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. (more…)