Deforestation and the class struggle

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Sep 11 09:07:42 MDT 1999

(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

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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