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Chapter 6 - Ruinous Mismanagement of Stolen Property

SOME idea of the waste and destruction of the forests of the U. S. can be gained from the following extracts from the report by the Forest Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, June 1, 1920, entitled "Timber Depletion, Lumber Prices, Lumber Exports, and Concentration of Timber Ownership."

"The outstanding facts reported by the Forest Service are:

  • (1) That three-fifths of the original timber of the United States is gone and that we are using timber four times as fast as we are growing it. The forests remaining are so localized as greatly to reduce their national utility. The bulk of the population and manufacturing industries of the U. S. are dependent upon distant supplies of timber, as the result of the depletion of the principal forest areas east of the Great Plains.
  • (2) That the depletion of timber is not the sole cause of the recent high prices of forest products, but is an important contributing cause whose effects will increase steadily as depletion continues.
  • (3) That the fundamental problem is to increase the production of timber by stopping forest devastation.

"The virgin forests of the United States covered 822 million acres. They are now shrunk to one-sixth of that area. All classes of forest land, including culled, burned, and cut over areas, now aggregate 463 million acres, or a little more than one-half of our original forests. Of the forest land remaining and not utilized for farming or any other purpose, approximately 81 million acres have been so severely cut and burned as to become an unproductive waste. This area is equivalent to the combined forests of Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. Upon an enormous additional area the growth of timber is so small in amount or of such inferior character that its economic value is negligible.

"The merchantable new timber remaining in the United States is estimated roughly at 2,215 billion board feet, something less than three-fourths of which is virgin stumpage. The rest is second growth of relatively inferior quality. About one-half of the timber left is in the three Pacific Coast states, and over 61 per cent is west of the Great Plains. A little over one-fifth of the timber left in the country, or 460 billion board feet, is hardwoods.

"There is now consumed or destroyed annually in the United States 56 billion board feet of material of saw timber size. The total yearly consumption of all classes of timber is about 26 billion cubic feet. Our depleted forests are growing less than one-fourth of this amount. The United States is not only cutting heavily into its remaining virgin forests every year, but is also using up the smaller material upon which our future supply of saw timber depends, much more rapidly than it is being replaced.

"The two striking effects of timber depletion already apparent are:

  • (1) The injury to large groups of wood users and to many communities, resulting from the exhaustion of the nearby forest regions from which they were formerly supplied, and
  • (2) The shortage of timber products of high quality.

"Less than 5 per cent of the virgin forests of New England remain, and the total stand of saw timber in these States is not more than one-eighth of the original stand. New York, once the leading State in lumber production, now manufactures only 30 board feet per capita yearly, although the requirements of its own population are close to 300 board feet per capita. The present cut of lumber in Pennsylvania is less than the amount consumed in the Pittsburgh district alone. The original pine forests of the Lake States, estimated at 350 billion feet, are now reduced to less than 8 billion feet, and their yearly cut of timber is less than one-eighth of what it used to be. These four densely populated regions, containing themselves very large areas of forest land, are now largely dependent upon timber grown and manufactured elsewhere, and are becoming increasingly dependent upon timber which must be shipped the width of the continent.

"The bulk of the building, lumber and structural timbers used in the Eastern and Central States during the last 15 years was grown in the pine forests of the South. The virgin pine forests of the South Atlantic and Gulf States have been reduced from about 650 billion board feet to about 139 billion feet. The production of yellow pine lumber is now falling off and within ten years will probably not exceed the requirements of the Southern States themselves.

"The United States at one time contained the most extensive temperate zone hardwood forests in the world. One region after another has been cut out. The production of hardwood products of the past scale cannot be long continued. The scarcity of high-grade oak, poplar, ash, hickory, walnut and other standard woods is now placing many American industries in a critical condition.

"The depletion of forest resources is not confined to saw timber. Since 1900, the country has ceased being self-supporting in newsprint paper and now imports two-thirds of the pulp, pulpwood and newsprint which we require. This condition is due in part to timber depletion, in part to failure of the paper industry to expand in our western forest regions as the lumber industry has expanded. In 1919, the production of turpentine and rosin had fallen off 50 per cent. Within ten years the United States will lose its commanding position in the world's market for those products and may in time be unable to supply its domestic requirements.

. . . "In March, 1920, average mill prices in the South and West had increased 300 per cent and more over the prices received in 1914, and average retail prices in the Middle West showed increases ranging from 150 to 200 per cent.

"Obviously these lumber prices bear no relation to the cost of production and distribution. While the costs of production in the lumber industry have at least doubled as compared with 1916, lumber prices have much more than doubled and have become wholly disproportionate to operating costs. Excessive profits have been made in the industry. The division of these profits between manufacture and distribution has varied in accordance with circumstances and the ability of the various elements in the industry to dominate the situation.

"In 1918, our per capita consumption of lumber was about 300 board feet. The homes and industries of the United States require at least 35 billion feet of lumber yearly, aside from enormous quantities of paper and other products of the forests. A reduction of the current supply of lumber below this figure could seriously curtail our economic development. Appreciable increases in lumber imports are not possible except at excessive prices. We cannot afford to cut our per capita use of lumber to one-half or one-third the present amount-to the level of European countries where lumber is an imported luxury. We must produce the great bulk of this timber which we need ourselves, and we have the resources for doing so.

"The solution of the problem presented by forest depletion in the United States is a national policy of reforestation.... Depletion has not resulted from the use of forests but from their devastation, from our failure while drawing upon our reservoirs of virgin timber to also use our timber-growing land. If our enormous areas of forest-growing land, now idle or largely idle, which are not required for any other economic use, can be restored to timber growth, a future supply of forest products adequate in the main to the needs of the country will be assured.

"There were 27,000 recorded forest fires in 1919, burning a total of 8 1/4 million acres. During the preceding year, 25,000 fires burned over 10 1/2 million acres of forest land. An additional large acreage was burned each year, of which no record could be obtained."

According to estimates published in "American Forestry," Sept. 1920: "The bulk of the original supplies of yellow pine in the South will be gone in ten years, and within seven years 3,000 manufacturing plants will go out of business."

The following is from an article by Franklin H. Smith, Statistician in Forest Products:

"Going back to the middle of the last century, we can distinctly trace the history of the lumber of the country at ten year intervals by showing the relative importance of the several producing regions. This has been done in Table One.

Table 1 - Lumber Cut By Groups of States, in Percent of the Total

Groups 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1909 1918
Central Group
Southern Group
North Carolina
Lake States
Pacific Group
Rocky Mtns.
All Others

Northeastern Group: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Rhode Island.

Central Group: Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia.

Southern Group: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas.

North Carolina Group: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia.

Lake States Group: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin.

Pacific Group: California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington.

Rocky Mountain Group: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming.

All Other: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota.

"Within seventy years three immense regions have been divested of their forest cover to a large extent, and the fourth, the Southern Pine Region, has reached its apex of production. No other land was ever more generously blessed with timber, or timber so well adapted to man's needs, as our own great stretch of country. Perhaps it has been the very great abundance of wood on every hand that has caused us as a people to value it lightly and countenance its ruthless destruction by fire and improvident lumbering methods.

Table 2 - Annual Consuption of Timber in the United States

Form Used: Quantity Produced or Consumed: Equivalent in Feet
Board Measure:
Cubic Feet of Timber Required to Produce:
Fence Posts
Hewed Cross ties
Round Mine Timbers
Wood Distillation
Tanning Extract Wood
Tight Staves
Vehicle Stock
Slack Staves
Slack Heading
Hewn & Rough Export
Tight Heading
Ship Building
37,300,000,000 cords
110,000,000 ft. BM
900,000,000 posts
87,500,000 ties
4,550,000 cords
250,000,000 cu. ft.
8,850,000,000 shingles
1,550,000 cords
1,250,000 cords
650,000,000 ft. logs
286,000,000 staves
300,000,000 ft. BM
1,010,000,000 staves
350,000,000 ft. BM
4,250,000 poles
200,000,000 ft. BM
61,000,000 sets
200,000,000 ft. BM
2,375,000,000 lath
21,000,000 sets
200,000 cords
333,000,000 hoops
1,500,000 pieces
10,000,000 ft BM
10,000,000 ft BM

"The major demands made annually upon the forests, based upon the latest available statistics, are shown in Table 2. In the first column the volume of production or consumption is expressed by the common unit of measurement; in the second column the equivalent is given in board measure; and in the third column the approximate cubic contents of wood drawn from the forest to produce the products is enumerated.

"The tabulation indicates the annual use of the equivalent of 91 billion board feet of timber for all purposes in the United States. A substantial basis exists in every instance for the figures given and they may be regarded as conservative rather than overdrawn. To produce 91 billion board feet every year requires a yield of 23 1/2 billion cubic feet of timber, a stupendous crop and worthy of the most prodigal nation."

The following extracts are from a report known as By-Products of the Lumber Industry by the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, Nov. 15, 1915:

"The waste of timber in logging, while extremely variable, can be estimated perhaps more definitely. Waste in stumpage occurs by cutting the trees too high and leaving the stumps to rot. Young trees are frequently not protected from falling timber. Immature and defective trees are cut and rejected. Large limbs, tree tops and logged trees are left to waste. Small bodies of timber are often left standing. Trees broken in falling are generally left, as are also short log lengths.

"The conversion of the log into lumber entails some necessary waste in a sawmill. These items have been itemized by Margolin as follows:

Items % of Total Volume of Log
Loss of Bark
Loss Due to Kerf
Loss Due to Edging and Trimming
Loss Due to Carelessness
Loss Due to Standardizing Length and Width of Boards
10.0 20.0
Total 46.1 56.1

"The annual quantity of mill waste in the United States may be roughly estimated at 4,000,000,000 cubic feet of wood.

"The relation of the tree in the forest to the lumber derived from it, may be expressed in the statement that an average of only 320 feet of lumber is used for each 1,000 feet that stood in the forest. The possibilities of this shrinkage are aptly expressed in the following quotation:

"If all the wood wasted in the manufacture of yellow pine lumber in 1907 had been steam distilled for the production of wood turpentine, it would have yielded more than the total production of gum turpentine in that year. If all the wood wasted in the manufacture of lumber from spruce, hemlock, poplar and cottonwood in 1907 had been used for paper making, it would have furnished all the paper made from pulp in that year. If all the wood that went to waste in the manufacture of chestnut lumber in 1907 had been used to make tanning extract, we would have produced twice as much as was produced from the chestnut cordwood used for that purpose. The waste in the manufacture of beech, birch and maple in 1917 was nearly equal to the quantity of these woods cut for distillation. The waste in the manufacture of oak lumber was twice the quantity of all the hardwoods used for distillation."[1]

The following is from another report known as: The Export Lumber Trade of the United States, by the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce:

"In many sections sawmill operators contracted to cut parcels of timber within a specified time, timber left on the tract at the expiration of the time limit to be forfeited to the owner of the land. It often happened thus that the operator threw the lumber on the market at any price to avoid a greater loss, thereby causing a general decline in prices throughout his section. To meet his competition, other manufacturers had to cut prices, and, to operate at a profit, they also utilized only the best material in the tree, leaving millions of feet of the lower grades in the woods. It has been estimated that in this country only about 40 per cent of the trees is marketed while in Germany, for instance, 96 per cent of the felled tree is utilized.

"The machinery used in American saw and planing mills is well constructed and capable of turning out the product very fast. It may suit the manufacturers at present, when comparatively little value is attributed to the raw material, but in the near future with increasing prices for stumpage, improvement in the type of machinery and in manufacturing methods will become imperative.

"It has been estimated that there is an annual loss exceeding one billion feet in the seasoning of lumber. While this may not be a complete loss in the sense that the lumber cannot be used, it is a drain upon higher quality material and contributes directly to the accumulation of low grade and less usable lumber. By the introduction of proper methods of kiln drying, it should be possible eventually to cut that loss in two."

The forest resources of the United States are being wasted and destroyed.

In a few years they will be exhausted and the country will face a lumber famine. This state of affairs is caused by:

  • Wasteful and destructive methods of logging and of manufacturing.
  • Forest fires.
  • Failure to reforest logged off areas.

All these causes have their roots in the profit system.

The capitalists who control the lumber industry are concerned only with profits. They use whatever methods will produce the greatest profits in the shortest time, regardless of how much they waste and destroy.

The principal cause to which forest fires are attributed is carelessness and indifference on the part of the public in cooperating with the authorities to enforce fire prevention laws. In view of the fact that four-fifths of the timber land of the United States is privately owned and that practically all of this was obtained by fraudulent means, it is hardly to be expected that the public will display very great interest in protecting the stolen property of the Lumber Trust.

Re-forestation is not an attractive proposition to profit-mongers. It involves a large outlay at the start. From sixty to one hundred years must elapse after the planting of young trees before they are of saw timber size. Then there is the risk of fire and the possibility of a change in the social order. From the view-point of the capitalist, it is much better to let the Government use the money of the "people" for re-forestation and then, when the timber is ready to be cut, hand it over to the Lumber Trust to sell to the "people" at 100 per cent profit. Besides this, there is every reason to believe that, in the past, the big timber thieves used their influence to prevent re-forestation, in order to increase the value of their own holdings.


[1] Senate document No. 676, Sixtieth Congress, second session. Vol. 1: PP. 66-67.