The Industry of Forestry

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images/serdar_yorulmaz

Profit: The Ends Of (and Means to) US Forestry

A Letter to Foresters

An exchange in the Society of American Forester’s (SAF) house publication in 1930 provides a useful entry point. A letter signed by seven SAF foresters, among them Gifford Pinchot, exhorted the profession to support a program of federal regulation of forests and expanded public ownership of forestlands. In the authors’ eyes, only such a program would be sufficient to halt “forest devastation” in the United States.  The journal simultaneously published four dissenting responses to the letter, each of which lays out in no uncertain terms the boundaries and purposes of US forest policy. Rufus C. Hall wrote: “There is enough to do for the cause of forestry . . . without wasting enthusiasm and energy in chasing the rainbow of federal regulation. It is well to face the fact that forestry will be effectively practiced by private owners only when and where forestry will pay them a reasonable return.” Royal S. Kellogg, director of the American Pulp and Paper Association (APPA) and a leading figure in the ranks of organized timber capital, derided the letter as propaganda unfit for discussion within a scientific organization such as the SAF. He proclaimed, “There can be no one solution and no one policy” for “the forest problem.” Rather, “There is and can be progress through study, research, and invention with the results intelligently applied in the light of ascertained economic conditions.”  F. W. Reed, a onetime USFS district ranger who later headed the Forestry Department of the National Lumber Manufacturers Association (NLMA, an umbrella organization of regional lumbermen’s trade associations and the heart of timber capital’s political activity; it later became the National Forest Products Association), argued that “the forester inevitably must look upon forestry as a business proposition, to be practiced with a due regard for financial profit, rather than a public cause to be striven for with something akin to a religious zeal.”

The final letter, by C. Stowell Smith, who also left the USFS to work as a private forester, spun an agricultural analogy. “When conditions change in farming,” Smith argued, “it simply means that the farmer must buckle down and revise his methods to suit what markets are available. If he cannot produce a profit on corn, maybe he can on rabbits . . . I have absolute faith in the forestry profession and its ability to take full advantage of its opportunities. But it, like the farmer, cannot afford to grow corn where rabbits are the profitable product.” While the analogy raises some vexing questions (what are foresters to grow if not trees?), the intended moral is clear: forest policy must serve the profitable production of trees for harvest. Of all the themes that emerged from the twentieth-century debates on forest policy, this one springs out the most clearly. Unpublished responses to the letter, some from foresters within the Forest Service to whom the letter was circulated prior to publication, also reflect how deeply the connection between forestry (and, with it, conservation more broadly) and profit ran in the minds of foresters. To take one example, a letter entitled “A Voice from the Wilderness” (ironic, since it parrots the line of many public foresters and the entire timber industry) argues that “forest construction will take place under dynamic, sane, thorough leadership of foresters who understand business, finance, and economics as well as silviculture and are able to bring profit from the work . . . It is not the duty of the foresters to stop forest devastation. It is our professional privilege to make forest construction profitable.”

Indeed, given the tone of the responses to the letter, one would think its authors were hostile to the idea that forestry should be a paying proposition. Some of them, notably Robert Marshall and Raphael Zon, likely did not think that profit should be the driving force behind forest management. However, among those the letter’s critics were scolding was the progenitor of the idea that forestry must pay: Gifford Pinchot. While Pinchot became a tireless battler for public regulation and ownership of the nation’s forestlands later in life, his shift away from optimism regarding the prospects of sustainable private forestry occurred only after he left the Forest Service. During his tenure as chief of the USFS, Pinchot was determined to adapt what he had learned about European forestry to the political economy of the United States. He argued forcibly that forestry in the United States would never take hold unless it could fit within the confines of an accumulative regime. Timber owners viewed European forestry as uselessly theoretical and unworkable within the different US market and political contexts. The Forest Service thus took it upon itself to make forestry “practical,” which is to say profitable. The struggle to make forestry – as opposed to “cut- and-run” timber harvesting – profitable, and thus attractive to private lumber- men, was the core mission of the fledgling Bureau of Forestry and its later incarnation as the United States Forest Service under Pinchot. His successors as chief of the USFS continued his efforts.

Will It Pay?

Pinchot had laid out his goals for US forestry even prior to taking the helm of the Division of Forestry. Employed at age twenty-six as manager of the forests on George W. Vanderbilt’s massive Biltmore estate, Pinchot wrote in Garden and Forestry that his work there “should do much to remove forestry from the anomalous and often illogical position into which the mistaken zeal of some of its friends have forced it, and to ground its roots in the solid Earth of business common sense . . . [My work] asserts a proposition which must ultimately lie at the base of forest preservation in this country: namely, that it is not necessary to destroy a forest to make it pay.”

Once Pinchot was ensconced in the offices of the Division of Forestry, he wasted little time before attempting to convince private landowners of the profitability of “conservative logging.” In the early years, most of the agency’s time and money were dedicated to servicing private lumbermen’s requests for working forestry plans. Circular 21, issued by the division only three months after Pinchot took office, offered the agency’s expertise to private operators who wanted to implement forestry on their land. For small owners, the Division of Forestry paid all costs. For large ones, the division paid its agents’ salaries, and the owner paid their expenses. J. Girvin Peters, a forest assistant with the division who assessed the program in 1904, described the agency’s terms of cooperation with owners as “extremely generous.” The idea behind the circular, according to Pinchot, was to “get down to the brass tacks of spreading the gospel of practical Forestry by creating practical examples in the woods.” In assessing the impact of Circular 21, which private timber owners both large and small took up to such an extent that it strained the capacity of the tiny agency, Pinchot claimed (somewhat grandiosely): “It wasn’t gilt-edged German Forestry by any means . . . But it did pay, it did stop forest devastation, and it did provide for a second crop.”

The order of priority in Pinchot’s assessment accurately reflects the hierarchy of purpose in US forestry. Conservation as practiced and preached by the Forest Service, far from a movement antagonistic to the management of resources in the service of accumulation, was, as others have pointed out, aimed explicitly at ensuring that management of resources would turn a profit – not just at that time but into the future as well. The parallels with the current discourse of sustain- able development are obvious. Pinchot summed up the singular problem of US forestry on private lands in an address to the National Wholesale Lumber Dealers Association: “It is all based on the primary question, Will it pay?”

President Theodore Roosevelt – heralded as a champion of forestry and conservation – underscored Pinchot’s mission to make forestry profitable in a 1903 speech to the Society of American Foresters, published in Forestry and Irrigation in conjunction with Pinchot’s declaration of faith in the idea of conservation through profit, cited in the previous paragraph. Roosevelt began by drawing a connection between forestry and US wealth: “The primary object of the forest policy, as of the land policy, of the United States is the making of prosperous homes.” By this, Roosevelt meant not the actual construction of homes out of wood but the generation of wealth through capital accumulation. “[Foresters’] attention must be directed not to the preservation of the forests as an end of itself, but as a means for preserving and increasing the prosperity of our nation,” Roosevelt declared. The purpose, then, of scientific forestry in the United States was profit. It turned out that profitability was also the means by which conservation would emerge on private lands. According to Roosevelt, the forests “can be renewed and maintained only by the cooperation of the forester with the lumber-man.” The bottom line, Roosevelt argued, was that “the attitude of the lumber- man toward [foresters’] work will be the chief factor in the success or failure of [that] work.” He demanded that foresters “keep their ideals and yet seek to realize them in practical ways,” sticking to the established code in which “practical” meant profitable and “cooperation” meant (as Pinchot later realized) capitulation to the lumbermen’s will.

Pinchot’s successor, Henry Graves, who returned from his stint as dean of forestry at Yale University to lead the Forest Service after Pinchot was fired by President William Taft, followed his predecessor’s lead in signaling that the agency was there to facilitate, not to regulate, forestry on private lands. In 1915, in a speech advocating the expansion of public ownership of forests (a position many in the industry favored at the time as a measure to reduce the overproduction that plagued the industry), Graves carefully maintained the Forest Service’s position on its role vis-à-vis capital. Treading a careful line between assuring business that the Forest Service was there to facilitate accumulation for the industry as a whole and assuring the public that the USFS was acting as a steward of resources in the public interest, Graves explained:

The cooperation of the public in aiding this industry to a better footing can- not be secured if specific private interests are made dominant and the welfare of the public at large [is] overlooked or subordinated. But cooperation which seeks broader public ends, benefiting the industry to the same degree as it benefits the country at large, will succeed from the beginning . . . The forest service has sought to maintain this constructive attitude toward the lumber industry, looking always to the public interests which the industry must serve.

Cover courtesy of University Press of Colorado

In the USFS’s thinking, however, the public interest turned out to be much in line with the private interest: “It is certainly of benefit to the public to have the important industries of the country prosperous; and there is a definite public loss if they are not.” Forestry, and more generally the conservation of resources, was to be brought about by making reforestation profitable. The science of forestry – which the Forest Service claimed as its arena of expertise – was to be deployed on private lands not in the service of forests but rather to ensure timber’s lasting profitability. Graves’s views on this topic were consistent with those he voiced in The Forester while he was at Yale:

A demonstration of silviculture which . . . makes financial considerations of incidental interest alone does an injustice to forestry, especially at this time when the science is on trial as really practical for business men . . . The measures which the forester as a silviculturalist would like to use are modified by financial considerations. The American forester must devise systems of management which will accomplish the owner’s object and at the same time maintain the productiveness of the forest.

More from Fire Management in the American West:

Reprinted with permission from Fire Management in the American West by Mark Hudson and published by University Press of Colorado, 2011.

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