William Howard Taft

Address to the National Conservation Congress in St. Paul, Minnesota

September 05, 1910

Conservation as an economic and political term has come to mean the preservation of our natural resources for economical use, so as to secure the greatest good to the greatest number. In the development of this country, in the hardships of the pioneer, in the energy of the settler, in the anxiety of the investor for quick returns, there was very little time, opportunity, or desire to prevent waste of those resources supplied by nature which could not be quickly transmuted into money; while the investment of capital was so great a desideratum that the people as a community exercised little or no care to prevent the transfer of absolute ownership of many of the valuable natural resources to private individuals, without retaining some kind of control of their use. The impulse of the whole new community was to encourage the coming of population, the increase of settlement, and the opening up of business; and he who demurred in the slightest degree to any step which promised additional development of the idle resources at hand was regarded as a traitor to his neighbors and an obstructor to public progress. But now that the communities have become old, now that the flush of enthusiastic expansion has died away, now that the would-be pioneers have come to realize that all the richest lands in the country have been taken up, we have perceived the necessity for a change of policy in the disposition of our national resources so as to prevent the continuance of the waste which has characterized our phenomenal growth in the past. To-day we desire to restrict and retain under public control the acquisition and use by the capitalist of our natural resources.

The danger to the State and to the people at large from the waste and dissipation of our national wealth is not one which quickly impresses itself on the people of the older communities, because its most obvious instances do not occur in their neighborhood, while in the newer part of the country the sympathy with expansion and development is so strong that the danger is scoffed at or ignored. Among scientific men and thoughtful observers, however, the danger has always been present; but it needed some one to bring home the crying need for a remedy of this evil so as to impress itself on the public mind and lead to the formation of public opinion and action by the representatives of the people. Theodore Roosevelt took up this task in the last two years of his second administration, and well did he perform it.

As President of the United States I have, as it were, inherited this policy, and I rejoice in my heritage. I prize my high opportunity to do all that an Executive can do to help a great people realize a great national ambition. For conservation is national. It affects every man of us, every woman, every child. What I can do in the cause I shall do, not as President of a party, but as President of the whole people. Conservation is not a question of politics, or of factions, or of persons. It is a question that affects the vital welfare of all of us—of our children and our children's children. I urge that no good can come from meetings of this sort unless we ascribe to those who take part in them, and who are apparently striving worthily in the cause, all proper motives, and unless we judicially consider every measure or method proposed with a view to its effectiveness in achieving our common purpose, and wholly without regard to who proposes it or who will claim the credit for its adoption. The problems are of very great difficulty and call for the calmest consideration and clearest foresight. Many of the questions presented have phases that are new in this country, and it is possible that in their solution we may have to attempt first one way and then another. What I wish to emphasize, however, is that a satisfactory conclusion can only be reached promptly if we avoid acrimony, imputations of bad faith, and political controversy.

The public domain of the Government of the United States, including all the cessions from those of the thirteen States that made cessions to the United States and including Alaska, amounted in all to about 1,800,000,000 acres. Of this there is left as purely government property outside of Alaska something like 700,000,000 acres. Of this the national forest reserves in the United States proper embrace 144,000,000 acres. The rest is largely mountain or arid country, offering some opportunity for agriculture by dry farming and by reclamation, and containing metals as well as coal, phosphates, oils, and natural gas. Then the Government owns many tracts of land lying along the margins of streams that have water power, the use of which is necessary in the conversion of the power into electricity and its transmission.

I shall divide my discussion under the heads of (1) agricultural lands; (2) mineral lands—that is, lands containing metalliferous minerals; (3) forest lands; (4) coal lands; (5) oil and gas lands; and (6) phosphate lands.

I feel that it will conduce to a better understanding of the problems presented if I take up each class and describe, even at the risk of tedium, first, what has been done by the last administration and the present one in respect to each kind of land; second, what laws at present govern its disposition; third, what was done by the present Congress in this matter; and, fourth, the statutory changes proposed in the interest of conservation.


Our land laws for the entry of agricultural lands are now as follows: The original homestead law, with the requirements of residence and cultivation for five years, much more strictly enforced now than ever before.

The enlarged homestead act, applying to nonirrigable lands only, requiring five years' residence and continuous cultivation of one-fourth of the area.

The desert-land act, which requires on the part of the purchaser the ownership of a water right and thorough reclamation of the land by irrigation, and the payment of $1.25 per acre.

The donation or Carey Act, under which the State selects the land and provides for its reclamation, and the title vests in the settler who resides upon the land and cultivates it and pays the cost of reclamation.

The national reclamation homestead law, requiring five years' residence and cultivation by the settler on the land irrigated by the Government, and payment by him to the Government of the cost of the reclamation.

There are other acts, but not of sufficient general importance to call for mention unless it is the stone and timber act, under which every individual, once in his lifetime, may acquire 160 acres of land, if it has valuable timber on it or valuable stone, by paying the price of not less than $2.50 per acre, fixed after examination of the stone or timber by a government appraiser. In times past a great deal of fraud has been perpetrated in the acquisition of lands under this act; but it is now being much more strictly enforced, and the entries made are so few in number that it seems to serve no useful purpose and ought to be repealed.

The present Congress passed a bill of great importance, severing the ownership of coal by the Government in the ground from the surface and permitting homestead entries upon the surface of the land, which, when perfected, give the settler the right to farm the surface, while the coal beneath the surface is retained in ownership by the Government and may be disposed of by it under other laws.

There is no crying need for radical reform in the methods of disposing of what are really agricultural lands. The present laws have worked well. The enlarged homestead law has encouraged the successful farming of lands in the semiarid regions. Of course the teachings of the Agricultural Department as to how these subarid lands may be treated and the soil preserved for useful culture are of the very essence of conservation. Then conservation of agricultural lands is shown in the reclamation of arid lands by irrigation and I should devote a few words to what the Government has done and is doing in this regard.


By the reclamation act a fund has been created of the proceeds of the public lands of the United States with which to construct works for storing great bodies of water at proper altitudes from which, by a suitable system of canals and ditches, the water is to be distributed over the arid and subarid lands of the Government to be sold to settlers at a price sufficient to pay for the improvements. Primarily, the projects are and must be for the improvement of public lands. Incidentally, where private land is also within the reach of the water supply, the furnishing at cost or profit of this water to private owners by the Government is held by the Federal Court of Appeals not to be a usurpation of power. But certainly this ought not to be done except from surplus water not needed for government land. About 30 projects have been set on foot distributed through the public-land States in accord with the statute, by which the allotments from the reclamation fund are required to be as near as practicable in proportion to the proceeds from the sale of the public lands in the respective States. The total sum already accumulated in the reclamation fund is about $69,449,058.76, and of that all but $6,241,058.76 has been allotted. It became very clear to Congress at its last session, from the statements made by experts, that these 30 projects could not be promptly completed with the balance remaining on hand or with the funds likely to accrue in the near future. It was found, moreover, that there are many settlers who have been led into taking up lands with the hope and understanding of having water furnished in a short time, who are left in a most distressing situation. I recommended to Congress that authority be given to the Secretary of the Interior to issue bonds in anticipation of the assured earnings by the projects, so that the projects, worthy and feasible, might be promptly completed, and the settlers might be relieved from their present inconvenience and hardship. In authorizing the issue of these bonds, Congress limited the application of their proceeds to those projects which a board of army engineers, to be appointed by the President, should examine and determine to be feasible and worthy of completion. The board has been appointed and soon will make its report.


By mineral lands I mean those lands bearing metals, or what are called metalliferous minerals. The rules of ownership and disposition of these lands were first fixed by custom in the West, and then were embodied in the law, and they have worked, on the whole, so fairly and well that I do not think it is wise now to attempt to change or better them. The apex theory of tracing title to a lode has led to much litigation and dispute and ought not to have become the law, but it is so fixed and understood now that the benefit to be gained by a change is altogether outweighed by the inconvenience that would attend the introduction of a new system. So, too, the proposal for the Government to lease such mineral lands and deposits and to impose royalties might have been in the beginning a good thing, but now that most of the mineral land—I do not refer to coal land, or gas land, or phosphate land—has been otherwise disposed of it would be hardly worth while to assume the embarrassment of a radical change.


Nothing can be more important in the matter of conservation than the treatment of our forest lands. It was probably the ruthless destruction of forests in the older States that first called attention to the necessity for a halt in the waste of our resources. This was recognized by Congress by an act authorizing the Executive to reserve from entry and set aside public timber lands as national forests. Speaking generally, there has been reserved of the existing forests about 70 per cent of all the timber lands of the Government. Within these forests (including 26,000,000 acres in two forests in Alaska) are 192,000,000 of acres, of which 166,000,000 of acres are in the United States proper and include within their boundaries something like 22,000,000 of acres that belong to the State or to private individuals. We have, then, excluding Alaska forests, a total of about 144,000,000 acres of forests belonging to the Government which is being treated in accord with the principles of scientific forestry. The law now prohibits the reservation of any more forest lands in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, except by act of Congress. I am informed by the Department of Agriculture that the Government owns other tracts of timber land in these States which should be included in the forest reserves. I expect to recommend to Congress that the limitation herein imposed shall be repealed. In the present forest reserves there are lands which are not properly forest land and which ought to be subject to homestead entry. This has caused some local irritation. We are carefully eliminating such lands from forest reserves, or, where their elimination is not practicable, listing them for entry under the forest homestead act. Congress ought to trust the Executive to use the power of reservation only with respect to land covered by timber or which will be useful in the plan of reforestation. During the present administration steps have been initiated which will result in the elimination of 6,250,000 acres of land, largely nontimbered, from forest reserves and in the addition of 3,500,000 acres of land principally valuable for forest purposes, making a net reduction in forest reserves amounting to 2,750,000 acres. The Bureau of Forestry since its creation has initiated reforestation on about 15,000 acres. A great deal of the forest land is available for grazing. During the past year the grazing lessees numbered 25,687, and they pastured upon the forest reserves 1409,873 cattle, 85,552 horses, and 7,558,650 sheep, for which the Government received $986,909—a decrease from the preceding year of $45,276, due to the fact that no money was collected or received for grazing on the nontimbered lands eliminated from the forest reserve. Another source of profit in the forestry is the receipts for timber sold. This year they amounted to $1,043,428, an increase of $307,326 over the receipts of last year. This increase is due to the improvement in transportation to market and to the greater facility with which the timber can be reached.

The government timber in this country amounts to only one-fourth of all the timber, the rest being in private ownership. Only 3 per cent of that which is in private ownership is looked after properly and treated according to modem rules of forestry. The usual destructive waste and neglect continues in the remainder of the forests owned by private persons and corporations. It is estimated that fire alone destroys fifty million dollars' worth of timber a year. The management of forests not on public land is beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Government. If anything can be done by law it must be done by the state legislatures. I believe that it is within their constitutional power and duty to require the enforcement of regulations in the general public interest, as to fire and other causes of waste in the management of forests owned by private individuals and corporations.


When President Roosevelt became fully advised of the necessity for the change in our disposition of public lands, especially those containing coal, oil, gas, phosphates, or water-power sites, he began the exercise of the power of withdrawal by executive order, of lands subject by law to homestead and the other methods of entering for agricultural lands. The precedent he set in this matter was followed by the present administration. Doubt had been expressed in some quarters as to the power in the Executive to make such withdrawals. The confusion and injustice likely to arise if the courts were to deny the power led me to appeal to Congress to give the President the express power. Congress has complied. The law as passed does not expressly validate or confirm previous withdrawals, and therefore as soon as the new law was passed, I myself confirmed all the withdrawals which had theretofore been made by both administrations by making them over again. This power of withdrawal is a most useful one, and I do not think that it is likely to be abused.


The next subject, and one most important for our consideration, is the disposition of the coal lands in the United States and in Alaska. First, as to those in the United States. At the beginning of this administration there were classified coal lands amounting to 5,476,000 acres, and there were withdrawn from entry for purposes of classification 17,867,000 acres. Since that time there have been withdrawn by my order from entry for classification 78,977,745 acres, making a total withdrawal of 96,844,745 acres. Meantime, of the acres thus withdrawn, 10,061,889 have been classified and found not to contain coal, and have been restored to agricultural entry, and' 4,726,091 acres have been classified as coal lands, while 79,903,239 acres remain withdrawn from entry and await classification. In addition 337,000 acres have been classified as coal lands without prior withdrawal, thus increasing the classified coal lands to 10,429,372 acres.

Under the laws providing for the disposition of coal lands in the United States, the minimum price at which lands are permitted to be sold is $10 an acre, but the Secretary of the Interior has the power to fix a maximum price and to sell at that price. By the first regulations governing appraisal, approved April 8, 1907, the minimum was $10, as provided by law, and the maximum was $100, and the highest price actually placed upon any land sold was $75. Under the new regulations, adopted April 10, 1909, the maximum price was increased to $300, except in regions where there are large mines, where no maximum limit is fixed and the price is determined by the estimated tons of coal to the acre. The highest price fixed for any land under this regulation has been $608. The appraised value of the lands classified as coal lands and valued under the new and old regulations is shown to be as follows: 3,795,445 acres, valued under the old regulation at $76,804,337, an average of approximately $20.50 an acre; and 6,633,927 acres classified and valued under the new regulation at $430,050,364, or a total of 10,429,372 acres, valued at $506,854,701.

For the year ended June 30, 1909, 213 coal entries were made, embracing an area of 31,045 acres, which sold for $556,502.03. For the year ended June 30, 1910, there were 248 entries, embracing an area of 38,325 acres, which sold for $772,325.41; and from June 30 to November, 1910, there were 38 entries, with an area of 5,164 acres, which sold for $103,082.75, making the disposition of coal lands within the last two years of about 75,000 acres for $1,431,910.

The present Congress, as already said, has separated the surface of coal lands, either classified or withdrawn for classification, from the coal beneath, so as to permit at all times homestead entries upon the surface of lands useful for agriculture and to reserve the ownership in the coal to the Government. The question which remains to be considered is whether the existing law for the sale of the coal in the ground should continue in force or be repealed and a new method of disposition adopted. Under the present law the absolute title in the coal beneath the surface passes to the grantee of the Government. The price fixed is upon an estimated amount of the tons of coal per acre beneath the surface, and the prices are fixed so that the earnings will only be a reasonable profit upon the amount paid and the investment necessary. But, of course, this is more or less guesswork, and the Government parts with the ownership of the coal in the ground absolutely. Authorities of the Geological Survey estimate that in the United States to-day there is a supply of about 3,000 billions of tons of coal, and that of this 1,000 billions are in the public domain. Of course, the other 2,000 billions are within private ownership and under no more control as to the use or the prices at which the coal may be sold than any other private property. If the Government leases the coal lands and acts as any landlord would, and imposes conditions in its leases like those which are now imposed by the owners in fee of coal mines in the various coal regions of the East, then it would retain over the disposition of the coal deposits a choice as to the assignee of the lease, a power of resuming possession at the end of the term of the lease, or of readjusting terms at fixed periods of the lease, which might easily be framed to enable it to exercise a limited but effective control in the disposition and sale of the coal to the public. It has been urged that the leasing system has never been adopted in this country, and that its adoption would largely interfere with the investment of capital and the proper development and opening up of the coal resources. I venture to differ entirely from this view. My investigations show that many owners of mining property of this country do not mine it themselves, and do not invest their money in the plants necessary for the mining; but they lease their properties for a term of years varying from twenty to forty years, under conditions requiring the erection of a proper plant and the investment of a certain amount of money in the development of the mines, and fixing a rental and a royalty, sometimes an absolute figure and sometimes one proportioned to the market value of the coal. Under this latter method the owner of the mine shares in the prosperity of his lessees when coal is high and the profits good, and also shares to some extent in their disappointment when the price of coal falls.

I have looked with some care into a report made at the instance of President Roosevelt upon the disposition of coal lands in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. These are peculiarly mining countries, and their experience ought to be most valuable. In all these countries the method for the disposition and opening of coal mines originally owned by the Government is by granting leasehold, and not by granting an absolute title. The terms of the leases run all the way from twenty to fifty years, while the amount of land which may be leased to any individual there is from 320 acres to 2,000 acres. It appears that a full examination was made and the opinions of all the leading experts on the subject were solicited and given, and that with one accord they approved in all respects the leasing system. Its success is abundantly shown. It is possible that at first considerable latitude will have to be given to the Executive in drafting these forms of lease, but as soon as experiment shall show which is the most workable and practicable, its use should be provided for specifically by statute.

The question as to how great an area ought to be included in a lease to one individual or corporation is not free from difficulty; but in view of the fact that the Government retains control as owner, I think there might be some liberality in the amount leased, and that 2,500 acres would not be too great a maximum. The leases should only be granted after advertisement and public competition.

By the opportunity to readjust the terms upon which the coal shall be held by the tenant, either at the end of each lease or at periods during the term, the Government may secure the benefit of sharing in the increased price of coal and the additional profit made by the tenant. By imposing conditions in respect to the character of work to be done in the mines, the Government may control the character of the development of the mines and the treatment of employees with reference to safety. By denying the right to transfer the lease except by the written permission of the governmental authorities, it may withhold the needed consent when it is proposed to transfer the leasehold to persons interested in establishing a monopoly of coal production in any State or neighborhood. As one-third of all the coal supply is held by the Government, it seems wise that it should retain such control over the mining and the sale as the relation of lessor to lessee furnishes.


The investigations of the Geological Survey show that the coal properties in Alaska cover about 1,200 square miles, and that there are known to be available about 15 billion tons. This is, however, an underestimate of the coal in Alaska, because further developments will probably increase this amount many times; but we can say with considerable certainty that there are two fields on the Pacific slope which can be reached by railways at a reasonable cost from deep water—in one case of about 50 miles and in the other case of about 150 miles— which will afford certainly 6 billion tons of coal, more than half of which is of a very high grade of bituminous and of anthracite. It is estimated to be worth, in the ground, one-half cent a ton, which makes its value per acre from $50 to $500. The coking-coal lands of Pennsylvania are worth from $800 to $2,000 an acre, while other Appalachian fields are worth from $10 to $386 an acre, and the fields in the Central States from $10 to $2,000 an acre, and in the Rocky Mountains from $10 to $500 an acre. The demand for coal on the Pacific coast is for about 4,500,000 tons a year. It would encounter the competition of cheap fuel oil, of which the equivalent of 12,000,000 tons of coal a year is used there. It is estimated that the coal could be laid down at Seattle or San Francisco, a high-grade bituminous, at $4 a ton and anthracite at $5 or $6 a ton. The price of coal on the Pacific slope varies greatly from time to time in the year and from year to year—from $4 to $12 a ton. With a regular coal supply established, the expert of the Geological Survey, Mr. Brooks, who has made a report on the subject, does not think there would be an excessive profit in the Alaska coal mining because the price at which the coal could be sold would be considerably lowered by competition from these fields and by the presence of crude fuel oil. The history of the laws affecting the disposition of Alaska coal lands shows them to need amendment badly. Speaking of them, Mr. Brooks says:

"The first act, passed June 6, 1900, simply extended to Alaska the provisions of the coal-land laws in the United States. The law was ineffective, for it provided that only subdivided lands could be taken up, and there were then no land surveys in Alaska. The matter was rectified by the act of April 28, 1904, which permitted unsurveyed lands to be entered and the surveys to be made at the expense of the entrymen. Unfortunately, the law provided that only tracts of 160 acres could be taken up, and no recognition was given to the fact that it was impracticable to develop an isolated coal field requiring the expenditure of a large amount of money by such small units. Many claims were staked, however, and surveys were made for patents. It was recognized by everybody familiar with the conditions that after patent was obtained these claims would be combined in tracts large enough to assure successful mining operations. No one experienced in mining would, of course, consider it feasible to open a coal field on the basis of single 160-acre tracts. The claims for the most part were handled in groups, for which one agent represented the several different owners. Unfortunately, a strict interpretation of the statute raised the question whether even a tacit understanding between claim owners to combine after patents had been obtained was not illegal. Remedial legislation was sought and enacted in the statute of May 28, 1908. This law permitted the consolidation of claims staked previous to November 12, 1906, in tracts of 2,560 acres. One clause of this law invalidated the title if any individual or corporation at any time in the future owned any interest whatsoever, directly or indirectly, in more than one tract. The purpose of this clause was to prevent the monopolization of coal fields; its immediate effect was to discourage capital. It was felt by many that this clause might lead to forfeiture of title through the accidents of inheritance, or might even be used by the unscrupulous in blackmailing. It would appear that land taken up under this law might at any time be forfeited to the Government through the action of any individual who, innocently or otherwise, obtained interest in more than one coal company. Such a title was felt to be too insecure to warrant the large investments needed for mining developments. The net result of all this is that no titles to coal lands have been passed."

On November 12, 1906, President Roosevelt issued an executive order withdrawing all coal lands from location and entry in Alaska. On May 16, 1907, he modified the order so as to permit valid locations made prior to the withdrawal on November 12, 1906, to proceed to entry and patent. Prior to that date some 900 claims had been filed, most of them said to be illegal because either made fraudulently by dummy entrymen in the interest of one individual or corporation, or because of agreements made prior to location between the applicants to cooperate in developing the lands. There are 33 claims for 160 acres each, known as the "Cunningham claims," which are claimed to be valid on the ground that they were made by an attorney for 33 different and bona fide claimants who, as alleged, paid their money and took the proper steps to locate their entries and protect them. The representatives of the Government, on the other hand, in the hearings before the Land Office have attacked the validity of these Cunningham claims on the ground that prior to their location there was an understanding between the claimants to pool their claims after they had been perfected and unite them in one company. The trend of decision seems to show that such an agreement would invalidate the claims, although under the subsequent law of May 28, 1908, the consolidation of such claims was permitted, after location and entry, in tracts of 2,560 acres. It would be, of course, improper for me to intimate what the result of the issue as to the Cunningham and other Alaska claims is likely to be, but it ought to be distinctly understood that no private claims for Alaska coal lands have as yet been allowed or perfected, and also that whatever the result as to pending claims, the existing coal-land laws of Alaska are most unsatisfactory and should be radically amended. To begin with, the purchase price of the land is a flat rate of $10 per acre with no power to increase it beyond that, although, as we have seen, the estimate of the agent of the Geological Survey would carry up the maximum of value to $500 an acre. In my judgment it is essential to the proper development of Alaska that these coal lands should be opened, and that the Pacific slope should be given the benefit of the comparatively cheap coal of fine quality which can be furnished at a reasonable price from these fields; but the public, through the Government, ought certainly to retain a wise control and interest in these coal deposits, and I think it may do so safely if Congress will authorize the granting of leases, as already suggested, for government coal lands in the United States, with provisions forbidding the transfer of the leases except with the consent of the Government, thus preventing their acquisition by a combination or monopoly and upon limitations as to the area to be included in any one lease to one individual, and at a certain moderate rental, with royalties upon the coal mined proportioned to the market value of the coal laid down either at Seattle or at San Francisco. Of course such leases should contain conditions requiring the erection of proper plants, the proper development by modem mining methods of the properties leased, and the use of every known and practical means and device for saving the life of the miners.

The Government of the United States has much to answer for in not having given proper attention to the government of Alaska and the development of her resources for the benefit of all the people of the country. I would not force development at the expense of a present or future waste of resources; but the problem as to the disposition of the coal lands for present and future use can be wisely and safely settled in one session if Congress gives it careful attention.


In the last administration there were withdrawn from agricultural entry 2,820,000 acres of supposed oil land in California; 1451,520 acres in Louisiana, of which only 6,500 acres were known to be vacant unappropriated land; and 74,849 acres in Oregon, making a total of 4,346,369 acres. In September, 1909,1 directed that all public oil lands, whether then withdrawn or not, should be withheld from disposition pending congressional action, for the reason that the existing placer mining law, although made applicable to deposits of this character, is not suitable to such lands, and for the further reason that it seemed desirable to reserve certain fuel-oil deposits for the use of the American navy. Accordingly the form of all existing withdrawals was changed, and new withdrawals aggregating 2,750,000 acres were made in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Field examinations during the year showed that of the original withdrawals 2,190,424 acres were not valuable for oil, and they were restored for agricultural entry. Meantime other withdrawals of public oil lands in these states were made, so that November 15, 1910, the outstanding withdrawals amounted to 4,654,000 acres.

The needed oil and gas law is essentially a leasing law. In their natural occurrence, oil and gas can not be measured in terms of acres, like coal, and it follows that exclusive title to these products can normally be secured only after they reach the surface. Oil should be disposed of as a commodity in terms of barrels of transportable product rather than in acres of real estate. This is, of course, the reason for the practically universal adoption of the leasing system wherever oil land is in private ownership. The Government thus would not be entering on an experiment, but simply putting into effect a plan successfully operated in private contracts. Why should not the Government as a landowner deal directly with the oil producer rather than through the intervention of a middleman to whom the Government gives title to the land?

The principal underlying feature of such legislation should be the exercise of beneficial control rather than the collection of revenue. As not only the largest owner of oil lands, but as a prospective large consumer of oil by reason of the increasing use of fuel oil by the navy, the Federal Government is directly concerned both in encouraging rational development and at the same time insuring the longest possible life to the oil supply. The royalty rates fixed by the Government should neither exceed nor fall below the current rates. But much more important than revenue is the enforcement of regulations to conserve the public interest so that the covenants of the lessees shall specifically safeguard oil fields against the penalties from careless drillings and of production in excess of transportation facilities or of market requirements.

One of the difficulties presented, especially in the California fields, is that the Southern Pacific Railroad owns every other section of land in the oil fields, and in those fields the oil seems to be in a common reservoir, or series of reservoirs, communicating through the oil sands, so that the excessive draining of oil at one well, or on the railroad territory generally, would exhaust the oil in the government land. Hence it is important that if the Government is to have its share of the oil it should begin the opening and development of wells on its own property.

In view of the joint ownership which the Government and the adjoining landowners like the Southern Pacific Railroad have in the oil reservoirs below the surface, it is a most interesting and intricate question. difficult of solution, but one which ought to address itself at once to the state lawmakers, how far the state legislature might impose appropriate restrictions to secure an equitable enjoyment of the common reservoir and to prevent waste and excessive drainage by the various owners having access to this reservoir.

It has been suggested, and I believe the suggestion to be a sound one, that permits be issued to a prospector for oil giving him the right to prospect for two years over a certain tract of government land for the discovery of oil, the right to be evidenced by a license for which he pays a small sum. When the oil is discovered, then he acquires title to a certain tract, much in the same way as he would acquire title under a mining law. Of course if the system of leasing is adopted, then he would be given the benefit of a lease upon terms like that above suggested. What has been said in respect to oil applies also to government gas lands.

Under the proposed oil legislation, especially where the government oil lands embrace an entire oil field, as in many cases, prospectors, operators, consumers, and the public can be benefited by the adoption of the leasing system. The prospector can be protected in the very expensive work that necessarily antedates discovery; the operator can be protected against impairment of the productiveness of the wells which he has leased by reason of control of drilling and pumping of other wells too closely adjacent, or by the prevention of improper methods as employed by careless, ignorant, or irresponsible operators in the same field which result in the admission of water to the oil sands; while of course the consumer will profit by whatever benefits the prospector or operator receives in reducing the first cost of the oil.


Phosphorus is one of the three essentials to plant growth, the other elements being nitrogen and potash. Of these three, phosphorus is by all odds the scarcest element in nature. It is easily extracted in useful form from the phosphate rock, and the United States contains the greatest known deposits of this rock in the world. They are found in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Florida, as well as in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. The government phosphate lands are confined to Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Florida. Prior to March 4, 1909, there were 4,446,298 acres withdrawn from agricultural entry on the ground that the land covered phosphate rock. Since that time, 2,369,776 acres of the land thus withdrawn were found not to contain phosphate in profitable quantities, while 1,678,000 acres were classified properly as phosphate lands. During this administration there have been withdrawn and classified 437,673 acres, so that to-day there are classified as phosphate-rock land 2,514,195 acres. This rock is most important in the composition of fertilizers to improve the soil, and as the future is certain to create an enormous demand throughout this country for fertilization, the value to the public of such deposits as these can hardly be exaggerated. Certainly with respect to these deposits a careful policy of conservation should be followed. Half of the phosphate of the rock that is mined in private fields in the United States is now exported. As our farming methods grow better the demand for the phosphate will become greater, and it must be arranged so that the supply shall equal the needs of the country. It is uncertain whether the placer or lode law applies to the government phosphate rock. There is, therefore, necessity for some definite and well-considered legislation on this subject, and in aid of such legislation all of the government lands known to contain valuable phosphate rock are now withdrawn from entry. A law that would provide a leasing system for the phosphate deposits, together with a provision for the separation of the surface and mineral rights, as is already provided for in the case of coal, would seem to meet the need of promoting the development of these deposits and their utilization in the agricultural lands of the West. If it is thought desirable to discourage the exportation of phosphate rock and the saving of it for our own lands, this purpose could be accomplished by conditions in the lease granted by the Government to its lessees. Of course, under the Constitution the Government could not tax and could not prohibit the exportation of phosphate, but as proprietor and owner of the lands in which the phosphate is deposited it could impose conditions upon the kind of sales, whether foreign or domestic, which the lessees might make of the phosphate mined.

The tonnage represented by the phosphate lands in government ownership is very great, but the lesson has been learned in the case of such lands that have passed into private ownership in South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee that the phosphate deposits there are in no sense inexhaustible. Moreover, it is also well understand that in the process of mining phosphate, as it has been pursued, much of the lower grade of phosphate rock, which will eventually all be needed, has been wasted beyond recovery. Such wasteful methods can easily be prevented, so far as the government land is concerned, by conditions inserted in the leases.


Prior to March 4, 1909, there had been, on the recommendation of the Reclamation Service, withdrawn from agricultural entry, because they were regarded as useful for power sites which ought not to be disposed of as agricultural lands, tracts amounting to about 4,000,000 acres. The withdrawals were hastily made and included a great deal of land that was not useful for power sites. They were intended to include the power sites on 29 rivers in 9 States. Since that time 3,475442 acres of the original 4,000,000 have been restored to settlement because they do not contain power sites; and meantime there have been newly withdrawn 1,240,310 acres of vacant public land and 211,499 acres of entered public land, or a total of 1451,809 acres. These withdrawals made from time to time cover all the power sites included in the first withdrawals, and many more, on 149 rivers and 12 States. The disposition of these power sites involves one of the most difficult questions presented in carrying out practical conservation. The Forest Service, under a power found in the statute, has leased a number of these power sites in forest reserves by revocable leases, but no such power exists with respect to power sites that are not located within forest reserves, and the revocable system of leasing is, of course, not a satisfactory one for the purpose of inviting the capital needed to put in proper plants for the transmutation of power.

The statute of 1891 with its amendments permits the Secretary of the Interior to grant perpetual easements or rights of way from water sources over public lands for the primary purpose of irrigation and such electrical current as may be incidentally developed, but no grant can be made under this statute to concerns whose primary purpose is generating and handling electricity. The statute of 1901 authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to issue revocable permits over the public lands to electrical-power companies, but this statute is woefully inadequate because it does not authorize the collection of a charge or fix a term of years. Capital is slow to invest in an enterprise founded on a permit revocable at will.

The subject is one that calls for new legislation. It has been thought that there was danger of combination to obtain possession of all the power sites and to unite them under one control. Whatever the evidence of this, or lack of it, at present we have had enough experience to know that combination would be profitable, and the control of a great number of power sites would enable the holders or owners to raise the price of power at will within certain sections; and the temptations would promptly attract investors, and the danger of monopoly would not be a remote one.

However this may be, it is the plain duty of the Government to see to it that in the utilization and development of all this immense amount of water power, conditions shall be imposed that will prevent monopoly, and will prevent extortionate charges, which are the accompaniment of monopoly. The difficulty of adjusting the matter is accentuated by the relation of the power sites to the water, the fall and flow of which create the power. In the States where these sites are the riparian owner does not control or own the power in the water which flows past his land. That power is under the control and within the grant of the State, and generally the rule is that the first user is entitled to the enjoyment. Now, the possession of the bank or water-power site over which the water is to be conveyed in order to make the power useful, gives to its owner an advantage and a certain kind of control over the use of the water power, and it is proposed that the Government in dealing with its own lands should use this advantage and lease lands for power sites to those who would develop the power, and impose conditions on the leasehold with reference to the reasonableness of the rates at which the power, when transmuted, is to be furnished to the public, and forbidding the union of the particular power with a combination of others made for the purpose of monopoly by forbidding assignment of the lease save by consent of the Government. Serious difficulties are anticipated by some in such an attempt on the part of the General Government, because of the sovereign control of the State over the water power in its natural condition and the mere proprietorship of the Government in the riparian lands. It is contended that through its mere proprietary right in the site the Central Government has no power to attempt to exercise police jurisdiction with reference to how the water power in a river owned and controlled by the State shall be used, and that it is a violation of the State's rights. I question the validity of this objection. The Government may impose any conditions that it chooses in its lease of its own property, even though it may have the same purpose, and in effect accomplish just what the State would accomplish by the exercise of its sovereignty. There are those (and the Director of the Geological Survey, Mr. Smith, who has given a great deal of attention to this matter, is one of them) who insist that this matter of transmuting water power into electricity, which can be conveyed all over the country and across State lines, is a matter that ought to be retained by the General Government, and that it should avail itself of the ownership of these power sites for the very purpose of coordinating in one general plan the power generated from these government-owned sites.

On the other hand, it is contended that it would relieve a complicated situation if the control of the water-power site and the control of the water were vested in the same sovereignty and ownership, viz, the States, and then were disposed of for development to private lessees under the restrictions needed to preserve the interests of the public from the extortions and abuses of monopoly. Therefore, bills have been introduced in Congress providing that whenever the State authorities deem a water power useful they may apply to the Government of the United States for a grant to the State of the adjacent land for a water-power site, and that this grant from the Federal Government to the State shall contain a condition that the State shall never part with the title to the water-power site or the water power, but shall lease it only for a term of years not exceeding fifty, with provisions in the lease by which the rental and the rates for which the power is furnished to the public shall be readjusted at periods less than the term of the lease, say, every ten years. The argument is urged against this disposition of power sites that legislators and state authorities are more subject to corporate influence and control than would be the Central Government; in reply it is claimed that a readjustment of the terms of leasehold every ten years would secure to the public and the State just and equitable terms. Then it is said that the State authorities are better able to understand the local need and what is a fair adjustment in the particular locality than would be the authorities at Washington. It has been argued that after the Federal Government parts with title to a power site it can not control the action of the State in fulfilling the conditions of the deed, to which it is answered that in the grant from the Government there may be easily inserted a condition specifying the terms upon which the State may part with the temporary control of the water-power sites, and, indeed, the water power, and providing for a forfeiture of the title to the water-power sites in case the condition is not performed; and giving to the President, in case of such violation of conditions, the power to declare forfeiture and to direct proceedings to restore to the Central Government the ownership of the power sites with all the improvements thereon, and that these conditions could be promptly enforced and the land and plants forfeited to the General Government by suit of the United States against the State, which is permissible under the Constitution.

I do not express an opinion upon the controversy thus made or a preference as to the two methods of treating water-power sites. I submit the matter to Congress and urge that one or the other of the two plans be promptly adopted.

At the risk of wearying my audience I have attempted to state as succinctly as may be the questions of conservation as they apply to the public domain of the Government, the conditions to which they apply, and the proposed solution of them. In the outset I alluded to the fact that conservation had been made to include a great: deal more than what I have discussed here. Of course, as I have referred only to the public domain of the Federal Government I have left untouched the wide field of conservation with respect to which a heavy responsibility rests upon the States and individuals as well. But I think it of the utmost importance that after the public attention has been roused to the necessity of a change in our general policy to prevent waste and a selfish appropriation to private and corporate purposes of what should be controlled for the public benefit, those who urge conservation shall feel the necessity of making clear how conservation can be practically carried out, and shall propose specific methods and legal provisions and regulations to remedy actual adverse conditions. I am bound to say that the time has come for a halt in general rhapsodies over conservation, making the word mean every known good in the world; for, after the public attention has been roused, such appeals are of doubtful utility and do not direct the public to the specific course that the people should take, or have their legislators take, in order to promote the cause of conservation. The rousing of emotions on a subject like this, which has only dim outlines in the minds of the people affected, after a while ceases to be useful, and the whole movement will, if promoted on these lines, die for want of practical direction and of demonstration to the people that practical reforms are intended.

I have referred to the course of the last administration and of the present one in making withdrawals of government lands from entry under homestead and other laws and of Congress in removing all doubt as to the validity of these withdrawals as a great step in the direction of practical conservation. But it is only one of two necessary steps to effect what should be our purpose. It has produced a status quo and prevented waste and irrevocable disposition of the lands until the method for their proper disposition can be formulated. But it is of the utmost importance that such withdrawals should not be regarded as the final step in the course of conservation, and that the idea should not be allowed to spread that conservation is the tying up of the natural resources of the Government for indefinite withholding from use and the remission to remote generations to decide what ought to be done with these means of promoting present general human comfort and progress. For, if so, it is certain to arouse the greatest opposition to conservation as a cause, and if it were the correct expression of the purpose of conservationists it ought to arouse such opposition. Real conservation involves wise, nonwasteful use in the present generation, with every possible means of preservation for succeeding generations; and though the problem to secure this end may be difficult, the burden is on the present generation promptly to solve it and not to run away from it as cowards, lest in the attempt to meet it we may make some mistake. As I have said elsewhere, the problem is how to save and how to utilize, how to conserve and still develop; for no sane person can contend that it is for the common good that nature's blessings should be stored only for unborn generations.

I beg of you, therefore, in your deliberations and in your informal discussion, when men come forward to suggest evils that the promotion of conservation is to remedy, that you invite them to point out the specific evils and the specific remedies; that you invite them to come down to details in order that their discussions may flow into channels that shall be useful rather than into periods that shall be eloquent and entertaining, without shedding real light on the subject. The people should be shown exactly what is needed in order that they make their representatives in Congress and the state legislature do their intelligent bidding.

Note: Figures as to land withdrawals, classifications, and valuations are brought down to November 15, 1910.

Source: Presidential Addresses and State Papers of William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft, Address to the National Conservation Congress in St. Paul, Minnesota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363277

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