Robert Marshall. The People's Forests. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. xxxvi + 233 pp. $14.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87745-805-0.
Reviewed by Gregory J. Dehler (Front Range Community College)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2004)
The Marshall Plan
The Marshall Plan
As the drums of war beat louder and louder from the faint echoes in the fall of 2002 to a full blown crescendo in the spring of 2003, President George W. Bush stayed on message about the oil of Iraq. Many in the anti-war camp argued that the President's pro-war policy was driven by a hunger in the Bush Administration for Iraqi oil. In response, the President stated over and over again, that the oil of Iraq belonged to the Iraqi people. Yet, President Bush represents a political movement that was built to some extent on its calls for privatization of natural resources. In re-issuing Robert Marshall's The People's Forests seventy years after it was first published, the Wilderness Society, which Marshall co-founded, and the University of Iowa Press see an opportune moment to begin the discussion of natural resource ownership anew.
Marshall opens his account with a historical sketch of land usage, one that paints a grim picture of escalating resource exploitation and depletion. Through the subsequent three chapters Marshall examines the role of the forest as a resource on three levels. First, for raw materials provided to the economy; second, on an ecological level, as protection of watershed and an agent against soil erosion; and third, as an area of recreation. In this Marshall posits an argument that was fairly original in the 1930s when he made it. Everyone who has read Samuel Hays's Beauty, Health and Permanence could see the chapter on recreation as an oracle for post-World War II developments that would not have been as apparent to Marshall as they might appear to the reader. Marshall did not anticipate the late-twentieth-century focus on consumption that marks Hays's interpretation of the modern environmental movement; instead, the forester saw the forest as a place of hearty physical exercise and rest from mental exhaustion. He did not foresee our own time when more and more Americans find it impossible to get away from the office for an entire week, much less two, using their hard-earned vacation time taking the occasional extended weekend. Moreover, Marshall seems to want to manage the time of the humans in the forest. His professional technocratic socialism would have liked to keep the urban hordes and their recreational vehicle campers out of the "People's Forests." Too much tramping, after all, destroys the forest floor. "What we are after is human happiness," he declares (p. 79), yet the contradiction is unresolved, unless one is willing to let Marshall determine how to best relax in the forest. Towards the end of the book, Marshall sketches his regime for recreation management, including strict regulations and officials to enforce the rules, thus oddly urbanizing the wilderness.
Having stated the benefits of the forest, Marshall moves on to a discussion of ownership. Private ownership, he argues, causes immense waste. He would be angered with modern conservatives and libertarians who argue that the solution to environmental ills is to increase private ownership as a way of increasing the stake the user has in the condition of the land. Marshall saw too many federal resources being used to protect the forests of private owners who, in turn, failed to adhere to basic conservation practices. Marshall was clearly frustrated by the Clarke-McNary Act (1924) which provided private planters with free saplings, seed stock, and fire protection but got nothing in return in the way of adherence to conservation practices. Moreover, private foresters could not provide the land necessary for recreation, which for Marshall was millions of acres. Foresters are the most abusive employers, and Marshall argues the only method to improve the lot of lumberjacks would be to socialize the ownership of the modes of production. In case one is tempted to ask about the success of Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt and other conservationists whom Marshall praises, he did add a chapter entitled "Public Regulation," which highlights the failures of government regulation. Foremost among the failures is that lumber companies on regulation are like an alcoholic in rehab--the only chance of success rests in the desire of the patient for treatment. Marshall was dubious of the commercial foresters responding positively to regulation simply because they had never done so in the past. In the West, Marshall argued, the lumber companies controled the state legislatures, so they could get relief from federal regulations from the state. Besides, Marshall argued, what is the point since bad practices and the Great Depression had driven the lumber companies to the verge of bankruptcy? He did leave the door ajar, however, with several promising words concerning the prospects of the National Recovery Administration, as long as private interests did not get too much control over the codes.
Having concluded that private ownership and public regulation are failed policies, Marshall offers his solution: public ownership. Marshall, the socialist, believes that the forests are a public commodity that should be run and controlled by agents of the commonweal, the federal government. Believing that the Constitution and public opinion would not allow outright confiscation of property except in cases of tax delinquency, Marshall makes the case that the government would have to buy the land at fair market price. The total cost would be a $1 billion-chump change in 2003 dollars, but big money in 1933. Marshall suggests that the government issue bonds to the land holders, paying them a 4 percent return on the value of the certificate over twenty-five years. The government would only guarantee the first five years, payment of the remaining twenty would depend on the profitability of the federal forest. The cost to the government should then be about $41 million per year. Anticipating cries from local communities about the loss of their tax base, Marshall proposes that 25 percent of local forest sales from the federal forest be given to the local communities, and an additional 10 percent be invested in roads, trails, and facilities. He planned on socializing over 550 million acres, leaving slightly more than 100 million in private hands. Marshall, however, was not through. The People's Forests was written during the years of the Dust Bowl. Public ownership of the forests was just the first stage of Marshall's larger plan of centralized resource management. He wanted to completely reorder rural life by reallocating land according to ecological use. Toward that end, farms and entire towns would have to be moved. According to Marshall, agricultural settlements should be located in areas that could sustain farmers, and wilderness should be allowed to overrun land best suited for the forest. Unlike his plan for the socialization of the forests, however, Marshall offers no financial program for this even larger task. Perhaps, the technocrat in him needed additional input from other experts, such as sociologists, meteorologists, hydrologists, and geologists, among others.
Although the book is very readable, it is dated, as one might expect of one written seventy years ago. Overcoming such an obstacle would require a significant amount of editorial assistance, but none is provided with this edition. There is a foreword by Mike Dombeck of the U.S. Forest Service and a biographical essay by Douglas Midgett. Anyone wishing to assign this for classroom use would have to provide such editorial assistance themselves. For example, Marshall writes much about the National Recovery Act and "the codes," but there is no description of these codes. Moreover, his historical treatment in the first chapter requires some comment as it lacks sophistication even for such a short treatment; for example, the Native American is completely absent. A bibliography for those who would prefer a deeper treatment would also be helpful as well as a follow-up that would give readers--especially non-historians--a sketch of the New Deal and beyond. Where do the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Acts, the Resettlement Agency, and others fit in? One cannot deny the historical relevance of The People's Forests in the literature of environmental history, and historians should be grateful there is now an affordable version available for classroom use.
. Samuel Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
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Gregory J. Dehler. Review of Marshall, Robert, The People's Forests.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.