or commended to our situation by foreign experience, shall be persistently urged by forestry and other associations, and the United States Government, heedful of the danger of neglect or delay, shall respond with promptness and energy and a proper regard for the future of the nation, a forestry policy will be inaugurated which will meet present requirements, and which may be extended and improved to serve all future needs.

Then the lesson of the forest fires will not have been learned in vain.