This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V21", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
The Gardener's Monthly for May contained a well written article entitled "Our Forests," to which I desire to make a short reply. In many respects I agree with the writer. All that he says about forest fires is only too true, but in speaking of the effect of forest clearing on the climate he goes too far in saying that it is of no importance. The effects which forests are supposed to have on the climate are a very essential consideration. I say supposed to have, because until now no reliable continued scientific observations have been made on the subject. But it is to be hoped that with the improved apparatus, and the knowledge which has been gained, the United States Signal Service may do much good to science in this direction. But whatever direct effect forests may have on climate, they certainly wield a great influence as mechanical agents. As such their influences are various. They protect the soil from a too rapid evaporation; the absorption of water by the soil in forests is greater than in open ground. They serve as a barrier to protect the surrounding country from violent winds, and prevent the drifting of snow, which is in itself a great protection to vegetation besides its influence as a fertilizer.
They have a moderating effect on extreme changes of weather, both in Winter and Summer. They are a protection against malaria; and finally by their absorbing the water of melting snows and violent rains they protect the surface from the corrosion by swollen mountain torrents. All this is discovered by actual observation.
A leading author in speaking of the downfall of the Roman empire and the agricultural decline of the countries that were under its control, says : "Vast forests have disappeared from mountain spurs and ridges; the vegetable earth accumulated beneath the trees by the decay of leaves and fallen trunks, the soil of Alpine pastures which skirted and indented the woods and the mould of the upland fields are washed away; meadows once fertilized by irrigation are waste and unproductive, because the cisterns are broken or the springs that fed them are dried up; rivers famous in history and song have shrunk to humble brooklets; the willows that ornamented and protected the banks of the lesser water courses are gone and the rivulets have ceased to exist as perennial currents, because the little water that finds its way into their old channels is evaporated by the droughts of Summer," etc.
It has been found by actual observation that peach and pear trees are less liable to disease if planted under the protection of a forest belt. When Napoleon I, caused the expulsion of English iron, the Italian forges and furnaces were stimulated to great activity; the ordinary production of charcoal not sufficing to supply the demand, the woods were felled, the copses were cut before their time and the whole economy of the forest was deranged. At Piazzatorre the effect of this was such that maize no longer ripened, and at the restoration of the forests it again grew and came to maturity. Many similar instances might be cited if space allowed.
When this country was first discovered and explored by the white man, almost all of the land lying east of the Mississippi, with the exception of a comparatively few open plains, was one vast forest well watered. But with the gradual advance of civilization one portion after another of this grand gift of nature was destroyed, as the land was needed for other purposes. Now as there was so much of this land the lumber had no value; in order to get it out of the way it was burned wholesale, and this continued until in such localities as were thickly settled it began to be in demand. But this wholesale destruction has not yet ceased, as in the far West in some of the thickly wooded territories, where transportation would be too expensive to make the shipping of lumber profitable, it is still the practice for the settlers to burn off their clearings.
There are thousands of acres of land in the United States to-day which are under cultivation but are practically unlit for the purpose, and hardly pay for working them, but that would make good timber land if properly managed, and could be made profitable in due time. Among such lands we might mention steep river banks, river hills and rocky ground, etc. That lumber is increasing in value is very evident from the following figures :
In the neighborhood of Pittsburgh, unsawed logs of various kinds sold at about four cents per cubic foot in 1845, which was before the war, and prices of saleable commodities were about the same as they were in 1878, when logs of the same kind sold at eight and nine cents per cubic foot, delivered at the wharf in that city. The average price of sawed lumber at Pittsburgh in 1845 was $5.75 per thousand feet; in 1879 the average price was $14.80. These figures show an average increase of over a hundred per cent., but do not take into account the important fact that the quality of the best lumber of to-day falls far short of that in common use before the war. Hemlock lumber is not included in the calculation, as it was scarcely used before the war, and yet it now commands about the same price that good material did in 1845.
Several experiments have been made within the last few years to grow timber for profit in different localities which have already proved remunerative. According to the census of 1869 in the three States of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin 3,311,372,255 cubic feet of lumber were cut during that year, and in order to obtain this enormous quantity, 1,380 square miles of land were cleared. It has been computed that at this rate, twenty years would finish the lumber trade of those States. It is to be expected that the coming census will develop some equally startling statistics on this subject. Now it is an error to suppose that the acreage which has been entirely stripped, and is under cultivation, is diminutive. Such may be the case in some few localities, but we speak of the country at large, and when we consider the whole country we find that it is immense, and that the amount of such cleared land is daily increasing, while the demand for lumber is increasing in the same proportion. All this goes to prove that the consumption is far greater than the production, for very little has been done as yet to help the latter, and the proportion of land which has been allowed to take the natural course, and to start on the production of a fresh crop of timber, is comparatively small; while the frequent forest fires which are so destructive to the young growth are continually retarding the production.
We do not now greatly feel the want of timber,but the time is coming when, unless something is done to protect forest lands, lumber will be obtained with great difficulty. It is to be hoped that the people of North America will make the growing of timber an industry, which will undoubtedly prove profitable, and that the government will also take measures in that direction, and take the same interest in them that the European governments have for years. The assessment of taxes should be so regulated that the proportion of the assessment on wooded lands should be smaller than on cultivated ground. In conclusion it must be remembered that it takes time to produce a forest fit for cutting, and consequently we must prepare now for the future, and not wait until we really feel the want of such wood.
[We make room with pleasure for this interesting paper; though it follows in the popular wake of treating the question somewhat from patriotism, it also deals with facts and figures, which is what we all like. The comparative value of lumber in the Pittsburgh market as the years roll along is worth studying, and similar comparisons from other points would be acceptable. It would also be valuable to have further particulars about the plantations which have already proved remunerative and profitable.
The great trouble from forest fires seems insurmountable. People hesitate to plant largely when the hopes of years may be destroyed in a few hours. Possibly something may be done to check this evil, but in the meantime cannot some scheme of forest insurance be devised as well as insurance for any other property?
For our part, amidst the immense amount of trash that comes before the public about forest destruction and forest culture, we may discern advancing rapidly towards us an era of forestry culture; a branch of business which, when managed as any good business should be, will be one of the most profitable departments of soil culture that can perhaps be pursued. - Ed. G. M].