Deforestation and the class struggle

Warwick Kenneth Fry wfry10 at
Sun Sep 12 00:36:22 MDT 1999

Nice, very nice, to see you 'add' your voice.

On Sat, 11 Sep 1999, Louis Proyect wrote:

> (from the chapter "Clearcut crimes" in the newly published MR book "Capital
> Crimes" by George Winslow, a "globe-spanning account of the violence of
> power and money--from street crime to corporate crime")
> The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest had established a variety
> of cultures between Alaska and northern California, but they were all based
> on a successful understanding and use of the region’s natural resources. In
> British Columbia, for example, four-hundred-year-old conifers were
> selectively harvested and laboriously dragged to the coastal villages by
> Native Americans, where they were carved into oceangoing vessels used for
> war, whaling, and fishing. Large boards were assembled into huge lodges
> that could house a hundred people or more. Bark was woven into rope for
> fishing nets and clothes and blankets for warmth and fashion. Young
> saplings became bows and arrows that were used to hunt the deer, mountain
> antelope, and other animals that made their homes in the forests. And the
> diverse ecology of the old-growth forests allowed a variety of trees and
> other plants to grow in areas that had been cleared by fire, storms or
> native peoples. From these woods, the tribes harvested edible roots, nuts,
> grasses, and berries, as well as grasses, cedar, and roots for weaving
> baskets, nets, and blankets.
> The forests also protected the salmon spawning grounds. The deep, sturdy
> roots of conifers and the duff and humus on the ground regulated the flow
> of water out of the mountains when the snow was melting, thus preventing
> massive soil erosion, landslides that could block the clean gravel streams,
> or raging torrents that could damage the salmon eggs. As the eggs grew into
> young fish, the shade of the huge conifers kept the streams cool and
> provided an ideal habitat for the insects that the salmon ate. Fallen logs
> also held vegetable matter and created deep pools that nurtured the young
> salmon until they could make their way to the sea. At the age of four or
> five, when the salmon migrated back to the same stream where they were born
> and traveled upriver to its headwaters, they spawned in the same spot as
> their parents. This ecological system produced salmon runs 50 bountiful
> that the early white settlers were only slightly exaggerating when they
> claimed it was possible to walk across rivers on the backs of the fish.
> Before the arrival of the whites, although choice streams had to be
> bitterly defended from rivals, the bounty of the salmon and the forests
> allowed the coastal tribes of northern Washington, British Columbia, and
> Alaska to develop relatively dense settlements and sophisticated cultures.
> Their way of life changed forever with the arrival of European and an
> traders in the late eighteenth century. Russian, British, and American
> ships quickly established a booming trade in rum, guns, trinkets, steel
> tools for pelts. By 1795 American traders were crowding out the British and
> the Russians, and by 1809 John Jacob Astor had founded at the mouth of the
> Columbia River a trading post that Thomas Jefferson called the "germ of an
> Empire." Americans who made huge fortunes trading for furs also dominated
> the North American fur trade with China profited from the Chinese opium trade.
> Initially, many of the coastal tribes profited as well, proving to be sharp
> traders and middlemen for the interior groups who trapped and skinned the
> animals. But as time wore on, arms supplied by maritime traders fueled the
> fierce warfare between tribes seeking to control certain rich salmon
> spawning grounds. As early as the 1780s one Indian village had acquired
> hundred muskets, and in later years villages even purchased swivel guns
> cannons to be mounted on their forts. The tribes and the traders sold
> prisoners of war to other villages, and the white traders’ practice of
> selling quantities of cheap booze created social problems that exacerbated
> the spread of European diseases, which wiped out whole villages. Between
> 1770 and 1900 the number of Indians on the British coast is believed to
> have declined from about eighty thousand to less than twenty-five thousand.
> Meanwhile, overhunting reduced the available pelts, and many of the lost
> their valuable fishing, timber, and hunting lands to white settlers. The
> British Navy regularly bombed villages that attacked settlers who were
> stealing Indian land and white officials forced the tribes to sign treaties
> that gave away valuable land and timber resources. Some tribes attempted to
> compete by establishing their own sawmills, but government authorities in
> both Canada and the United States, wrecked these enterprises by placing
> severe restrictions on the Indians’ legal rights (making it harder for them
> do business in the white economy) and by giving away vast tracts of
> valuable timberlands to rich speculators and politically well-connected
> entrepreneurs. "By 1910 much of the then commercially retrievable timber
> along the coast [of British Columbia] had been alienated by some form of
> lease to large private lumber holdings," writes historian Rolf Knight.
> In the United States some of the biggest subsidies were handed out to major
> railroads. In 1869 when Jay Cooke, America’s most powerful financier, was
> awarded a franchise to build the Northern Pacific, Congress also gave him
> forty-seven million acres of valuable timber, mineral, and farmland along
> the Canadian border. The Central Pacific, awarded a franchise to build the
> western half of the first transcontinental railroad, got nine million acres
> of free government land and $24 million in government bonds; the Union
> Pacific, which built the eastern half of the road, got twelve million acres
> and $27 million in government bonds to finance construction. Frequently,
> these enormous land grants were obtained by bribing government officials.
> In 1873 a congressional investigation into Credit Mobilier, a railroad
> holding company, found that it had given bribes or stock to James Garfield
> (a future president), the Democratic congressional floor leaders, a former
> vice president, the incoming vice president, and numerous senators and
> representatives.
> Grants to the railroads were part of the much larger U.S. government policy
> of subsidizing big business by handing out public lands and underwriting
> construction of major capital projects. Corporate interests took advantage
> of the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened public lands to individual
> ownership; by 1870 the railroads held about 131 million acres. Similarly,
> huge public assets were handed over to private business for almost nothing
> as a result of the Desert Land Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the Timber
> and Stone Act, which allowed private parties to purchase 160 acres of
> forestland for only $2.50 an acre. As late as the 1970s the Burlington
> Northern, Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Union Pacific railroads still
> owned 13.9 million acres of land, much of which had been acquired during
> the mid-nineteenth century period of permissive federal corporate welfare
> policies. It included large western forestlands and areas rich in coal,
> oil, and natural gas, and mineral rights on another 7.3 million acres.
> As the nineteenth-century railroads advanced west, so did the timber
> barons, using corporate giveaways (eventually worth billions of dollars) to
> denude the woodlands of New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and
> Minnesota. Nationwide, about 190 million acres of forest were chopped
> between 1850 and 1910—more than all the timber that had been in the first
> two hundred and fifty years of European settlement. and state governments
> encouraged the cutting by virtually giving hundreds of millions of forested
> acres under the theory that settlers tear the land and establish small
> farms. In practice, however, a great land fell to large landowners and
> corporations. Of the 5.6 million hat Michigan sold under the Swamp Land Act
> of 1850, one million acres went to one iron company; Florida sold four
> million acres to a single buyer. In many cases the increasingly powerful
> lumber barons sent employees to claim the land or quickly repurchased the
> holdings of impoverished immigrants, which they then clear-cut "as bare as
> the scalp me recruit at boot camp," one researcher notes. These massive
> acquisitions created many of the major corporations that continue to wreak
> the nation’s forests.
> But no timber baron was more successful in turning corporate welfare and
> environmental degradation into a huge business empire than Frederick
> Weyerhauser, the founder of a company that owned 7.1 million acres of land
> in the late 1970s, most of it in the Pacific Northwest. He got his start in
> the Wisconsin timber boom, bought cheap land from railroad interests (which
> financed the construction of their lines by selling the public land
> Congress had given them), and by the end of the nineteenth century
> controlled twenty lumber and railroad companies. Even bigger power come his
> way following a lucrative deal James Hill cut with Congress 1890s. Hill had
> already been granted twenty square miles for every his Northern Pacific
> railroad advanced across the continent. Unsatisfied with this lucrative bit
> of corporate welfare, Hill and other major campaign contributors got
> Congress to pass the Organic Administration Act of 1897. This law allowed
> Hill to trade mountain cliffs and glaciers in the Rockies for public lands
> in the Pacific Northwest that contained rich growth forests. Then Hill sold
> 900,000 acres of valuable timberland for million to Weyerhaeuser—a
> government-sponsored windfall profit for Hill and his financial backers,
> including the not exactly needy tycoon Morgan. Meanwhile, Weyerhaeuser
> continued to buy land from the  Northern Pacific and others. By the start
> of the Great Depression, he had made Washington state the largest
> timber-producing region in the United States, and his company had
> accumulated more forest property than any other private landowner in the
> Pacific Northwest.
> In these ways a tiny elite of exceedingly powerful corporations acquired
> ownership of the large rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, which
> accounted for about half of all the privately owned timberland in the U.S.
> in 1914. At the start of the First World War three timber barons controlled
> about one-quarter of all the region’s timber, and as late as 1996 the fifty
> largest owners held 77 percent of the private forestland in the Coast Range
> of Oregon (59 percent being held by just ten companies). In sharp contrast
> to this concentration of wealth, the other 23 percent of the land was held
> by 13,175 owners.
> Consider Tillamook County on the north Oregon coast, which had one of the
> world’s largest temperate rainforests. Here the Oregon and California
> Railroad was legally given some 27,450 acres of land, while speculators
> acquired a great deal more through graft and fraud. Between 1888 and 1891
> wealthy speculators, primarily backed by eastern financial and timber
> interests, had spent almost $500,000 to acquire timberland there. By 1892
> the local newspaper noted that "wealthy men. . . have succeeded in gaining
> control of most all the timber land in the county that are now surveyed,
> some of the firms owning as much as 40,000 acres."
> Although here, too, the sale of public land was designed to encourage small
> settlers, timber barons used a variety of illegal techniques to gain
> control. Typically, they bribed poor settlers to act as front men, and
> these land transfers to politically well-connected speculators would be
> recognized immediately by bribed officials while local settlers who had put
> in honest claims had to wait months or years to obtain their titles. By
> 1904, corruption had reached such a level that the U.S. government handed
> down dozens of indictments against speculators and powerful public
> officials, including U.S. Senator John Mitchell, Congressman John N.
> Williamson, U.S. Attorney John Hall, former U.S. Attorney and State Senator
> Franklin Pierce Mays, and former Land Commissioner Binger Hermann. Stephen
> Puter, who was known as "the king of the Oregon land fraud ring," admitted
> that "thousands upon thousands of acres, which included the very cream of
> timber claims in Oregon and Washington, were secured by Eastern lumbermen
> and capitalists, the majority of whom came from Wisconsin, Michigan and
> Minnesota, and nearly all of the claims to my certain knowledge were
> fraudulently obtained." By 1933, "most of the land [in Tillanook] was owned
> primarily by Eastern timber syndicates," notes Paul Levesque in his
> unpublished two-volume history of the county’s timber industry and most of
> the purchases occurred "during a period clouded in ... scandal, for it was
> indeed a dark age in the administration of the public domain."
> Louis Proyect
> (

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