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Natural Resources - Products of Land

( Originally Published 1918 )



Are natural resources unlimited ? Natural resources are products of nature useful to man. Some of them, such as air and sunlight, seem to be unlimited in quantity. If they were actually unlimited in quantity, they could have no price or money value ; in proportion as they are rare, their price is high. Abundance or scarcity of natural resources always means abundance or scarcity in relation to population. In a thinly settled country, air, water, and even land are practically unlimited in quantity and have little or no money value ; they are regarded as free gifts of nature. But in a crowded city block, land is very valuable, water has to be bought, and good air and sunlight have to be paid for in the form of a higher rent.

Wastefulness. We generally regard these resources as unlimited and free until we are made to see that they are not so: We have regarded fertility of the soil as a free gift, and have neglected to preserve it by restoring to the earth the plant foods we have used out of it ; we have not spared our trees, supposing there would always be plenty of them because once there were forests which the population of that time could not possibly have exhausted ; we have polluted our streams. Now, as our population has in-creased, we are beginning to see that we must conserve our natural resources if we are going to have them ; and we have undertaken to conserve, first of all, those resources which we can see to be not unlimited in amount, and which will be unequal to the present and future needs of the nation.

Conservation. This is the nation-wide movement for conservation of natural resources. But when we speak of such conservation we do not mean that the natural resources which we see are limited in quantity shall not be touched — shall remain undeveloped; we mean that they shall be so wisely used that we shall have what we need without lessening the stock of resources for succeeding generations. This can be done by preventing waste, by keeping the soil fertile, by planting trees, and by other enlightened methods.

Utilization of natural resources. No matter where man lives, or how low or high his degree of civilization, he uses the natural resources of the earth to supply his three great needs : food clothing, and shelter. Civilized man has made use of dozens o natural resources which the savage formerly inhabiting a region left untouched. The Indians had a constant need of fuel, and when the local supply of wood gave out they moved on to a place where there was more ; they thought, in fact, that the reason for the coming of the white man was that he was in search of wood. But to-day the people of Pennsylvania, for example, who occupy the former Delaware Indian tract, have a choice of wood, hard coal, soft coal, coke, petroleum, natural gas, manufactured gas, and electricity.

Their mere presence not enough. Very likely there are resources in nature of which we have not availed ourselves any more than did the Indians in the case of natural gas. The mere presence of the resources is not the point ; the knowledge, industry, and energy of man are needed if anything worth while is to be done with them. It is true enough that " no amount of human fore-thought and energy will give a country beds of coal and iron " ; but it is equally true that those beds might as well not be there if the population is too ignorant and slothful to make use of them. What the presence of natural resources does is to suggest and direct the lines of industrial development. They do not make a people rich — what they do is to make an industrious people richer. The winning combination is where varied and abundant natural resources are available to an alert and industrious people.

Basis of our material progress. Throughout the course of its national development the United States has made great material progress in all lines of industry. The causes of this success are the possession of the best and largest part of a rich continent, with abundant and fertile land, a healthful and invigorating climate, excellent mineral supplies, a topography permitting of easy communication, and other advantages which will be recounted as we go on. These may be considered, if we wish to use poetical language, to be " gifts of nature."

Inventory of our resources. In this country, up to recent years, we proceeded on the comfortable theory that natural resources were vast and inexhaustible ; we did not even count them up and estimate their quantity. But during the latter years of the last century it became apparent that they were not inexhaustible — in fact, that some of them had been pretty well used up, not to say squandered and wasted. In 1908 a national commission was appointed to take an inventory of our natural resources — the first systematic survey of the sort which we ever made — and its report was transmitted to the President the next year. It showed, among other things, what these natural resources, along many lines, had been before they were used at all ; what part of them had been used up already ; and what the prospect was as to the future. In general, it clearly revealed that this continent had been very copiously endowed by nature with nearly all the important resources which go to make a nation rich and prosperous. This report is a large and detailed affair; what we need here is a much briefer and simpler inventory of those natural national resources which form the foundation of American industrial and commercial life.

Mineral resources. The mineral resources of the United States are much superior to those of any other nation. The present annual value of our mineral products far exceeds that shown by the output of our nearest rivals. Our advantage lies in the fact that we have very copious sources for practically all the minerals that are basic in industrial development; of the minerals important in industry we produce all but platinum, tin, and nickel. In the matter of minerals we are all but independent of the rest of the world.

Coal. Countries with an abundance of coal and iron enjoy, in this age of the world, a surpassing advantage; it has been said that they are more than likely to be the ruling nations. Iron is one of our commonest metals ; and our coal deposits outrank, both in quantity and quality, those of any other country in the world. As it is very difficult to determine the extent of mineral deposits, we have to rely upon the estimates of those best qualified to judge, when it comes to the question as to how much coal we have. Some have said that our coal deposits exceed those of all other countries combined; and one expert believes even that they represent from sixty to seventy per cent of all the coal deposits yet discovered in the world. It has been figured out that there are about five hundred thousand square miles of coal area in this country — an area equal to about one thirteenth of the whole surface of the United States. And these coal fields are well situated ; it is understood that coal is a bulky and heavy article as compared with its price and that long hauls of coal are a handicap on industry, so that it is a great advantage to manufacturers to have the coal fields widely scattered over the country instead of being concentrated in a few places. It is particularly fortunate if coal deposits are located not very far from iron deposits. But now, if we place one point of a compass on each coal area in this country and sweep a circle with a radius of five hundred miles, practically every part of the country will be included within a circle. This represents graphically the advantages available to American manufacture.

Iron. - Just as coal is the most important nonmetal, so iron is by far the most important metal. Industry of the present day is built on iron ; there is scarcely an economic activity of any sort that does not require it. We need not recall the superior physical qualities of this metal which make it indispensable to civilization. It is cheap, because it is common and is easily reduced to the metallic state ; but it is even cheaper, naturally, where it is most abundant and where it is near coal deposits. Iron is found in nearly every state in the Union, and at the present time is mined for blast-furnace use in three fifths of our states. This country leads all others in the annual production of iron ; but, in spite of the wide development of our resources along this line, only a small fraction of the known deposits has been touched.

Petroleum. The known areas of petroleum fields total, for this country, about eight thousand four hundred and fifty square miles. In spite of the rapid and accelerated production since the fields were first tapped, in 1859, it has been estimated that there still remain to be taken from the ground from eight to ten times as much oil as has been extracted up to date.

Natural gas. Natural gas, says an expert, is " the most perfect form of fuel which nature has furnished us " ; it is of higher efficiency than the so-called " producer " gas, because it is practically free from nitrogen. This country leads the world in the extent of natural-gas fields, having a combined area of about ten thousand square miles. The fields are scattered widely over the country. This natural-gas resource affords, perhaps, the worst example of reckless waste by a careless people : high-pressure wells have not been capped ; other wells have been set on fire and allowed to burn indefinitely ; in getting the petroleum, with which the gas is associated, the gas has been allowed to escape freely into the air, with no attempt to save it ; and there has been not a little waste in transporting it through leaky pipes.

Other minerals. There are numerous other mineral resources which are important in American industrial life and which have left a mark upon the industrial history of the country. One of the most useful of these is copper, in the production of which we have for a number of years surpassed other nations. Experts tell us that it is impossible to estimate our copper deposits with much accuracy ; and the same is true of other of our mineral resources, such as gold, silver, lead, and zinc. With respect to all these minerals we are important producers, and our output has been fast increasing ; at the same time we have developed, on the side of technical process, the means for handling with profit lower and lower grades of ore. Our resources in aluminum are likely, as time goes on, to become the basis of an important industry ; they are really illimitable, for the entire crust of the earth contains, on the average, about eight per cent of aluminum. Further, this country is well supplied with building stone and other structural materials, such as clays, slate, and cement ; and there are important deposits of phosphates and other mineral fertilizers, which, because of the exhaustion of the soil over large areas of the country, are coming increasingly into demand.

This preliminary survey of mineral resources will serve as a background for our treatment of the mineral industries, presently to come. We now turn to the natural resources in living things, with which our country is endowed.

Forests. The native forests were not the product of man's labor or foresight. There are, of course, young forests that have been planted and raised by human effort, just as there are rubber plantations or herds of horses as distinguished from " wild " rubber trees or wild horses ; but all of the forests which have been used in the United States hitherto were natural forests and so belong among the natural resources. Our original forests surpassed, both in extent and value, those of any other civilized nation ; and they constituted a great advantage in the competition of peoples. No other element in man's environment has been more extensively utilized by him, or has entered more intimately into his life economy, than the tree. Food, clothing, and shelter have all been derived from the forest; so have materials for fuel and lighting, and for the building of edifices of all kinds, of ships, and of other useful structures. This may be the iron and steel age, but, even for building, wood is not yet dispensable.

Forests of the United States. The original forests of the United States have been classified by the National Forest Service into five main divisions, which comprise a vast extent of wood-land overgrown by the most useful staple varieties of trees available for general industrial and commercial development.

The Northern Forest reached across the northern part of the country, from the Atlantic to, and including, Minnesota, and comprised New England (except Connecticut and Rhode Island), the larger part of New York and Pennsylvania, an extension from Pennsylvania along the Appalachian Ridge to northern Georgia, and more than half of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Originally, it is estimated, this forest covered some one hundred and fifty million acres, and was composed of white and red pine, spruce, hemlock, cedar, balsam, fir, birch, black cherry, and other hard woods.

The Southern Forest stretched along the coast from southern New Jersey, south and west, including much of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, some of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and all of Florida and Louisiana. Here were, originally, about two hundred and twenty million acres; and the leading wood was yellow pine, although there were great quantities of cypress, magnolia, and oak.

The Central Forest is between the two above-mentioned areas and shades gradually into them. It was once a great hardwood growth, covering some two hundred and eighty million acres and containing walnut, maple, oak, elm, and ash in abundance.

The Rocky Mountain Forest covered, originally, about one hundred and ten million acres. Yellow pine was the leading wood, though other soft varieties occurred in abundance.

The Pacific Forest embraced the timbered areas of California, Oregon, and Washington. Here, originally, about ninety million acres were covered with redwood, yellow pine, Douglas fir, and other similar trees ; and here were, and still are, the giant trees of which we see pictures in the magazines.

Present condition of our forests. This is a description of our country's forests as they once were, rather than as they now are. We have been using up our forests faster than they can grow, so that there are still standing perhaps less than two thirds of the total original growth; also we have used up the best wood, so that probably not more than half of the salable timber which we originally had still remains. But we have somewhat awakened to the folly of our course and have learned from the Europeans, whose original forests began to give out a long time ago, how to use more economically what we have and how to reforest the areas which have been cut. The profession of forester is becoming quite important among us, whereas years ago no one ever heard of such a vocation.

Water power. Water itself is a necessity to life — it is really more than a resource. The human body is more than half water, and its fluid constituents must be regularly restored. Without it there could be no industrial history, because there would be no history at all. Its indispensability in agriculture has been alluded to under the topic of rainfall . But all this is self-evident if one stops to think ; in this place we shall confine our attention to the importance of water power as a natural resource.

Water power and other power. For ages man has used the force of falling water ; in colonial times in this country it was the great source of power in industry, and settlements were located where it was to be had for the mills. Numerous manufacturing towns arose along the waterfalls of New England and along the "fall line" farther south; they may use coal and steam nowadays, but their original industrial momentum came from the water power. The steam engine has rather generally replaced water power in manufacture ; but the movement toward the conservation of natural resources has drawn attention back to the water-power resource. The prospect of the advancing exhaustion of the coal beds and the rise in the price of coal has set people to considering the plan of using water power much more than they do. Water power is now coming again to be regarded as a very valuable natural resource, that ought to be preserved and developed, if not for this generation, at least for a future one.

Water power of the United States. The best information upon the water-power resources of the country is that compiled for the National Conservation Commission, in 1908, by the United States Geological Survey, although other and later government reports contain much information. From these it appears, among many other important matters, that the potential water-power resources of the country are geographically much concentrated: some 72 per cent is found in the Mountain and Pacific states ; and nearly one half of the total (42 per cent) is located in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Therefore, unless this power can some-how be carried or transmitted over great distances, it cannot be rendered widely available. It has often been assumed that we could, in time, use water power for running the bulk of the industrial plants throughout the country ; but this is very doubtful.

Limits to the use of water power. Five great groups of states — the New England, Middle Atlantic, East North Central, West North Central, and West South Central—are already using power very much in excess of what they could ever, at best, get out of their water-power resources. These groups included, in 1912, sixty-seven million inhabitants, or 70 per cent of the total population of the country. Water power, however developed, can never supersede all the steam and other power now in use and to be produced — not, at least, under any conditions now known. Until some new and unforeseen method is devised for extending greatly the distance over which electric power may economically be transmitted, so that the enormous power resources of the Western states can be developed and carried into the Mississippi Valley and to the Atlantic coast, the greater part of the country will have to rely, for the larger proportion of its power, on sources other than falling water.

Plant and animal life. The nature of the flora (apart from the forests) and fauna of this country has not exercised the influence on its history which one would perhaps at first sight expect. The type of wild plant and animal existing in a region is most important to a savage, and often very significant for the colonist; but when a nation has surrounded itself with the conditions of civilization, this no longer matters very much. Plants and animals can be transported about from country to country, so that it amounts to very little just where they were native — of what country they were natural resources. Also both plants and animals have been so changed by the activity of man, in breeding and improving them, that they are no longer genuine natural products, such as, for example, a pine or a spruce.

Plant and animal life of North America. However, it is not right to dismiss this topic without any consideration. We should at least recall the fact that the earlier settlers became acquainted with Indian corn here — a product destined to play a great part in commercial history, whether it can be correctly called'a natural resource or not. And when we turn to the animal life native to this country, including the fish of the neighboring waters, it is scarcely fair to say, as one writer does, that the animal life indigenous to North America had enormous significance to the aborigines, less to the colonists, and has scarcely any to us today." The fur trade may be a thing of the past, but the fisheries are still with us, as a later chapter will show. In general, however, the flora and fauna of this country cannot be compared, as natural resources of a lasting type, with those other resources which have been mentioned above. Our important plants and animals are, in the form we know them, the products of human thought and effort rather than of nature. The native products are gone or are altered. Their importance is historical rather than contemporary, as will appear in the following chapters.

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