Conservation in the Department of the Interior
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THE United States owns a body of land bigger than Texas that is failing to play its proper part in conservation. This is the public domain of the West, one-tenth of the area of the Nation, which belongs outright to the Government. It is the residue of that sweep of territory from the Alleghenies to the Pacific, the most valuable body of land in all the world, which it has been parceling out to the American citizens through the past 100 years. A land-hungry race has picked over the public domain, choosing the best land first, much as housewives might select their fruit at market. Only the "scorns" are left.

The Government has been ignoring the possibilities that lie in its remaining public lands. It has made no adequate effort to get the proper returns from Nature's output upon this area of 300,000 square miles, which is larger than Germany, and more extensive than six States like New York. It often has allowed it to degenerate like a vacant lot in the suburbs which gives little indication of the bungalows and peonies that it might harbor.

The watchword of the Roosevelt administration, which functioned so vigorously a quarter of a century ago, was conservation. The Reclamation Service and the Forest Service grew out of it. At that time President Roosevelt appointed a Public Lands Commission, which reported to him that "the general lack of control in the use of public grazing lands has resulted, naturally and inevitably, in overgrazing and the ruin of millions of acres of otherwise valuable grazing territory. Lands useful for grazing are losing their only capacity for productiveness, as, of course, they must when no legal control is exercised. Prompt and effective action must be taken if the value of very much of the remaining public domain is not totally to be lost."

A Typical Fragment of the Public Domain

Yet more than two decades have passed since this report was made and nothing effective has been done looking toward an understanding handling of the part of the public domain not included in the forest areas. Its condition is vastly worse than in the time of Roosevelt. Various proposals to improve this situation have been made. The central idea in most of them has been a Federal supervision that the range might be restored to the end that it would furnish additional pasturage for herds and flocks. This sort of supervision has been extended to the grazing lands within the national forests, and many proposals to apply it to the public domain have been made by the Department of the Interior, but they have failed of enactment into law.

The passing of years has brought to this problem a viewpoint that is somewhat different from that advocated by conservationists of the past. It sees two main possibilities in the remaining public domain. It believes, in the first place, that the ranges can be restored to the verdure of the past, when they provided much more feed for livestock than at present. This is desirable and important. It is not, however, the primary consideration. The second and more vital end to be accomplished is the restoration of the watershed to that point where it will yield the maximum of stream flow. Water in the West is more precious than gold. Water is life. The new conservation thinks of the public domain chiefly from the standpoint of the amount of water it may be induced to produce.

Cattle on the Public Range

The Streams That Carry the Water That Brings Life to the Arid West

For a moment look upon the empire that is fed from the streams that flow from the public domain. The great Missouri River stretches its tentacles to the top of the Continental Divide in the vicinity of Yellowstone and Glacier Parks, winds tenuously for 1,000 miles through Montana, the Dakotas, skirts Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and bisects Missouri. The Platte and the Arkansas come out of the Rockies farther south and strike eastward across the flat lands. The Rio Grande claims southern Colorado and New Mexico as its own and carries the possibility of irrigation to the fertile valleys that lie in two nations between El Paso and the Gulf. The mighty Colorado drains seven States and furnishes many basins in which its floods may be stored against the time of need. The Columbia River, barrier between Oregon and Washington, dips into Canada in one direction, and with its tributary, the sinuous Snake River, extending its numerous tails as far as Nevada and Wyoming, drains the whole Northwest. All these run through dead, dry lands and call them to life. The maintenance of their flow is the most important single matter in the western half of the United States.

Beginning at Taos, N. Mex., where Indian pueblos reach their maximum development, and extending 100 miles north through the wild country of the upper Rio Grande, is one of the best cattle ranges on all the Government domain. It is made up of rolling mountains, sparsely sprinkled with piñon and juniper trees, and normally matted with grama and wheat grasses. In the old days cattle grazed knee-deep in verdure, rains sank into a spongy ground covering and found their way gradually into the streams. But for a generation much of the range has been so overgrazed that much of the grass has been cropped when it appeared and has been prevented from making seed for later growth. The ground has become bare, trampled hard by much grazing. Rainfall runs from bleak, hard hillsides marked by a multitude of worn trails as it might from a tin roof. It cuts deep gullies in them, washes the rich humus from the surface, and exposes the underlying clay. Freshets go tearing down the Rio Grande, mud laden, and this vegetation-producing soil finally comes to rest in the reservoir created by the Elephant Butte Dam, gradually decreasing its storage capacity. A splendid asset, neglected, has become a local menace.

Gala Day at an Indian Pueblo in the Rio Grande Country

The Red Desert in southern Wyoming, sitting astride the Continental Divide, is as big as the State of Massachusetts. It used to be covered with common sage, bud brush, bud sage, salt sage, winter fat, crab scale, salt grass, and wheat grass. The desert is surrounded by a rim of mountains that rise to much higher elevations than it does. The desert and the mountains have worked together, each supplementing the other, to create one of the most favorable situations for sheep raising that has existed in the United States. The flocks grazed in the mountains though the summer and came out onto the desert, where dry weather had cured their grasses and where browse was abundant, for the winter. As many as a million sheep have wintered here.

But this was open range. The time was when one sheepman took a certain area for himself and another some adjacent area. There was plenty for all, and so no crowding and no quarreling. But the numbers of the flocks increased until the Red Desert filled to overflowing. It faces the menace of overgrazing, of the destruction of its native values. Without action to save it the end is inevitable.

Buffalo on the Western Range

These are typical areas on the public domain in the West that have drifted into a sad state under the theory that Government lands are open range, to be used at will by all comers. All the public domain has suffered similarly. However, the condition that it is in at present is not necessarily permanent. If properly handled, these areas would promptly restore themselves.

An example from Montana of what they would do is cited. Back in 1909 much alarm developed about the danger of extermination faced by the buffalo of the plains. The Government purchased a tract of 18,000 acres of exhausted range land in Montana, fenced it, and put a small herd of buffalo on it. In three years the range was quite restored, and the buffalo wallowed in tall bunch grass that tickled their bellies in a way reminiscent of the days when they owned the plains.

The possibility of improving the condition of the range that has been most generally accepted through the decades is that of a supervision of these lands from Washington—such a regulation of the use of the range and a policing of it as to allow it to recover its former condition and to serve its proper purpose. A substitute theory is the transfer to those States willing to accept the responsibility of the control of the surface rights of all public lands not included in national parks and monuments or in the national forests.

In support of this latter principle it is set out that the conservation of watersheds is the fundamental issue, water the first consideration. It is held that the people of the West have had a peculiar experience in communal living and cooperative action in such matters as the development of irrigation projects. It is argued that there should be a great western strategy for the protection of watersheds and that the Western States, being water conscious, are ready to develop it.

Waiting for Water in the Dry Country

The present situation in these Western States as to land not in the hands of individuals is next to impossible. This comes about chiefly because of the peculiar ownership of it. The land belongs to three different agencies—the Federal Government, the States, and the railroads. The situation would not be so bad if it were not for the peculiar manner in which this land has been distributed. The Government surveys mapped the western lands by townships and divided the townships into sections. There were 36 sections, each containing 640 acres, in a township. The land being thus surveyed, two sections out of each township were given to the States for the benefit of their school fund. In New Mexico and Arizona four sections per township were set aside for schools. Special grants were added for the support of universities, hospitals, and other institutions. These State lands were not awarded in solid blocks but in sections scattered throughout the public domain. Each section is completely surrounded by Government land or by land that has passed into other ownership. This makes it impossible to handle large areas in a block, and single sections are too small for consideration as grazing land.

When railroads were built though the West they were given grants of alternate sections of Government land for distances varying from 20 miles to 40 miles on each side of their tracks. Thus checkerboards were laid down in which alternate sections were owned by the Government and the railroads.

Irrigation Brought to Railroad Lands

When the situation developed to the point where the railroads might have leased their grazing lands to advantage, they found that it was impossible for them to do so. They could not inclose large areas without fencing in Government land also, and this was not permitted. The Government has stuck to its policy of maintaining the open range and has forced it, in some instances, upon the railroad lands and grant lands as well.

Thus it develops that a greater area than that covered by Government lands falls under the pall of its mismanagement. The State lands, by and large, become open range also, are overgrazed, lose their pasturage possibilities, and deteriorate as watersheds. This adds to the public domain, already bigger than Texas, an area of State land equal to all the Middle Atlantic States, which becomes a part of the open country that is not serving its proper purpose. The railroads, being unable to inclose their lands properly to protect them from overgrazing, present an additional area as big as New England that is improperly handled. Thus, ignoring State and railroad land that has passed into private ownership, we have an expanse of land equal to Texas, the Middle Atlantic States, and New England that is not serving its proper purpose. This situation, presented in tabular form, but in round numbers in acres, would appear about as follows:

StateRemaining public
Lands granted
to States
Lands granted
to railroads

Arizona 16,900,000 8,000,000 9,400,000
California 20,200,000 5,500,000 13,700,000
Colorado 8,200,000 3,700,000 4,000,000
Idaho 10,700,000 3,000,000 2,000,000
Montana 6,900,000 5,000,000 17,500,000
Nevada 53,400,000 2,000,000 5,000,000
New Mexico 16,300,000 4,400,000 4,000,000
Oregon 13,200,000 3,400,000 4,500,000
Utah 25,100,000 5,800,000 2,400,000
Washington 1,000,000 2,400,000 11,000,000
Wyoming 17,000.000 3,500,000 5,700,000

The new conservation proposal contemplates that the Government lands shall be turned over to the States as and when they put themselves in a proper position to handle them. This means that the States must convince the Federal Government of their willingness and ability to do this, and that they must pass whatever laws and create whatever agencies that are necessary for the proper execution of the task. The lands may be turned over to the States that do this. Where the lands are not wanted by the States or where those States do not give guaranties satisfactory to the Federal Government of handling them properly, they will not be released.

Can the States Extract a Profit from Such Lands?

When a State receives the Government land, however, it is maintained that a greatly improved situation will exist for handling it. State and Federal lands will go into one pot and can be operated as a unit. They may be controlled, restored, leased, and fenced as circumstances seem to warrant. Areas checkerboarded by railroad lands may be handled under agreements between the two parties owning them. Their interests will be identical and unit action should be natural and easy.

Homes Like This Follow Irrigation

The State, dominating this situation, should be able to bring about the proper use of all its grazing lands. Great benefits to its citizens should come about through the restoration of this land and its proper use for the production of grass and of maximum stream flow. It will be required to prepare for this before the land will be turned over to it. This theory holds that the States are competent so to take care of these lands as to get proper returns from them. The States, being close to this problem, can adapt themselves to the varying requirements in different sections and work out individual solutions. It may be wise to put the responsibility for handling such situations on the States rather than to leave it with a distant and bureaucratic Federal Government. But if the responsibility is left with the Federal Government, adequate control laws which the department has urged for a quarter century must be provided.

Western Lands Yield Heavy Potato Crops

Each of the Western States has an official agency to handle its lands, usually under a State land commissioner. Such agencies were necessary to handle the lands already in the possession of the States. An organization has already been developed and is functioning. It is looking after this land so inconveniently mixed with that in other ownership. The same organization would be able, with a bit of expansion, to handle the added lands. It might even develop that the added areas, together with a greater freedom in handling them, would prove proportionately much more profitable than the lands already owned by the States.

Montana, for example, is already in possession of about 5,000,000 acres of land—an area about equal to that of New Jersey. It has a land commissioner and a staff that cost the State around $75,000 a year. That office collects in rental and lease money about $500,000 a year. Thus is a substantial profit shown from the State lands. There are about 7,000,000 acres of Government land, an area comparable to that of Maryland, within the borders of Montana. It is likely that an addition of $25,000 a year to the appropriation for the land commissioner would enable him to handle the added lands. It is probable that an additional $500,000 a year could be brought into the coffers of the school fund for Montana from these lands.

Newcomers in the Desert

Similar situations exist in many of the States. Colorado, for example, in the last year for which figures are available received $642,000 in rentals for the surface rights of the 3,700,000 acres of State lands that have been turned over to her. She might get a comparable profit if she were to come into possession of 8,000,000 acres of Government land still within her borders. Idaho got $190,000 from the 3,000,000 acres of State lands she has received. There are 10,000,000 acres that might be added to this area. Washington got $315,000 from 2,400,000 acres and might add 1,000,000 acres to it. New Mexico got $136,000 from grazing leases for 4,400,000 acres and might add 16,000,000 acres to it. Wyoming received from grazing and sales, from her 3,500,000 acres of State lands, $548,000. She might add 16,000,000 to that acreage. Arizona got $303,000 from leasing of State lands. She has 8,000,000 acres and might double it. But profits are not the objective; watershed protection by an adequate police power is.

Sheep on the Public Domain

Many estimates are made of the degree of depletion of ranges in many parts of the West. With relation to some places it is said that their proper care would increase the number of livestock they would pasture by 50 per cent. Of other places it is said that the carrying capacity of the range might be doubled. Authorities from other important sections of the range country, and in position to know, state that the carrying capacity might be multiplied by five, by ten. It would seem to be a conservative statement to say that if the ranges were carefully handled and restored they might be brought to a condition where they would carry three times as much livestock as they do.

Thus we have the situation set-up. The proper handling of range land would make it possible for livestock growers to produce three times as many beefsteaks and lamb chops on it as they do at present. While this land is in this way adding to the meat supply and the wealth of the Nation, it would also be serving an indirect purpose that would be yet more important. It would be maintaining a ground covering that would prevent erosion and conserve the stream flow of the dry country, where water is the controlling element, upon which all else depends.

The final survey of this remnant of the public domain and its assignments to its proper owners has been one of those tasks of government that has dragged on and on through the decades. Federal legislation has been inadequate. The General Land Office has had small authority to protect Federal lands. Obviously this land situation should be taken hold of with vigor and cleaned up, whether or not the public lands go to the States.

When the proposal to turn surface rights over to the States was made, there were those who took the position that they should have the mineral rights as well. The new theory of conservation does not go this far. It takes the position that practically all the net returns from lands leased on a royalty basis for the production of coal, oil, or other minerals already go to the Western States. Under the law the Federal Government takes 10 per cent of the returns from such leases to cover the expense of operation. The State in which the minerals were produced gets 37-1/2 per cent. This leaves 52-1/2 per cent, all of which goes into the reclamation fund and all of which is spent in these same Western States. Since the Western States at present get all the money from minerals, there would seem to be no great possibility of increasing their return under their own management. The conservation of mineral resources has aspects that are national and often call for a consideration from a viewpoint that is different from that of individual States. For the present, at least, it is considered advisable that the Federal Government should retain the subsurface rights of these western lands.

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Last Updated: 20-Jul-2009