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Socialist Forestry


The Venn diagram between socialism and forest policy in 2019 is basically me. But at one time, this was a major thing in the United States and during the 1930s and 1940s, really tore the Forest Service in two. The leading figure in that was Bob Marshall, one of the most fascinating figures of the New Deal era, who tragically died very young and combined socialism, forestry, and Judaism.

Adam Sowards has a great article reminding us of Marshall’s legacy at a time when socialism is once again both being debated and denounced in American politics:

The “socialist” sobriquet stokes ideological fires but douses historical understanding. One prominent example — Bob Marshall’s argument for nationalizing forests during the 1930s — reveals how socialist solutions emerge from specific contexts and problems, not ideological bunkers. In Marshall’s case, the dire state of private timberlands in the early 20th century prompted his call for reform. When massive problems develop, cross jurisdictional lines and are associated with market failures, big government responses can seem like the only possible solution.

BY THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, hundreds of years of unregulated cutting had ravaged the nation’s forests, and Americans faced a crisis that demanded intervention. “Rocks and mountains may be ageless, but men and society are emphatically of the present, and they cannot wait for the slow process of nature to retrieve the catastrophe caused by their unthinking destructiveness,” wrote Marshall, a forester for federal agencies throughout his career, a co-founder of The Wilderness Society and the person for whom Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Area is named.

A massive evaluation of American forestry conducted by the Forest Service in 1932 both shaped and reflected Marshall’s views. Appearing the next year, A National Plan for American Forestry, known as the Copeland Report, showed that private forests were failing. (The majority of the nation’s timber came from privately held forests, just as it does today.) They burned more often, were not harvested to provide a “continual crop of timber,” failed to protect watersheds and offered few recreational opportunities compared to public forests. They caused social problems, too, with lumber workers doing dangerous, transient jobs that resulted in mangled bodies and left hollowed-out towns behind. As Marshall saw it, “The private owner is thus responsible for almost every serious forest problem.”

So, Marshall argued that American timberlands should be publicly owned. In 1933, four years into the Depression and during the first year of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, Marshall published The People’s Forests, his own radical extension of the Copeland Report, which advocated for public ownership of practically all commercial forests in America. He was writing amid an economic catastrophe mirrored in the nation’s wild and rural landscapes, where bankrupted farmers, out-of-work loggers and drought-driven refugees were common, not unlike today.

Throughout The People’s Forests, Marshall showed how private ownership, even when tempered by public regulation, fell short; only full public ownership could keep forests and communities healthy. He united a biological and social vision for forestry, one where human happiness and decent livelihoods might sprout from robust forests. In articulating that vision, he made his socialist case plain: “The fundamental advantage of public ownership of forests over private ownership is that in the former social welfare is substituted for private gain as the major objective of management.” Much the way today’s Green New Deal seeks to redress both economic and environmental impoverishment, Marshall sought to replace private profit with a broader public spiritedness that aimed for long-term stability, ending cut-and-run practices and ultimately strengthening communities.

This stuff is almost totally unknown today. I wrote about the union aspect of this debate in Empire of Timber, when the International Woodworkers of America fought hard to socialize forestry in the 1940s. Of course, all this failed and the forests of the Northwest were completely decimated by a Forest Service incentivized to maximize the cut in the postwar era, leading to the near-death of the industry by the late 1980s. There could have been a different future with selective cutting and there could be a different future for our environmentalism today with a socialist approach.

And please, for the love of god, please avoid comments based on the one thing you read about the Soviets and the environment to pretend like you are smart by saying “socialism is also bad for the environment.” They are not helpful and misinformed, not about the Soviets, but about what socialism can mean.

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