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The Great 19th-Century Timber Heist Revisited

From The Foundation for Economic Education

APRIL 01, 1990 by T.J. IIJIMA

1900's picture showing stacked logs at a Michigan sawmill.

1900’s picture showing stacked logs at a Michigan sawmill.

This article is based on a study prepared by T. J. Iijima while he was a Research Intern for the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), 502 South 19th Avenue, Suite 211, Bozeman, Montana 59715. Jane S. Shaw is a Senior Associate of PERC. The article was originally published as part of the PERC Viewpoints series.

In the second half of the 19th century, the timber industry cut down large stretches of native forest around the Great Lakes, leaving the land denuded and mills abandoned. Historians and, more recently, environmentalists have portrayed this episode as one of the worst environmental disasters of the 19th century. It has come to symbolize the view that capitalists will always destroy natural resources if they can make short-run profits by doing so.

However, the conventional wisdom about the Great Lakes timber harvest is incomplete. While it is legitimate to regret the logging of those trees, we should consider the reasons they were cut and the benefits that resulted. This article, based on the historical record, will make the following observations:

•       Given the vast stands of timber in the United States and the demand for lumber for construction, the harvests were economically sound.
•       The chief concern about the harvest at the time was that it would produce a “timber famine”—but this fear was based on poor understanding of economic forces. The nation was never in danger of running out of timber.
•       While the denuding of land is offensive to people today, to the people of the 19th century, turning forestland into farmland and providing lumber for construction were more impor-rant than the aesthetic condition of the land.
•       Most of the timberlands regrew over time, and some stands of virgin timber remain.
•       Society generally—and the Great Lakes region specifically—benefited from the harvests.

Did the Timber Barons Miscalculate?

A common theme of historians writing about the timber cuts of the upper Midwest is that the barons of the timber industry, perhaps reflecting the general opinion of the day, mistakenly thought that the Great Lakes timber would last forever. Andrew Rodgers, a historian of American forestry and plant sciences, is typical: “It was assumed that the continent’s forest resources were inexhaustible,” he writes. Robert Fries, in an award- winning book on Wisconsin’s economic history, states that “the very immensity of the forest[s] led most people to take them for granted, much as they did the sunshine and the air about them.”

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