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by Robert Marshall
University of Iowa Press, 233 pp., $14.95

Reviewed by Char Miller

The national forests are once more at the center of a political firestorm. In late November, the Bush administration rolled out its long-awaited "Healthy Forests" initiative. With the goal of breaking through what it describes as policy gridlock, and under the guise of responding to what it asserts is an increased threat of fire in Western forests, the White House announced new rules that would, at their core, facilitate the commercial exploitation of public lands. Key to these changes is that the Forest Service would gain greater latitude in managing the millions of acres under its control and would be freed from certain federal environmental regulations, including provisions of the National Environmental Planning Act.

The People's Forests

If by announcing these significant policy changes just before Thanksgiving the administrative hoped to duck public scrutiny, it failed: Predictably, the measures were warmly greeted by those who have long advocated larger timber harvests, and quickly denounced by those committed to preserving the nation's forests intact.

Much of this heated debate, which has produced its fair share of fulminating newspaper editorials, zealous op-ed commentaries, and televised hyperpunditry, has spun around one simple question: to log or not to log? The resulting yes or no responses make for nice sound bites, and have intensified -- as they are often designed to -- the rhetorical thrust and parry of the public brawl. But all of this drama has obscured the larger and arguably more fundamental issue raised by Bush's "Healthy Forests" plan: Whose woods are these?

Late and legendary forester Robert Marshall would have had no trouble interpreting the dire threats embedded in the current administration's actions. That is clear from his shrewd polemic, The People's Forests, first published in 1933 and now a timely reissue in the University of Iowa Press's American Land and Life series. Like the remarkable coterie of radical foresters to whom he dedicated his rigorous analysis of Depression-era national forest policies -- George P. Ahern, Earle H. Clapp, Edward N. Munns, Gifford Pinchot, and Raphael Zon -- Marshall was convinced that these valuable public lands must remain in public hands.

And he equated "public" with "federally owned," an equation derived from what he understood was the long history of the commercial exploitation of the American forested estate, and the complicity of state and local governments in letting it happen.

"All through the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century," Marshall observed, "the timber owners had taken a public-be-damned attitude toward the occasional proclamations of farsighted idealists that private management of the forests was bringing havoc to public welfare." Their economic clout melded with political power -- "They held the whip hand, [and] controlled the legislative bodies in the most important lumber states" -- and allowed them to brush aside their opponents while pursuing "a policy of devastation" in the woods from Maine to Oregon.

Not until the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century were conservationists able to strip away some of the social sanction covering these destructive cut-and-run practices. Marshall credits this change to the "enthusiastic leadership" of Theodore Roosevelt and Pinchot, whom the president would appoint as the first chief of the Forest Service. Their articulation of a conservative stewardship of the growing number of national forests (Roosevelt created 150 new ones sprawling over 194 million acres) dovetailed with a broader cultural acceptance of federal oversight and regulation of the body politic.

Confronted with an energized conservation movement on the local, state, and national levels, the lumber industry did an about-face and swore allegiance to a new credo: "We do not want to fight foresters; we want to cooperate with them." Most foresters embraced this cooperative spirit that dominated the late teens and early twenties -- Marshall's mentor Pinchot was a notable exception -- and knuckled under as industry demanded one public subsidy after another. Cooperation, in short, meant co-optation, which effectively muted criticism of the problems that continued to plague industrial forestry and the land it handled so badly.

It was to remind people, particularly foresters, just how corrupt a bedfellow the timber industry was that Marshall wrote The People's Forests. That's why he so bluntly denounces the manifold failures of private woodland ownership and so strongly advocates more intense federal regulation of the timber industry. But Marshall goes even further, advancing what was, even in a time when much of the country had taken a giant step to the left, a radical idea: the public ownership of all forest lands in the United States.

The advantages were many. Under public control, "social welfare is substituted for private gain as the major objective of management," which would insure healthier landscapes and communities. Only by placing forests under sustained-yield management, in which "no more wood may be cut from the forest in a given year than the forest is capable of returning in growth," would there be "any stability to rural livelihood in forested regions," Marshall argued.

The costs of nationalizing an estimated 240 million acres of unproductive or abandoned lands would not be prohibitive, either: Amid a deepening depression that had destroyed property values, the tab would run about $1 billion, which, Marshall noted dryly, was half what Congress had appropriated for river and harbor improvements. The communal benefits would be incalculable, with thousands of out-of-work laborers hired to replant forest cover, repair eroded terrain, and regenerate wildlife habitats, as well as to build cabins and trails. Marshall's plan intertwined environmental rehabilitation with social uplift, a powerful prescription in a harrowing and uncertain time.

He knew that his ideas would shock conservative foresters. He knew, too, that they would resist his call for the creation of 20 million acres of untrammeled wilderness, left in "primeval conditions" that would meet the needs of those desiring "a more intimate contact with the woods." Indeed, Marshall was counting on his colleagues' stunned reactions to help spread his ideas. When the Journal of Forestry failed to review The People's Forests, Marshall badgered its editor, Frank Reed, until Reed penned the blistering evaluation Marshall desired. "This People's Forest is...a dangerous book," Reed barked. "It is so attractively gotten up, so pleasingly written, and pleads its cause so plausibly that the superficially informed layman who peruses it is too certain to be artfully seduced to the support of a pernicious and subversive doctrine." Friends and foes then flooded subsequent issues with intemperate rejoinders and caustic replies, boosting the book's profile within, and sales to, the profession.

Marshall's book had a political impact as well. In late 1932, as he prepared to assume the presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt had contacted Pinchot, then governor of Pennsylvania, to prepare a memorandum on the nation's most pressing conservation issues. The old forester turned to Marshall, then working on the book's manuscript, and Zon to prepare a white paper, the final draft of which closely tracked the arguments of The People's Forest. Their recommendations, some of which had already been field-tested in Pennsylvania's state forests, would later emerge in the national agenda of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Despite Marshall's enthusiasm for federal ownership of these well-wooded lands, and for all his years in the Washington bureaucracy (at various points he worked in the Forest Service and in the Department of Interior), he was well aware of the limits of government. Not least was his fear that wilderness preservation would always get short shrift in a capitalist society that privileged economics over aesthetics, materialism over spirituality, cash over conscience. Marshall was optimistic, however, that the American democratic ethos could triumph: "The time has come when we must discard the unsocial view that our woods are the lumberman's and substitute the broader ideal that every acre of woodland in the country is rightly a part of the people's forests."

He hoped to enact this provocative vision while heading the Forest Service's new division of Recreation and Lands, but he died of a heart attack in 1939 shortly after taking office. He was only thirty-eight years old.

In some ways, Marshall seems ineluctably bound to his time and place, and so his death takes on a poignant appropriateness. His idealism ("He gave himself to the service of his country in the finest spirit," Pinchot mourned) and his faith in both "the people" and the capacity of the federal government to act nobly for the greater good, were reflective of a New Deal optimism that clashes with our more self-absorbed culture and cynical politics. Need evidence of this? His president lambasted "economic royalists," while ours seems their captive.

The Bush administration released another forest-related decision recently, this one on Christmas Eve. The new ruling undermines the Forest Service and challenges the legitimacy of the national forests themselves by giving state and local governments the power to claim rights-of-way along cow paths, stream beds, and section lines that cut through Western federal lands (an estimated 15,000 such claims exist in Utah alone). Once these claims are asserted, new highways can then be bulldozed through forests, parks, and monuments, paving the way, literally, for private companies to take what they want from public lands.

Would that we had a visionary like Marshall to sound the alarm.

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Char Miller is chair of the history department at Trinity University and author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, which won the 2002 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography.

OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council