William Howard Taft

Letter to Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger on Coal Land Claims in Alaska

September 13, 1909

BEVERLY, MASS., September 13, 1909.

MY DEAR SIR: On the 18th day of August last Mr. L. R. Glavis, Chief of Field Division of the General Land Office, with headquarters at Seattle, Wash., called upon me here and submitted a statement or report relating to the conduct of the Interior Department, and particularly to the action of yourself, Assistant Secretary Pierce, Commissioner of the General Land Office Dennett, and Chief of Field Service Schwartz in reference to the so-called Cunningham group of coal-land claims in Alaska.

Mr. Glavis's report does not formulate his charges against you and the others, but by insinuation and innuendo, as well as by direct averment, he does charge that each one of you while a public officer has taken steps to aid the Cunningham claimants to secure patents based on claims that you know or have reason to believe to be fraudulent and unlawful. The report, which is voluminous and contains exhibits of telegrams, letters, and public documents. I directed to be copied and sent to you and the other officers involved. You and each of the other gentlemen named have now made written answers to the statement of Mr. Glavis, and accompanied them by additional exhibits taken from the records of the Interior Department, as well as by private letters.

I have examined the whole record most carefully and have reached a very definite conclusion. It is impossible for me, in announcing this conclusion, to accompany it with a review of the charges and the evidence on both sides. It is sufficient to say that the case attempted to be made by Mr. Glavis embraces only shreds of suspicions without any substantial evidence to sustain his attack.

The whole record shows that Mr. Glavis was honestly convinced of the illegal character of the claims in the Cunningham group and that he was seeking evidence to defeat the claims. But it also shows that there was delay on his part in preparing the evidence with which to bring this, with other claims, to hearing, and that justice to the claimants required more speedy action than the department, through Mr. Glavis, seems to have taken.

Mr. Glavis seeks, by quoting from a single telegram in the department, to show that at one time the department wished to delay him in his investigations of the Alaska claims and at another time unduly to hurry him, and he attempts to prove these two circumstances by citing telegrams and correspondence without disclosing other circumstances and correspondence which he knew or had under his control, and which do show an entirely proper reason for the action which, in each case, was directed to be taken.

In other words, the reading of the whole record leaves no doubt that in his zeal to convict yourself. Acting Secretary Pierce. Commissioner Bennett, and Mr. Schwartz he did not give me the benefit of information which he had that would have thrown light on the transactions, showing them to be consistent with an impartial attitude on your part toward the claims in question.

The great responsibility of Cabinet positions demands the selection therefor of men of the highest character and integrity. Possession of these qualities, as well as an ability and experience which especially fitted you to direct the affairs of the Department of the Interior, warranted your appointment as Secretary. Duty to the country, to you, and to myself requires that any aspersion upon the propriety of your acts or those of your subordinates be promptly met and carefully considered, to the end that, if justified, proper remedy may be applied, and if not that it may be publicly refuted.

By appointment of President Roosevelt you became Commissioner of the General Land Office in March, 1907, and resigned the position in March, 1908, and then returned to Seattle, your home, to resume the practice of the law. In March, 1909, I appointed you Secretary of the Interior, and you assumed the duties of your office on the 5th day of that month. In the interval, when you were not holding office, one of the Cunningham coal claimants consulted you in regard to the prospect of securing a patent upon the claims and invited your attention to the character of certain evidence which was being used to impeach the validity of the claims by Special Agent Glavis. You accepted the employment, visited Secretary Garfield and Commissioner Dennett, presented the question to them in respect to which you had been consulted, and found that there was no probability of securing the patent of the claims without presenting them under recent remedial legislation imposing conditions which the claimants were either unwilling or unable to meet. You so advised your clients. To pay your traveling expenses and for your services you received $250 and no more.

The inference which Mr. Glavis seeks to have drawn to your discredit in this connection is that you, while Commissioner of the General Land Office, came into possession of facts concerning the so-called Cunningham group of coal-land claims which made it improper for you to use such facts after your resignation in the course of securing the patents. I find the fact to be that as commissioner you acquired no knowledge in respect to the claims except that of the most formal character, and nothing which was not properly known to your clients when they consulted you. The evidence in respect to which you were consulted professionally was not secured by Mr. Glavis until after your resignation as Commissioner of the General Land Office.

A second inference sought to be drawn by Mr. Glavis against you is that you have acted improperly since you became Secretary of the Interior in reference to the consideration oi the Cunningham cases and have used your influence to interfere with Mr. Glavis's efforts to defeat the claims.

Your only action which could in any manner affect the Cunningham group of claims was an order made by you soon after assuming office, that the 30,090 claims pending and undisposed of in the Land Office should be pressed to final hearing and disposition as rapidly as possible consistent with justice, and these included the 931 Alaska coal claims, of which the Cunningham group numbered 19. As such expedition was essential both in the public interest and in that of the claimants it could hardly be said to be action taken in the Cunningham claims.

The record overwhelmingly establishes that expressly because of your previous relation as counsel to one of the claimants from the time you entered upon your duties of the office of Secretary of the Interior until the present day you have studiously declined to have any connection whatever with the Cunningham claims, or to exercise any control over the course of the department in respect to those claims; that you have said so in written and verbal communications to your subordinates and to the claimants themselves. Moreover, in May last you came to me and made a similar statement to me of your course and intention in respect to those claims.

The statement made by Mr. Glavis that while you did thus formally withdraw from any official connection with the Cunningham claims you nevertheless continued to exercise your influence in regard to them is not sustained by any evidence in the records produced.

The truth is that had you, or Commissioner Dennett, or Chief of Field Service Schwartz, during the years of the pendency of these claims, been desirous through dishonest motives and without regard to law and the interests of the public, of bringing them to patent, the opportunities for you to have done so were many, and the circumstance that speaks, not more conclusively than the others, but still more emphatically, against the accusatory statements of Mr. Glavis, is the fact that though his conviction that the claims were fraudulent or illegal was well known in the department, he was allowed, during all the years of the pendency of these claims, to remain in charge of them as an agent of the department, when it would have been entirely easy for you or Dennett or Schwartz to remove him to Portland or elsewhere, and thus take the claims out of his jurisdiction. Instead of this, with the consent and acquiescence of every officer whose corrupt motives in respect to these claims he now asserts, Glavis has remained continuously in control of the taking of evidence with respect to the claims, and only when the claims were about to be submitted to hearing before a tribunal was thought necessary (Mr. Glavis not having had any professional experience) to give them in charge of Mr. Sheridan, a lawyer, whose good faith and earnestness in opposing the patenting of the claims even Mr. Glavis has not had the temerity to question.

In your answer you request authority to discharge Mr. Glavis from the service of the United States for disloyalty to his superior officers in making false charge against them. When a subordinate in a government bureau or department has trustworthy evidence upon which to believe that his chief is dishonest and is defrauding the Government, it is, of course, his duty to submit that evidence to higher authority than his chief. But when he makes a charge against his chief founded upon mere suspicions, and in his statement he fails to give his chief the benefit of circumstances within his knowledge that would explain his chief's action as on proper grounds, he makes it impossible for him to continue in the service of the Government, and his immediate separation therefrom becomes a necessity. You are therefore authorized to dismiss L. R. Glavis from the service of the Government for filing a disingenuous statement, unjustly impeaching the official integrity of his superior officers.

I can not close this letter without referring to certain other matters connected with your conduct in the Interior Department, which have been unfairly used in the public press to support a general charge that you are out of sympathy with the declared policy of this administration, following that of President Roosevelt, in favor of the conservation of national resources, especially in connection with coal lands, with water-power sites, and with the system of reclamation of arid lands, which are all within the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.

In the first place, it was charged on the floor of the Irrigation Convention at Spokane by former Governor Pardee, of California, that you had restored to the public domain for settlement certain lands which had been withdrawn by the last administration for the purpose of conserving water-power sites, and that after complaint made thereof you had subsequently withdrawn some of the lands again from settlement; but that meantime, between the one act and the other, an opportunity had been given to the so-called "water-power trust'' to file entries and obtain vested rights in valuable water-power sites in the State of Montana.

At the same time that this charge was made by Governor Pardee there appeared in the public press, in a telegram which seems to have had the widest circulation, a statement quoted from a Montana paper that a water-power company, with a capital of ten millions of dollars, had in the interval between the order of rest oration and the order of withdrawal located and obtained vested rights in 15,000 acres of land in Montana, which absorbed for the company all the valuable water-power sites in that State, and the statement was accompanied by detailed reference to the particular land office and the particular agent through whom this result was accomplished.

The inference which it was sought to have drawn and which was drawn by newspapers hostile to you was that you had brought restoration to settlement of the land upon which were the water-power sites for the purpose of enabling private water-power companies to acquire vested interests; that after doing so you had then withdrawn what remained from public settlement, and that you took this course because you were out of sympathy with the policy of conservation of national resources, and were in favor of the corporate control of such water-power sites.

When the facts are examined in this regard it will be found that the persons responsible for the circulation of these charges have done you cruel injustice. The fact was that in January, 1909, in the last administration, executive orders were made withdrawing from public settlement 1,500,000 acres at the instance of the Reclamation Service for conservation of water-power sites.

Soon after you became Secretary of the Interior you brought this order to my attention and said that it included a great deal of land that had no water-power sites on it, running back many miles from the rivers, and that it included much land which ought to be opened to public settlement; that you had applied to the Reclamation Bureau to know whether it was desired for reclamation purposes, and what their recommendation was in the premises, and that they recommended that it be returned to the public domain.

You also advised me that it was possible to procure from the Geological Survey an accurate statement of the water-power sites which were available, and which might be subjected to private ownership, and that you would direct the Geological Survey to make such statements; and that then there could be made temporary withdrawals of the land needed to reserve these water-power sites until Congress could act

The order revoking the withdrawal of the million and a half acres was made in April. Sufficient information was procured from the Geological Survey to permit an order withdrawing the land upon which were water-power sites in May, and this withdrawal covered about 300,000 acres instead of a million and a half. The form of the new order of withdrawal was such that it set aside all filings and entries of any kind which had been made prior to its going into effect, and, as a matter of fact, not one single filing has been attempted on any of the water-power sites since the original order of withdrawal in January, 1909.

The story as to the 15,000 acres in Montana circulated by publication in the newspapers when presented by Governor Pardee was reduced to 158 acres near the Missouri River in Montana, or four tracts of 40 acres each; and it now turns out, from examination of the records, that these filings were refilings of entries made ten years before; that the refilings were made on the 11th of June, 1909, more than two weeks after the withdrawal of the water-power sites in Montana, and that the four tracts of 40 acres each filed upon had no water-power sites on them at all.

It further appears from a report of the Director of the Geological Survey that the order of withdrawal of January, 1909, was hastily made by townships and by reference to inadequate maps, that it included large areas not within miles of any river or stream, and that it failed to include many valuable water-power sites in the immediate vicinity. From the same reliable source it is learned that under the withdrawals made by your department from time to time, beginning in May last, there are now withheld from settlement awaiting the action of Congress 50 per cent. more waterpower sites than under previous withdrawals, and that this has been effected by a withdrawal from settlement of only one-fifth of the amount of the land.

In connection with the same charge, weight has been given to the fact that you have declined to carry out the contracts made by the Reclamation Service with homesteaders and entrymen, by which certificates were issued to entrymen for work done and material furnished with a view to enlarge the projects of the Reclamation Bureau.

You brought up the question of the legality of such certificates in a Cabinet meeting and were directed to submit it to the Attorney-General. That officer has, very properly, in my judgment, decided that it is at variance with an explicit prohibition in the reclamation law to issue such certificates. The fundamental mandate of that law is that no project shall be entered upon until there is money enough in the reclamation fund to pay for the project or part thereof contracted for.

The certificate system is, in fact, a system for borrowing labor and material and making the Government a debtor to intending settlers, a system that is inhibited by law and can not but result ultimately in disaster. Of course, those who have accepted such certificates for labor and material in good faith ought to bp recompensed, and I shall ask from Congress at the next session especial relief for them.

Meantime the work of reclamation should be carried on wherever funds are available with all the dispatch possible, and I am assured that this is being done. I hope that after you have made personal investigation of all the reclamation work and looked into the finances of the undertakings you will be able to make a report to Congress showing exactly what has been done, what ought to be done, and what additional legislation, if any, is needed and ought to be passed to further this great and important work.

Another instance in your conduct of the department which has been mentioned as indicative of your purpose to block the general plan of conservation of national resources is your refusal to carry out a contract made in the last administration between the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture by which the Interior Department, delegated to the Forestry Bureau of the Agricultural Department the power and duty to conserve the forests on the Indian reservations and to expend, under the control of the Forestry Bureau, the money appropriated by Congress to be expended by the Indian Bureau for such conservation of Indian forests. Your declination to carry out the contract was made necessary by a ruling of the comptroller, whose ruling is final and without appeal, even to the President, that such an arrangement is a delegation of responsibility and authority for the expenditure of money which the appropriation by Congress for the Indian Bureau did not authorize.

While I agree that it would avoid wasteful duplication in organization to authorize the Forestry Bureau of the Agricultural Department to take care of and develop the forests on Indian reservations, because the Forestry Bureau is much better able, with its trained men, to do the work with efficiency and economy, it is plainly necessary, in view of the comptroller's ruling, to secure congressional sanction for such cooperation. Meantime, your withdrawal from an unauthorized contract does not furnish the slightest basis for attributing to you unfriendliness to proper forestation.

In my judgment, he is the best friend of the policy of conservation of natural resources who insists that every step taken in that direction should be within the law and buttressed by legal authority. Insistence on this is not inconsistent with a wholehearted and bona fide interest and enthusiasm in favor of the conservation policy. From my conference with you and from everything 1 know in respect to the conduct of your department I am able to say that you are fully in sympathy with the attitude of this administration in favor of the conservation of natural resources.

Sincerely, yours,

Signature of William Howard Taft

Secretary of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

SOURCE: "Investigation of the Department of the Interior and of the Bureau of Forestry: Hearings Held Before the Joint Committee of Congress Relative to the Investigation of the Department of the Interior and Its Several Bureaus, Officers, and Employees, and of the Bureau of Forestry, in the Department of Agriculture, and Its Officers and Employees". Volume II. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1910.

William Howard Taft, Letter to Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger on Coal Land Claims in Alaska Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363242

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