Theodore Roosevelt: The Conservation of Public Lands

Theodore Roosevelt: The Conservation of Public Lands

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      President Roosevelt was a conservationist by nature. An enthusiastic outdoorsman, he also recognized that the industrial transformation of the United States since the Civil War had made coal, timber, and other natural resources vital to the welfare of the country. Thus, he supported the work of federally employed civil engineers and foresters. In a special message to Congress on January 22, 1909 (reprinted here in part), he urged the formation of nationally supervised agencies to conserve natural resources. His proposals included the creation of a Bureau of Mines, as well as the strengthening of the Inland Waterways Commission.

      To the Senate and House of Representatives:

      I transmit herewith a report of the National Conservation Commission, together with the accompanying papers. This report, which is the outgrowth of the Conference of Governors last May, was unanimously approved by the recent joint conference held in this city between the National Conservation Commission and governors of states, state conservation commissions, and conservation committees of great organizations of citizens. It is, therefore, in a peculiar sense, representative of the whole nation and all its parts.

      With the statements and conclusions of this report I heartily concur, and I commend it to the thoughtful consideration both of the Congress and of our people generally. It is one of the most fundamentally important documents ever laid before the American people. It contains the first inventory of its natural resources ever made by any nation. In condensed form it presents a statement of our available capital in material resources, which are the means of progress, and calls attention to the essential conditions upon which the perpetuity, safety, and welfare of this nation now rest and must always continue to rest. It deserves, and should have, the widest possible distribution among the people. . . .

      The National Conservation Commission wisely confined its report to the statement of facts and principles, leaving the Executive to recommend the specific steps to which these facts and principles inevitably lead. Accordingly, I call your attention to some of the larger features of the situation disclosed by the report and to the action thereby clearly demanded for the general good.




      The report says:

      Within recent months it has been recognized and demanded by the people, through many thousand delegates from all states assembled in convention in different sections of the country, that the waterways should and must be improved promptly and effectively as a means of maintaining national prosperity.

      The first requisite for waterway improvement is the control of the waters in such manner as to reduce floods and regulate the regimen of the navigable rivers. The second requisite is development of terminals and connection in such manner as to regulate commerce.

      Accordingly, I urge that the broad plan for the development of our waterways recommended by the Inland Waterways Commission be put in effect without delay. It provides for a comprehensive system of waterway improvement extending to all the uses of the waters and benefits to be derived from their control, including navigation, the development of power, the extension of irrigation, the drainage of swamp and overflow lands, the prevention of soil wash, and the purification of streams for water supply. It proposes to carry out the work by coordinating agencies in the federal departments through the medium of an administrative commission or board acting in cooperation with the states and other organizations and individual citizens.

      The work of waterway development should be undertaken without delay. Meritorious projects in known conformity with the general outlines of any comprehensive plan should proceed at once. The cost of the whole work should be met by direct appropriation, if possible, but, if necessary, by the issue of bonds in small denominations.

      It is especially important that the development of waterpower should be guarded with the utmost care both by the national government and by the states in order to protect the people against the upgrowth of monopoly and to insure to them a fair share in the benefits which will follow the development of this great asset which belongs to the people and should be controlled by them.




      I urge that provision be made for both protection and more rapid development of the national forests. Otherwise, either the increasing use of these forests by the people must be checked or their protection against fire must be dangerously weakened. If we compare the actual fire damage on similar areas on private and national forest lands during the past year, the government fire patrol saved commercial timber worth as much as the total cost of caring for all national forests at the present rate for about ten years.

      I especially commend to the Congress the facts presented by the commission as to the relation between forests and stream flow in its bearing upon the importance of the forest lands in national ownership. Without an understanding of this intimate relation the conservation of both these natural resources must largely fail.

      The time has fully arrived for recognizing in the law the responsibility to the community, the state, and the nation which rests upon the private owners of private lands. The ownership of forest land is a public trust. The man who would so handle his forest as to cause erosion and to injure stream flow must be not only educated but he must be controlled.

      The report of the National Conservation Commission says:

      Forests in private ownership cannot be conserved unless they are protected from fire. We need good fire laws, well-enforced. Fire control is impossible without an adequate force of men whose sole duty is fire patrol during the dangerous season.

      I hold as first among the tasks before the states and the nation in their respective shares in forest conservation the organization of efficient fire patrols and the enactment of good fire laws on the part of the states.

      The report says further:

      Present tax laws prevent reforestation of cut-over land and the perpetuation of existing forests by use. An annual tax upon the land itself, exclusive of the timber, and a tax upon the timber when cut is well-adapted to actual conditions of forest investment and is practicable and certain. It is far better that forest land should pay a moderate tax permanently than that it should pay an excessive revenue temporarily and then cease to yield at all.

      Second only in importance to good fire laws, well-enforced, is the enactment of tax laws which will permit the perpetuation of existing forests by use.




      With our increasing population the time is not far distant when the problem of supplying our people with food will become pressing. The possible additions to our arable area are not great, and it will become necessary to obtain much larger crops from the land, as is now done in more densely settled countries. To do this, we need better farm practice and better strains of wheat, corn, and other crop plants, with a reduction in losses from soil erosion and from insects, animals, and other enemies of agriculture. The United States Department of Agriculture is doing excellent work in these directions and it should be liberally supported.

      The remaining public lands should be classified and the arable lands disposed of to homemakers. In their interest the Timber and Stone Act and the commutation clause of the Homestead Act should be repealed, and the Desert-Land Law should be modified in accordance with the recommendations of the Public Lands Commission.

      The use of the public grazing lands should be regulated in such ways as to improve and conserve their value.

      Rights to the surface of the public land should be separated from rights to forests upon it and to minerals beneath it, and these should be subject to separate disposal.

      The coal, oil, gas, and phosphate rights still remaining with the government should be withdrawn from entry and leased under conditions favorable for economic development.




      The consumption of nearly all of our mineral products is increasing more rapidly than our population. Our mineral waste is about one-sixth of our product, or nearly $1 million for each working day in the year. The loss of structural materials through fire is about another million a day. The loss of life in the mines is appalling. The larger part of these losses of life and property can be avoided.

      Our mineral resources are limited in quantity and cannot be increased or reproduced. With the rapidly increasing rate of consumption, the supply will be exhausted while yet the nation is in its infancy unless better methods are devised or substitutes are found. Further investigation is urgently needed in order to improve methods and to develop and apply substitutes.

      It is of the utmost importance that a Bureau of Mines be established in accordance with the pending bill to reduce the loss of life in mines and the waste of mineral resources, and to investigate the methods and substitutes for prolonging the duration of our mineral supplies. Both the need and the public demand for such a bureau are rapidly becoming more urgent. It should cooperate with the states in supplying data to serve as a basis for state mine regulations. The establishment of this bureau will mean merely the transfer from other bureaus of work which it is agreed should be transferred and slightly enlarged and reorganized for these purposes.




      The joint conference already mentioned adopted two resolutions to which I call your special attention. The first was intended to promote cooperation between the states and the nation upon all of the great questions here discussed. It is as follows:

      Resolved, that a joint committee be appointed by the chairman to consist of six members of state conservation commissions and three members of the National Conservation Commission, whose duty it shall be to prepare and present to the state and national commissions, and through them to the governors and the President, a plan for united action by all organizations concerned with the conservation of natural resources. . . .

      The second resolution of the joint conference to which I refer calls upon the Congress to provide the means for such cooperation. The principle of the community of interest among all our people in the great natural resources runs through the report of the National Conservation Commission and the proceedings of the joint conference. These resources, which form the common basis of our welfare, can be wisely developed, rightly used, and prudently conserved only by the common action of all the people acting through their representatives in state and nation. Hence the fundamental necessity for cooperation. Without it we shall accomplish but little, and that little badly. The resolution follows:

      We also especially urge on the Congress of the United States the high desirability of maintaining a national commission on the conservation of the resources of the country, empowered to cooperate with state commissions to the end that every sovereign commonwealth and every section of the country may attain the high degree of prosperity and the sureness of perpetuity naturally arising in the abundant resources and the vigor, intelligence, and patriotism of our people.

      In this recommendation I most heartily concur, and I urge that an appropriation of at least $50,000 be made to cover the expenses of the National Conservation Commission for necessary rent, assistance, and traveling expenses. This is a very small sum. I know of no other way in which the appropriation of so small a sum would result in so large a benefit to the whole nation.

Source: A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897, vol. 11, James D. Richardson, ed., 1920, pp. 1416-1426.

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