To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we’ve asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment and co-author of classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted, to write a series of blog posts about the impact of the law. We invite you to join the conversation and post comments for Bob to respond to.
In an earlier blog post—and indeed in the book The Lands Nobody Wanted—I noted with some fascination the remarkably low prices that the Forest Service paid for land acquired under authority of the Weeks Act, especially in the 1930s. We are accustomed today to regard almost any land as being a fairly valuable asset. If it isn’t immediately useful today, we think, it will find some use tomorrow. And rural land in the well-watered eastern half of the country almost invariably has grown up in trees, not necessarily valuable in themselves due to their form, species, or lack of markets, but pretty to look at and home to a variety of wildlife. We also know that land has tended to be a rather good inflation hedge in the long run, and even (somewhat like gold) a “safe haven” for investors in troubled economic times. Even when stocks and bonds are going down, land has in recent decades often maintained its value or even increased it. This was true in two of the last severe recessions (1973-75) and (2008-present), when commodity prices, and the price of commodity-producing land, rose even while other investments were cratering.*
None of the factors mentioned above was at work during the Great Depression. Commodity prices were extremely low, money was very hard to borrow, the economy was experiencing deflation rather than inflation, and the public was pessimistic about the future. Some of the very cheapest Weeks Act land was that purchased in the southeastern U.S. during the mid-1930s. The low price of this land was remarkable, even by the standards of the Great Depression. Consider that a nationwide survey of construction workers done by the government in 1936 found average wages of $0.92 per hour, or $7.36 for an eight hour day. Another source estimates average wages per year in 1935 at $1,368, or $6.25 per day. And Franklin Roosevelt fought for a national minimum wage of $0.25 per hour, or $2.00 per day. Using these as guidelines, an average day’s work for an employed person could have bought almost three acres in Alabama’s Clay County ($2.14 per acre) or Cleburne County ($2.36), or nearly two acres in Bibb County ($3.23 per acre) or Perry County ($3.40). Even a person making the national minimum wage could have purchased more than half an acre with a day’s work!
Intrigued, I recently visited two units of the Talladega National Forest, in north-central Alabama. What could I learn about this VERY cheap land and what has happened to it today? Some of the results were predictable, others surprising. I had assumed that the land had belonged to poor, unproductive farms, perhaps tenant farms, and that low product prices and debt had forced people off the land. And that the Civilian Conservation Corps had reforested the old farmland, as it had in so many other places in the East and South. The actual situation is somewhat more complicated.
The easternmost of the two forest units is the Shoal Creek Ranger District, northeast of Montgomery; the westernmost is the Oakmulgee Ranger District, south of Tuscaloosa. Both districts have significant amounts of what once was farmland—farms on poor soils, low in nutrients, and badly damaged by continual cropping of cotton and other row crops. The structure of much of this soil—clay mixed with sand—is such that it melts like sugar in a hard rain, creating gullies that can very easily get out of control in a single season. A great deal of land in both districts, however, consists of stony, highly dissected hills. This land was not suitable for cropping—though some unfortunate people tried. It was, however, mostly covered by extensive stands of longleaf pines.
This surprised me, as I had believed that the southern longleaf ecosystem—once covering tens of millions of acres, but reduced by clearing and by conversion to loblolly pines—was concentrated in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, particularly on sandy soils in relatively flat environments. The Alabama forests, I learned, had been “mountain longleaf.” This ecosystem was the result of a combination of stony soils and frequent fires. Even the loblolly, which seems to love road cuts and other poor soils, had difficulty competing when fire was added to the mix. Interestingly, despite high stocking of quality trees, many areas in these Alabama mountain forests, particularly in the Shoal Creek District, had never been commercially logged. Transportation was very poor, and the Southern kraft paper industry had not yet achieved the importance it would later have, making pulpwood of little value. On the Oakmulgee District, the more accessible timber stands had been cut, and some of the land, in fact, was sold to the Forest Service by a logging company. But even there, transportation and the abundance of better timber elsewhere meant that considerable amounts of quality timber were left behind.
Overall, much of the land was not so much abused and eroded by over-farming, but too stony for anything but animal grazing and the most feeble attempts at raising crops. Many of the residents of these areas (particularly in the Shoal Creek District) had not been tenant farmers, but impoverished mountain folk, isolated socially, without markets for their meager crops or wood products, and with no chance for off-farm employment. One of their most important income sources was the harvesting of chestnuts, which did have a strong market demand. But the devastating chestnut blight, a fungal disease introduced, probably from Asia, around 1900, had essentially killed off the American chestnut by 1940.
A fundamental finding that came out of looking at this land sold at such low prices during the 1930s was that this was literally “the lands that nobody wanted.” Indeed, the attitude at the time seemed to be “no one should ever have settled there; no one should have ever tried to make a living from that land.” One Forest Service employee noted that descendants (“the grandchildren”) of people who had sold land now in the national forest sometimes felt that the government had in some way taken advantage of their kinfolk. And they also expressed nostalgia for what was once family land. This feeling probably does not reflect the view of the actual sellers, who may have loved some aspects of their way of life, but regarded the land itself as a very poor place to make a living. An expert on local history tells the story of an old woman, then in a nursing home, who was given a $400 check for her farm by the government. “She was quite pleased to get the money,” he said, “and remarked at the time that ‘I would have sold that land for the price of a candy bar.’”
Today the land is very attractive, quite dense, forest. What replanting took place in the 1930s was not done by the Forest Service, but by the Agricultural Resettlement Administration, a New Deal effort to move farmers off the very poorest land to more promising land nearby, where they would be clustered together and given advice, seeds, and other services. Most of the land in the western portion of the Oakmulgee Ranger District had come from the 97,482 acres acquired by the “West Alabama Planned Development Project.” The project (not the CCC) employed a weekly average of 600 men to reforest land and to build Payne Lake, now a major recreational feature of the national forest. In 1938, the West Alabama Project came to an end and the land was transferred to the Forest Service.
Over the next several decades, the Forest Service continued reforestation and timber stand improvement. As national demand for lumber increased in the 1950s through the 1980s, the pace of this activity speeded up. As longleaf or mixed stands were cut, they were usually replaced with loblolly plantations, considered faster growing and easier to manage. Then yet another change occurred. In 1989 there was a regional settlement by the Forest Service of lawsuits brought under the Endangered Species Act to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker. The RCW nests in cavities in very old longleaf pines. There were more than 100 clusters on the Oakmulgee District and a similar number on the Shoal Creek District. Under the settlement, the Forest Service not only cannot cut actual den trees, but must refrain from cutting potential den trees. And reforestation in the last two decades has emphasized conversion of mature loblolly stands back to longleaf.
The Forest Service has also made many recreational improvements. In addition to Payne Lake on the Oakmulgee District, Coleman Lake on the Shoal Creek District offers water-based recreation and developed campsites. The 29-mile-long Talladega Scenic Drive takes motorists on a scenic route atop the mountain ridge—its route follows part of an earlier unpaved scenic drive constructed by the CCC. Starting in 1973, the Forest Service began the Pinhoti National Trail, now a 133-mile-long trail that crosses high spots on the Shoal Creek District and connects with the Appalachian Trail.
As a result of time, the improvements made by government management, and the general increase in demand for land of all types for recreational and investment use, the land that once sold for $2 to $5 per acre is worth an average of $1,500 to $2,000 per acre. Environmental restrictions (especially for the red-cockaded woodpecker) and the virtual disappearance of many timber buyers due to foreign competition have greatly reduced the annual timber cut on the national forest. But the timber is still growing and accruing value, and the forests provide some of Alabama’s prime recreational opportunities.
* The fact that farmland has in the last several decades performed well in periods of both inflation and recession may seem paradoxical. The reason for this behavior lies mainly in the interest rate. During periods of high inflation (1979-82), land buyers can often borrow at rates lower than the rate of inflation; they also expect prices of commodities to rise. In recession, the Federal Reserve tries to keep interest rates very low, which makes investment in a long-term asset like land very cheap. In March 2011, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation convened a conference on the possible financial risk of the current farmland price boom. See http://www.williamisaac.com/published-works/assessing-the-boom-in-u-s-farmland-prices/
The material above is based on a brief trip to Alabama in May 2011, as well as the following references:
Various web pages, National Forests of Alabama
Lone Star College-Kingwood, “American Cultural History, 1930-1939.” Accessed at: http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decade30.html
Robert G. Pasquill, Jr. 1991. “A Brief History of the National Forests in Alabama with Particular Attention Being Paid to the Conditions of the Forests at Time of Acquisition.” U.S. Forest Service, unpublished paper, Montgomery, Al.
Edward P. Sanford, “Wage rates and hours of labor in the building trades,” Monthly Labor Review (August 1937): 281-93.
U.S. Forest Service, National Forests of Alabama, Talladega National Forest, Oakmulgee District. ”Longleaf Ecosystem Restoration Project—Final Environmental Impact Statement.” February 2005.
Additions, corrections, or further discussion would be most welcome.