William Howard Taft

Address at Spokane, Washington

September 28, 1909

Ladies and Gentlemen of Spokane; Fellow Citizens of Washington:

I am going to take up to-day the subject of the conservation of our natural resources. This has been given a very wide scope. I do not propose to cover the whole ground to-day. I shall confine my attention to those parts of the policy which are certainly within the jurisdiction of the National Government, and which especially concern the country west of the Missouri River.

I refer, first, to the preservation of the national forests; second, to the reclamation of the arid and semi-arid lands by irrigation; third, to the disposition of water-power sites upon public lands with proper restrictions upon the use both in respect to the compensation, its extent in point of time, and the adjustment of rates to be charged to the public by the beneficiary of the grant; fourth, to the disposition of coal, oil and phosphate lands owned by the Government with such restrictions as will permit their development for private profit, and yet will prevent monopoly and extortion in the sale of the product.

The national forests as reserved by Executive Order contain about 167,000,000 acres of land in the United States proper. All of this land is now under the direct control of the Forestry Bureau and is being preserved from fire and from other destruction, and is being treated in accordance with the best modern methods of treating forests under the supervision of Mr. Pinchot, the Chief Forester, and the head of the Bureau of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture. It appears that the Government timber land is only about one-fourth of the timber land owned by private individuals, and that only three per cent, of the timber land owned by private individuals is properly looked after according to modern methods of forestry. The destruction by fire of forests is estimated to be $50,000,000 a year. It would seem, therefore, imperative that the States should exercise their jurisdiction over these forests to which I have referred and which are held by private individuals, and require some system of fire protection and the adoption of the best methods of forestry. It would seem that the States have a right to do this because of the general interest which the public has in the preservation of the forests, in their equalizing of the water supply, and in their effect upon the climate. The equalization of the water supply, of course, prevents erosion of the soil and the wasteful destruction of the best part of the soil, which is carried down the river with the floods.

The regulation of forests in private ownership within State boundaries is plainly not within the scope of Federal jurisdiction, and it should be undertaken by the States. I do not think the States have taken up the matter with as much energy as they ought, and they have not improved the opportunity which was given them by way of example by the Forestry Bureau of the United States. The question whether the Federal Government, with the purpose of equalizing the flow of water in navigable streams, and to promote navigation during the entire year, may enter upon a plan of regulating existing forests and reforesting certain denuded territory in the States, I need not now discuss. The subject would involve a wider discussion than I have time to give it.

The plan of the Government to reclaim the arid and semi-arid lands manifested in the reclamation act has been carried out most rapidly by the Bureau charged with its execution. I had the honor the other day in Colorado of opening the most ambitious of these projects, at least the most difficult of them — the Gunnison tunnel — which is to bring water into a valley in Colorado, known as the Uncompaghre Valley, with some 150,000 acres, and to put it in a condition to grow fruit and cereals. There are some thirty projects which have been entered upon by the Reclamation Bureau, and I believe that all of them are to be commended for their excellent adaptation to the purpose for which they were erected, and for the speed with which the work has been done. It is said, however, that in the planning of a number of these improvements, the enthusiasm of the projectors has carried them to a point where they begin to feel embarrassed in the matter of resources with which to complete the projects, and begin to show that prudence was not observed by those engaged in executing the act; that the projects were too many and more than could be completed in a reasonable time after their beginning, because of a lack of funds. The reclamation act provides for the expenditure of funds made up of the proceeds of the sale of public lands and reimbursed from time to time by the instalments to be paid by the settlers who take up the irrigated land, and it also provides that no part of a project is to be contracted for and begun, until the money for the completion of that part of the project contracted for shall be in the reclamation fund. Now, it appears that it will take $10,000,000 or more, which is not available in the reclamation fund at present, fully to complete the projects, and it also appears that a great number of persons by reason of the beginning of the projects have been led into the making of settlements, the expenditure of time and labor, with the hope and upon the reliance that such reclamation enterprises would be carried through in a reasonable time.

I think there is no doubt that it was the intention of Congress that projects should not be multiplied in such a way that they could not be completed within a reasonable time out of the reclamation funds provided by the sale of public lands, and it probably would have been wiser to adhere strictly to the limitation thus construed, even though the language of the act, by dividing up the projects into parts in terms permits the beginning of more projects than there was likely to be money enough to complete within a reasonable time. The pressure was doubtless very great, and the reclamation service yielded to the pressure within the letter of the law, and now find themselves in the situation described. The work has been well done and reflects great credit on the engineers who have had charge of it. But something must be done to relieve the present situation, which is one of disappointed hopes to many settlers upon the arid lands, who counting upon an early completion of the projects undertaken have invested their money and spent their time and seem to be no nearer the goal of satisfactory irrigation than they were when the projects were begun. I think it wise to apply to Congress for relief by urging the passage of an enabling act, which shall permit the Secretary of the Interior to issue bonds in the sum of $10,000,000 or more, to complete all the projects now projected. These bonds should be redeemed from the money paid into the reclamation funds after the completion of the projects.

From conversation with the Senators who have visited much of the reclamation work and given an examination to its progress, I infer that such a proposal as this seems to them to be the best way out of the present difficulty, and I shall take pleasure in recommending the passage of such a remedial measure by the next Congress.

No one can visit this western country without being overwhelmingly convinced of the urgent necessity for the proper treatment of arid and semi-arid lands by the extension of systems of irrigation. The results in the productivity of the soil when irrigated are marvellous. The mere fact that the reclamation service has gone ahead too fast ought not to prevent Congress from lending its aid to overcome the difficulty. We shall know better in the further treatment of the subject and in the further use of the $50,000,000 fund how to avoid putting ourselves in a similar position again. Meantime irrigation works under private auspices are being projected in every direction, and the prospect of reclaiming millions of acres from the deserts is most encouraging.

The examples of Government engineering and of ingenuity in planning the structures in these various Government projects for irrigation are of immense utility as models for private enterprise.

One subject that is now being agitated in some quarters calls for notice. Payment for irrigated lands is required in ten annual instalments. Suggestions are now being made that these should be lengthened into a longer term. I sincerely hope that Congress will not listen to such appeals. It may be well to make the first three or four instalments nominal, but after that time the instalments should be large enough to pay the total amount due, upon which no interest is calculated, in ten years. Any other course will encourage a lack of thrift and industry and will greatly embarrass the extension and continuance of the work of irrigation.

When the Government became possessed of its public domain and took measures to secure its settlement by the passage of the homestead act and other acts offering, after certain steps prescribed, to vest title to a specific part of the public lands in individuals, the chief object of Congress seemed to be to secure development by inducing people to settle on public lands and acquire it for themselves. The thought of conserving the resources which were thus opened to private acquisition hardly occurred to Congress. Its generosity to the Pacific railroads in offering the public lands in such extensive grants to them is an instance of the spirit which actuated Congress thirty and forty and fifty years ago. I am not criticizing Congress in the slightest for this policy. It certainly was necessary to make extensive grants to secure the construction of a railroad which should unite the Pacific Coast with the Atlantic Coast, and bring closer to the Eastern seaboard the far distant regions of this country. I merely refer to it in a historical way to explain the character of the statutes now upon the statute books with reference to the sale and disposition of public lands. There has always been a distinction made between agricultural lands and mineral lands, because it was recognized that mineral lands would probably be much more valuable, and a different method was required for the acquisition of the one from that of the other. But never until now has adequate provision been made for a classification of lands so as to show distinctly what are mineral lands and what are agricultural lands. The truth is, that the needs of the country have developed so, and the demand for land has so much increased, that in order to secure a sensible, business-like disposition of the lands remaining in the public domain, there must be an authoritative classification of lands by the proper bureau so as to show whether they are agricultural lands, forest lands or lands available for water power sites on the banks of rivers and other streams, or mineral lands, coal lands, oil lands, or phosphate lands. Had this classification been made earlier, it would have saved a great amount of litigation and would have saved to the Government millions of acres patented as one kind of land when in fact it was another. The classification so far as authorized is being rapidly executed by the Geological Survey. After classification, legislation should be and doubtless will be directed to the means by which such lands should be disposed of and the restrictions specified in the interest of the public upon the tenure and use to which the owner is to put such lands.

As to lands which are purely agricultural, there would seem to be no reason for departing from the ordinary method of disposition under the homestead and other laws, including the reclamation acts, by which citizens acquire title in them.

With respect to forest lands owned by the public, they should be surveyed and held by the Government under the regulation of the Forestry Bureau permitting a sale of such timber as shall be necessary in the proper forestry preservation.

As to water-power sites, there has been such a change in conditions that a special provision should be made in the interest of the public for their transfer to private control.

The development of electrical appliances and the transfer of power through electric lines for long distances has made the use of water power to produce electricity one of the most important sources of power that we have in this country, and it will so affect the cost of production in all the fields of manufacture and production of the necessities of life as to require the Government to retain control over the use by private capital of such power when it can only be exercised upon sites which belong to the Government. Such sites can be properly parted with under conditions of tenure, use and compensation, consistent on the one hand with reasonable profit to the private capital invested and on the other with the right of the public to secure the furnishing of such power at reasonable rates to every one. There should be a condition of forfeiture if the owner of the power site does not within a certain time expend capital sufficient to double the power, and after development shall charge rates to the public beyond what is a reasonable profit on the capital invested in the improvement to be regulated by the Government. The amount of compensation that ought to be charged by the Government for the use of the water-power sites might perhaps be left to readjustment every ten or fifteen or twenty years. The compensation to be charged in the outset might well be purely nominal, but after the project has become a complete success and the profit has grown to a considerable percentage of the amount invested, then there would seem to be no reason why the public might not be benefited by sharing in the profits of the transaction to an amount to be fixed upon arbitration or in some other method at the end of a stated period of fifteen or twenty years. This is an arrangement toward which the tenure of all public utilities is tending, and I know of no reason why it should not be introduced into the governmental disposition of such sources of continuous power as the water sites upon public lands are likely to be. I know it has been the course in the past under the bounteous and generous disposition of the Government to give these water sites away under existing inadequate acts; but we have reached a time now when the importance of these water power sites has greatly increased, and there would seem to be no reason why it would interfere with a speedy development of the country to impose restrictions upon the use of such water sites, equitable as between the public and the investor. This is a matter which Congress must take up. The water-power sites are now generally disposed of under the same kind of a procedure as that by which agricultural lands are taken up, and there is no power on the part of the Secretary of the Interior in the disposition of such sites to impose the conditions suggested. This matter has become so important that under the last administration large tracts of lands amounting to upward of four million acres were temporarily withdrawn from settlement in order to prevent the acquisition of water-power sites under the general land laws. This amount has been reduced under the present administration to 450,000 acres, which include even more ascertained water sites than the original withdrawals. It should be understood that these withdrawals are temporary and can only be justified as made in order to permit Congress to legislate on the subject of waterpower sites. Should Congress conclude not to do so, it would be difficult for the executive to find the authority indefinitely to withhold these lands from settlement under the general laws, on the ground that they contain water-power sites. The legislative power is vested in Congress and not in the executive. I shall, therefore, urge upon Congress at its next session, the passage of a law authorizing the disposition of such water-power sites upon terms to be agreed upon by the Secretary of the Interior with the proposed purchaser of the character already indicated. It may turn out that restrictions of this sort are so burdensome as to discourage the investment of capital, and it may be necessary to modify the requirements on this account. But my own impression is that the demand for water power is going to be so great that these restrictions will not prevent the investment of capital but will ultimately bring to the public coffers a revenue from an entirely proper source and will secure the development of a power for manufacturing industries that will probably in time exceed the utility and value of coal, and become a substitute for it.

I now come to what should be the proper disposition of coal lands, oil lands and phosphate lands. The anthracite coal strike evoked a great deal of discussion in respect to the evils of the ownership by private persons of a monopoly of the coal supply of the country, and led Mr. Roosevelt to declare the necessity for preserving from acquisition by monopolizing syndicates the public coal lands still undisposed of. The truth is that in Alaska the deposits of coal are so great that when they are developed they will doubtless furnish coal to the entire Pacific Coast. They have been reserved from filings since 1906. There are some 900 claims but it is probable that under the evidence adduced most of these claims will prove to have been defective. With such an immense tract of coal land at a place near the sea as this is, from which coal easily can be furnished by water to the entire Pacific Coast, it becomes highly important to settle, before this land shall be disposed of under present laws, whether we are to retain any different control over these lands from those which have been already sold by the Government in other parts of the country.

It seems wise in the disposition of coal lands, and indeed of all mineral lands having agricultural value, to separate the surface of the land from its mineral contents; and then either to lease the right to take coal from the land at a specified compensation per ton — that is to provide a system of royalties — or to sell the deposits of the land outright to the coal miner. In every case, restriction by way of forfeiture ought to be included to prevent a monopoly of ownership of the coal land in any one set of men so as to enable them to control the price of coal. This is the great object of a change in the method of their disposition.

Some provision should be made with reference to the disposition of phosphate land. This land, which is found in Wyoming and in Idaho, contains the wonderful fertilizer which it will soon be necessary to use on much of the land in the United States, and as the need for the use of this fertilizer on much land is growing, we should see to it, if possible, that the product be not subject to monopoly or sold outside of the United States.

The oil lands of California, as well as the phosphate lands, and practically all the coal lands have been withdrawn from settlement in order to await the action of Congress; and I expect to recommend to Congress legislation on the lines above indicated, with the general purpose of enabling the Secretary of the Interior in the administration of the land laws to secure more benefit to the public and greater certainty in the security against the monopoly of resources. What, however, I wish to make as plain as possible is that these purposes can not be accomplished unless Congress shall act, and that the burden of carrying out the policy of the conservation of our resources, in respect to the matters I have discussed is upon Congress. The Executive can recommend but the legislature must enact. After the enactment of general authority, it is easy for the Executive to make proper regulations calculated to carry out in detail the general purpose which Congress had, but the first duty in respect to the conservation of resources falls upon Congress.

There has been a good deal of discussion in the newspapers as to the attitude of the present administration toward the general policy of the conservation of resources, and some very unfair and altogether unfounded inferences have been drawn. The truth is, my administration is pledged to follow out the policies of Mr. Roosevelt in this regard, and while that pledge does not involve me in any obligation to carry them out unless I have Congressional authority to do so, it does require that I take every step and exert every legitimate influence upon Congress to enact the legislation which shall best subserve the purposes indicated. I do not think that Congress, if properly approached, will object to adopting legislation of the general character which I have outlined. In the past it has aided the forestry service by what seemed to be ample appropriations. It has in a measure provided for a classification of lands by the head of the Geological Survey. These are both important steps. I hope nothing will prevent our taking the further steps needed when Congress meets. Secretary Ballinger of the Interior Department, upon whom will fall the duty of executing the new provisions of law, is in entire accord with me as to the necessity for promoting in every legitimate way the conservation of the resources which I have named, and he can be counted upon to use the great influence which he must have as Secretary of the Interior to this proper end. Indeed, it will be found that in his reports as Commissioner of the General Land Office he brought these matters to the attention of Congress and urged the adoption of a general policy along the lines I have indicated.

Source: Presidential Addresses and State Papers of William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft, Address at Spokane, Washington Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363253

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