Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, March 5, 2009


Page 15



Lewis A. Groff: Hailed as Forest Conservationist




Lewis A. Groff, dean of the USC Law School at the time of its first graduating class, had earlier been commissioner of the United States General Land Office. He served in that capacity for barely over a year, yet he left his mark.

Groff took the oath of office as head of the federal agency on Sept. 26, 1889…notwithstanding that his nomination by President Benjamin Harrison was not to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate until Dec. 10. He resigned in mid-March, 1891. I’ve uncovered no reason stated in press reports of the time for his departure, but I would suspect it had something to do with his having taken the side of a colony of socialists in California in a land matter (which I’ll take up next week).

Despite the brevity of Groff’s service, the Associated Press’ report of his death on Jan. 28, 1928,  credits Groff with having been “father of the nation’s forest conservation movement.”

The nation was undergoing astounding expansion in that period when Groff served. Pioneers were building new towns in the prairies and beyond, to the western edge of the continent. Too, areas long settled on the far-distant coasts and points between were increasing their density and expanding their boundaries.

An Oct. 16, 1890 article in the Jackson (Iowa) Sentinel says that Groff’s office had reported that “nearly 19,000,000 acres has during the year been transferred to settlers by patents issued to them.”

Timber was needed—and trees were there for the hacking in lands belonging to the federal government…available not only to the settlers, but also to commercial lumbermen.

It was Groff who sounded the alarm that the forests were being ravaged.

In late 1890, various newspapers carried a story on Groff’s concerns. It did not have the ring of a wire service account. It—like the piece on Groff’s nomination, quoted here last week—had the markings of a press release. Yet, the “press release” is generally thought to hark only so far back as 1906.

To define terms: a “press statement”—the beginnings of which no doubt pre-date the founding of this nation—sets forth a position, in the same manner as it might be voiced in a speech, typically in the first person. A “press release,” by contrast, generally mimics the form of an objective news account, cast in the third person, though possibly containing quotations.

I’d venture a guess that the following (published in one newspaper—the Chillicothe [Missouri] Constitution—on three separate dates) was in the nature of a “press release” issued by Groff, before the term “press release” was known:

United States Land Commissioner Lewis A. Groff calls attention to the continued poachings on the forests of the public domain. An examination of the reports back as far as July 1, 1881, and extending up to the end of June, 1890, shows that the best timber still belonging to the United States is being ruthlessly destroyed and stolen, and will soon be exhausted. There are laws against this stealing, but the laws are imperfectly enforced, and always have been because citizens of the United States find it difficult to eradicate from their minds the idea that appropriating anything belonging to Uncle Sam is not stealing.

Our laws are utterly inadequate to protect the forests of the public domain, and they are melting away like snow wreaths in spring. Commissioner Groff suggests that whenever the public woods are situated in a locality in which timber is needed for building by settlers in their vicinity, that provision be made for supplying such actual settlers with the needed lumber. But the constant cutting of timber on these lands and shipping it off and selling it elsewhere, putting the money into private pockets, should be stopped at once and forever.

Commissioner Groff says the law should be made stiffer, so as to prevent the cutting and deportation of public timber beyond the neighborhood where it is needed, as stated by him. Also the cutting of any timber at all should be forbidden on mountain sides and near the head waters of streams, or at any other point where for economic, climatic or public reasons the land should be left permanently wooded.

Another concern Groff had was with safeguarding land rights of Native Americans. The March 11, 1890 issue of the Mitchell (South Dakota) Daily Republic reports his directive to the local “register and receiver” of the federal land office. The article discerns “his determination to protect the Indians on the ceded lands in the Sioux reservation in their rights against landsharks, boomers and town site adventurers.” It quotes the letter as advising:

“[I]t is the duty and intention of the department to protect the Indians, as fully as possible, from any wrong or imposition by which they might be deprived of the benefit intended to be secured to them under the law, whether it have the character of open violence or some kind of trickery and fraud, in the specious guise of mutual agreement for exchange of values.”

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