Archive for February, 2011

To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we have asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment to write a series of blog posts in which he’ll reflect on his classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted, and the future of the eastern national forests. This is part 2 in the series. We invite you to join the conversation and post comments for Bob to respond to.

There is much discussion these days about government “investments.”  As an economist, I have to assume that what is meant is a federal expenditure that is not only immediately useful (like hurricane forecasting) but that yields a continuing stream of income or benefits (improving education at all levels is probably the one most discussed).  It would also presumably be something unlikely to be done, or done as well, by private capital.  Looking historically, it appears that the government has made some exceptionally good investments (the Louisiana Purchase, the land-grant universities) and some very poor ones (the high-rise public housing projects of the 1950s, many now razed.)

I’ve been giving some thought to the “investment” aspects of the Weeks Act forests.  From a strictly monetary standpoint, they seem to have been a remarkable bargain for the government.  I suspect that even John Weeks and other proponents of land purchase in 1911 did not foresee the vast increase in cheap, marginal farmland that would be dumped on the market, and available for government purchase, during the 1930s.  A combination of the devastation of the small farm sector in the 1920s and 1930s, with its movement of millions of people from marginal farms to the cities, and the general collapse of economic activity in the Great Depression caused enormous amounts of marginal land to become available for purchase, often through auction for unpaid taxes.

In 1912, the federal government used the Weeks Law to buy 287,698 acres at an average price of $5.65 per acre.  Purchases during the period 1912–1931 amounted to a total of 4.9 million acres, at an average price of $4.40 per acre.  But then came the Depression, and with it greatly increased purchases, at greatly reduced prices.  For example, in 1935 alone, Weeks Act purchases totaled 4.2 million acres, at an average price of only $2.38 per acre.  From 1932 through 1942 (when Weeks Act purchases slowed significantly because of World War II) the government bought 14.1 million acres, paying only $3.44 per acre. This, of course, was not just a consequence of the authority granted by the Weeks Act, but also government appropriations.  In 1912, the government appropriated $2 million.  But for 1934–35, there was a sudden jump to $34 million, followed by $12 million in 1936.  By 1942, the federal government had purchased a total of 19.1 million acres for $71 million, or only $3.72 per acre.

Cut over area, Louisiana.

Cut-over longleaf pine area on Kisatchie National Forest lands, Louisiana, 1930.

The bulk of the land bought during the Depression was so worn out by a combination of cultivation, cutting, and subsequent burning of slash, and erosion, that many considered it essentially worthless.  It was the sort of land, found particularly though not exclusively in the Appalachians and the Piedmont South, that pioneer soil conservationist Hugh Hammond Bennett often termed “destroyed.” In a speech given in 1934, Bennett said of land in a Piedmont county in South Carolina:

No one lives on the land. From the higher points, all the surrounding country was observed to be much the same: Destroyed land, worn-out and abandoned as far as the eye could reach. Silence pervaded the landscape, desolation, irretrievable ruin. Man had laid bare the bosom of the earth to the wrath of the elements. Nature had wreaked vengeance upon this once beautiful countryside; and yet, the same agency had set to work to rebuild what it had torn down. Pine trees had sprung up in every direction. Some of the land was too poor for trees, but much of it was covered with volunteer forests. Thus, the first step toward rejuvenation of the worn-out land was well under way. Unfortunately, the rehabilitation in all probability will require more than a thousand years. (Speech at Ohio State University, January 31, 1934)

Bennett had, of course, failed to appreciate that the forests themselves would have value, both economic and environmental.

So, how have the Eastern National Forests (ENF) fared as an investment?  First, let’s consider purely monetary returns.  Between 1940 and Jan. 1, 2010, a representative average of large company common stocks (S&P 500—this is the farthest back the series can be obtained) increased 8,600 percent (i.e., 86 fold).  During the same period an investment in Treasury 10-year bonds would have climbed 2,650 percent and inflation would have raised price levels 1,500 percent (which should be subtracted from the 8,600 percent and 2,650 percent nominal returns to get “real” returns.)  Now let’s value the ENFs in 1940 at $4.00 per acre, the price at which during that year the government purchased 545,000 acres.  What are they worth today?

As someone who has long studied rural land values, I can assert with some confidence that an “average market price” for forestland simply doesn’t exist.  And even if it did, the ENFs include areas of unusual scenic value (think of the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Pisgah, Nantahala, and George Washington-Jefferson National Forests, or the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountain National Forest) and timber stands that are older and better managed than the “average” for their respective states.  So let’s try another approach.  If the government had sold the ENFs in 1940 at $4.00 per acre and bought (or avoided the need to issue) its own bonds, it would have made money if the average price of an acre of ENF land in 2010 was $106 per acre or larger.  If the government had (adventurously!) invested in the stock market, it would have made a good investment decision if the average price per acre of ENF land in 2010 was $344 per acre.  I think that most people would consider either $106 or $344 to be far, far below what the ENFs are worth in a market sense.  So there can be little doubt that the government got a bargain, or, putting it another way, made a good long-term investment.

Weeks Act acreage approved

Acreage approved for purchase under the Weeks Act by fiscal year, 1912-1976 (click to enlarge)

But clearly the ENFs have values far beyond their monetary or real estate value.  They provide water control, wildlife, timber, and recreation.  And they increasingly are seen as reservoirs of biological diversity and possible buffers against some of the effects of climate change. Some of these values were foreseen by Weeks and his colleagues, others were not.  These additional values will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: The calculations above are meant to be broadly illustrative.  S&P 500 returns include reinvested dividends as does the index of 10-year government bonds.  Certainly the government would have made a higher return in the stock market if it had included small company securities in its portfolio.  But that would have been quite unrealistic—even more so than investing in the 500 largest firms, which make up the S&P 500.  Returns on government’s actual purchases, rather than using a 1940 base would affect the return somewhat, but the calculations are tedious and unlikely to much affect the results.

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Forty years ago last week, Apollo 14 returned from its nine-day journey to the moon and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. The three-man crew consisted of Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell. The Apollo 14 mission was the third successful moon landing, and is mostly remembered for Shepard hitting golf balls on the lunar surface. This week, in addition to the usual anniversary attention, the mission was also back in the news because of a USA Today article on NASA’s search for the long-lost “Moon Trees.”

Apollo 14Moon Trees came about through the work of Astronaut Stuart Roosa. Before joining the Air Force, Roosa had worked as a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, dropping into at least four active fires in Oregon and California during the 1953 fire season. When later selected for the Apollo 14 mission, the Forest Service asked him to consider carrying some tree seeds with him into space. Roosa agreed and decided to bring seeds from loblolly pine, sycamore, sweet gum, redwood, and Douglas fir trees. He carried the seeds – around 500 in total – in a small container in his personal bag.

Smokejumpers 1953

USFS Smokejumpers, class of 1953. Roosa is top row, fourth from left (click to enlarge).

Upon the return to Earth, the seed canister burst after being exposed to a vacuum, scattering and mixing up the seeds. Nonetheless, the seeds were recollected and sent off to two research facilities: the Southern Forest Research Station in Gulfport, Mississippi, and the Western Research Station in Placerville, California. The seeds proved viable, giving the Forest Service more than 400 Moon Tree seedlings.

The first official Moon Tree planting ceremony was held in Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park on May 6, 1975. Roosa, Forest Service Chief John McGuire, Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, Woodsy Owl, and many others were on hand as a sycamore seedling was planted in the northeast corner of the park.

Moon Tree Planting ceremony

Left to right: Stuart Roosa, John McGuire, Ernesta Ballard, and Woodsy Owl at first Moon Tree planting ceremony.

Following the Philadelphia planting, many other Moon Trees were given away and planted all over the country as part of U.S. bicentennial celebrations during 1975 and 1976. A loblolly pine Moon Tree seedling was planted at the White House (although it would not survive). Seedlings were also sent to other countries, including Japan, Brazil, and Switzerland.

Mostly forgotten, many of the trees can still be found today if you know where to look. Dave Williams, a curator at NASA’s National Space Science Data Center maintains an online list of the known Moon Tree locations. You can also still buy your own Moon Tree seeds from the American Forests organization’s Historic Trees Program.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 14 mission, and the ongoing search for the surviving Moon Trees, here are a few relevant items from the Forest History Society Archives:

Stuart Roosa and moon tree seeds

Stuart Roosa (right) holding container of moon tree seeds, with Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Art Greeley (left) in Washington, DC, 1971.

George Vitas, USFS

George Vitas, USFS, stands next to newly planted sycamore Moon Tree in Philadelphia.

Moon Tree Planting program

First Moon Tree Planting offical program, Philadelphia, May 6, 1975. Note the smokejumper on the Roosa logo.

George Vitas, John McGuire, Stuart Roosa

Left to Right: George Vitas, John McGuire, and Stuart Roosa, May 6, 1975.

Master of Ceremonies Glenn Kovar

Master of Ceremonies Glenn Kovar at First Moon Tree planting ceremony.

Moon Tree seal

Moon Tree seeds

Apollo XIV sycamore seeds, distributed by American Forests.

Moon Tree news release

News release for first-ever Moon Tree planting  (click image to read full release).

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A Kiss for Trees

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Last week I traveled to Alliston, Ontario, to meet with the Forest History Society of Ontario and to address the Ontario Forestry Association at their 62nd annual meeting. I went in part to present the FHS Fellow Award to both Dr. Ken Armson and Dr. Yvan Hardy. The Fellow Award is the Society’s highest honor, reserved for those who have made outstanding and persistent contributions to forest history or to Forest History Society programs.

Steve Anderson with Yvan Hardy (l) and Ken Armson (r) with their Fellow Award plaques.

Dr. Armson was recognized for his 50 years in teaching, research, policy and administration in forestry. As a professor of forestry at the University of Toronto for 26 years, he taught and conducted research in forest soils and silviculture. Last year it was his energy that helped establish the Forest History Society of Ontario. Dr. Hardy was recognized for his historic research to combat the spruce budworm, his work as Dean of the Faculty of Forestry and Geodesy at Laval University, and his administrative roles in the federal government including service as Assistant Deputy Minister of the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada. As well, he served 15 years on the Forest History Society Board of Directors, including 8 years as co-Vice-Chairman. During the meeting, FHS Board member James Farrell received the Ontario Forestry Association Award for his outstanding contributions to the field of forestry education in Canada and the world, and FHS Board member Mark Kuhlberg spoke about the forest history of Ontario and its impact on communities.

My banquet talk was about “Forest Culture and Storytelling: Inspired by the Forest.” It highlighted the uncertainty in the term “forest culture,” indicating that it has only been during the last 20 years that the term has shown up in the literature in the broad way it is being used today. I also touched on art and literature inspired by the forest and reviewed how a collection of 400 novels in the FHS’ Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Library traces public opinion about forests and forestry during the last century, and how art and literature played a particularly poignant role in the establishment of forestry in America. I ended with a reading of the poem Chaudiere by Douglas Malloch, the “Poet of the Woods.”

Chaudiere Falls, around 1900. Courtesy of Ottawa Riverrunners website.

The newly formed Forest History Society of Ontario also had their first annual meeting in conjunction with the OFA meeting. The FHSO is the fourth provincial forestry organization to be established. I shared the news about FHS’s new two-year effort in collaboration with the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and the Canadian Forest Service to spearhead the preservation of Canada’s forest history. Efforts include surveying repositories in Canada to determine their willingness and readiness to accept new collections in forest history; seeking out valuable records and collections that need to be preserved; and then trying to facilitate those records to reach an official repository. David Brownstein, sessional faculty at the University of British Columbia, has been contracted in a part-time position to help with the effort. If you know of documents or collections in need of preservation, please contact David or FHS Archivist Eben Lehman. The project will be conducted in cooperation with the provincial forest history associations as well as forestry associations and others who share that goal.

If you want to learn more or support the provincial forest history organizations in Canada, they can be found at:

In addition to our Issue Series book, Canada’s Forests, we have several articles about Canadian forest history available from Forest History Today in PDF format:

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