Mr. Pinchot’s assurances to U.S. counties with national forests – a look back

Editor’s Note:  NWAF!’s first post — “Secure Rural Schools: The Forgotten Historical Commitments” — was a 700-word op-ed about Gifford Pinchot’s 1907 assurances to forested counties.  As it happens, that op-ed was a greatly boiled down and somewhat reworked version of an earlier and considerably longer text.  The newspaper’s length limit for op-eds occasioned the shorter version.  Of course, no similar restriction limits NWAF! blog posts — and hence we’re free to offer readers a look at the earlier, uncut text.  Enjoy!   

TR and Pinchot, 1907

TR and Pinchot, 1907

Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s first chief officer, was a vigorous advocate for national forests.  With the help of his old friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot greatly and rapidly expanded the new national forest system.  From 1905 to 1910, the period of Pinchot’s tenure, U.S. forest reserves grew from 56 to 172 million acres across 150 national forests.  By 1910’s end, the Forest Service would command approximately 90 percent of the land area it commands today.  Not surprisingly, the expansion drew considerable opposition, particularly in the West.  In 1907, Congress reacted by adding the Fulton Amendment to the annual agricultural appropriations bill.  It terminated the president‘s authority to proclaim new reserves — an authority the office had enjoyed since passage of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 — now transferring that authority to Congress.  Pinchot and Roosevelt responded to this clipping of their wings — in line with their spirit of zealous activism on behalf of the national forests concept — by hastily expanding forest reserves before the new appropriations bill took effect on March 7, 1907.  This bold – some might say, audacious – move added new forests and sixteen million new acres to the national forest system.  These became known as the “Midnight Forests” on account of their rushed mapping and last-minute designation.   

A recently published book, aimed at a readership of youngsters, actually celebrates the Midnight Forests story

A recently published book, aimed at a readership of youngsters, actually celebrates the Midnight Forests story

Many Westerners had good reason to look askance at Pinchot’s and Roosevelt’s massive expansion of national forest acreage.  The overwhelming proportion of national forest acreages fell upon western states.  This is, of course, as true today as it was then.  Almost 40 percent of Idaho’s land area would become designated as national forest, the highest proportion in any state.  In some Idaho counties, moreover, the proportion was much higher.  In Shoshone County, Idaho, for example, fully 72 percent of the land area is national forest.  Wherever national forests were laid out, counties lost potential property tax revenues, which in turn implied an increased tax burden for private landowners.  Property taxes collected by local governments have traditionally supported schools, roads, police and fire protection, libraries, and other local services.  Potential growth in population and commerce was also blunted.  Moreover, the responsibility and expense of maintaining roads in national forests stayed with the counties.  Pinchot, for his part, sought to reassure westerners that these negatives were not negatives at all, but positives.  To this end he published a short book in 1907, titled The Use of the National Forest.  Federal ownership and oversight, Pinchot argued therein, wouldn’t limit the uses of national forest lands but instead would insure that they achieved their highest use.  The homesteader, the miner, the stockman, and “the small mill man” could go about their enterprises unfettered by the national forest designation, Pinchot confidently suggested.  Regarding the loss of county property tax revenues, Pinchot painted a rosy picture of greater benefit in return for this seeming deprivation.  “What happens to county taxes?” he asked rhetorically.  His reassuring reply merits full quotation:

People who are unfamiliar with the laws about National Forests often argue that they work hardships on the counties in which they lie by withdrawing a great deal of land from taxation. They say that if the lands were left open to pass into private hands there would be much more taxable property for the support of school and road districts.  The National Government of course pays no taxes.  But it does something better.  It pays those counties in which the Forests are located 10 per cent of all the receipts from the sale of timber, use of the range, and various other uses, and it does this every year.  It is a sure and steady income, because the resources of National Forests are used in such a way that they keep coming without a break.  Congress saw that the money returns would soon be large, and it provided that the amount paid should not exceed 40 per cent of the counties’ tax receipts from other sources.

Taxes from private timber lands, on the other hand, are ordinarily only temporary returns, because after the lands are logged they are usually left to burn up and become vacant and barren, quite valueless for purposes of taxation. Thus a county which is partly covered by a National Forest is better off than one which is not. In 1906 the National Forests paid the county school and road funds over $75,000. This amount will be almost doubled this year.

The same year, 1907, Pinchot responded to a letter from the Oregon legislature requesting that the federal government allocate ten dollars per mile for the upkeep of county roads now incorporated into national forest reserves.  Pinchot offered an equally glowing and reassuring response (The Morning Oregonian, May 4, 1907):

Such roads in National forests remain under the county jurisdiction, and the Forest Service does not attempt to exercise any authority over them.  In view of the fact that National forest lands are not subject to taxation, it is provided by the agricultural appropriation act of June 30, 1906, that 10 per cent of the receipts from each National forest during any fiscal year shalt be paid at the end thereof to the state to be expended as the Legislature may prescribe for the benefit of the public schools or public roads of the county or counties in which the National forest is situated, in proportion to the area of each county.  Under this provision the Forest Service reported to the Secretary of the Treasury that the sum of $7385.96 should be paid to Oregon for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1906. A similar provision was included in the Hemenway amendment embodied in the agricultural appropriation act approved March 4, 1907.  The Income from National forests will increase rapidly and the payments to the counties for school and road purposes will soon be very much larger and will go far toward paying the entire expenses of schools and of road maintenances within National forests.

Segment of Pinchot's book's title page

Segment of Pinchot’s book’s title page

We’ve quoted Pinchot’s words – both in his book and in his reply to the Oregon legislature — in order to make entirely clear and plain that the purpose of the timber revenue sharing provision introduced into the Forest Service’s mandate was to compensate counties for lost property tax revenue.  This was a foundational feature of the new Forest Service agency.  Congress saw this compensation as a just and necessary redress for depriving counties of property tax revenue — and we know no good reason it shouldn’t recognize that same need for redress today.  In 1908, Congress upped the county timber revenue share from 10 to 25 percent, further reflecting Congress’s commitment to appropriate compensation.  This longstanding arrangement between the federal and local governments began falling apart in the 1990s, with declining timber sales on Forest Service lands.  By now, as is well known in Idaho and elsewhere in the West, it has completely broken down.  The Secure Rural Schools act sustained historical revenue levels for forested counties after 2000, as timber harvests on national forests dwindled.  More recently, that measure is sunsetting, due largely to recent fiscal pressures on the federal government.  Perhaps worst of all, historical memory is failing.  Huge expanses of national forest land inevitably impose great losses in property tax revenues upon counties hosting national forests.  The memory of the federal government’s responsibility to redress those losses appears to have faded away.

A final thought.  In 1908, when the U.S. Senate debated the 10 to 25 percent increase in the revenue share, Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming raised the analogy of federal support for the District of Columbia (Congressional Record, May 11, 1908, p. 6058):  “If the Senator will turn his eye on the District of Columbia,” Warren remarked to the senior senator from Georgia,

he will recall that the United States Government pays one-half of the expenses of the District of Columbia, because, as I understand the reason of it, it has so much property here that is not taxed by the District government.  In that way it contributes to the expense of the government of this District.

Now, take half of a State and throw it Into a forest reserve; it is so much not subject to taxation. Hence this proposition of paying the State some portion of the income, so that the Government may pay a part toward the education of the youth of the State and the care and support of the State government.  That is as to the equity and propriety of it. Now, as to the amount, that is a matter of judgment.

One can only imagine the outcry that would befall Congress if the longstanding federal obligation to D.C.’s support were abandoned in the manner that counties with national forests may soon need to contemplate.

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2 Responses to Mr. Pinchot’s assurances to U.S. counties with national forests – a look back

  1. Perhaps the solution, then, is to vote for Congressional representatives and senators who support fully funding Secure Rural Schools. The “fiscal pressures on the federal government” are largely fictional, and the entire cost of SRS is less than we spend on a single fighter jet.

  2. Pingback: Skamania County financial outlook worsens | Not Without a Fight!

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