Of Redwoods and Property Rights

23 10 2014

AS: The ways in which property rights can protect natural resources have been explored by Professor Terry Anderson over his long academic career. (listen here). The theme of property rights appears to be an important one in Greg Gordon’s new biography of A.B. Hammond. I’ve put key sentences in Sarah Anderson’s review in bold.

Published by EH.Net (September 2014)

Greg Gordon, When Money Grew on Trees: A.B. Hammond and the Age of the Timber Baron.  Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. xiv + 482 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8061-4447-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sarah Anderson, Department of Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Greg Gordon’s When Money Grew on Trees: A.B. Hammond and the Age of the Timber Baron follows the life of A.B. Hammond, once the owner of the largest redwood logging company in the United States and a major player in logging throughout the West. The book uses his biography to explore themes of how timber ownership affects its harvest, the politics of public lands, and the relationship between industrialists and labor unions.

After learning the logging ropes on the East Coast, including New Brunswick, Hammond, like many other young men of the era, moved west to seek his fortune. Arriving too late to make it in gold, he founded the Missoula Mercantile, which would serve as a continual source of credit throughout his career as a timber baron. Hammond frantically logged the open-access timber of Montana to supply the railroads and the mines. He then moved to the West Coast, building mills, railroads, and company towns to cut the large coastal trees.

Gordon’s main thesis is that the West was not just exploited by Easterners but that Westerners themselves contributed. He succeeds in offering at least anecdotal evidence of this in the form of A.B. Hammond, but his more interesting insights come in his discussions of the tragedy of the commons in western forests, the political economy of public lands, and the nascent labor union movement.

While Gordon does not focus entirely on economic history, his insights draw from a notion that incentives (and particular ownership rights) drive behavior. Gordon’s book can be read as a continuous narrative of the ways in which a failure of both ownership rights and government contributed to the over-extraction of western natural resources. From the bison, about which he states that “Without ownership claims, and without government or community restrictions, the animals [bison] were doomed” (p. 45), to timber poaching in places like Cramer Gulch, Montana where two teams literally fought to cut and move the logs, pushing, swearing, cutting logs loose, and dumping loads, the book illustrates how the early chaos of settlement allowed the A.B. Hammonds of the time to quickly extract resources and move on.  Because it covers a long time span, the book demonstrates how the same man adapted to ownership conditions as they changed.  Following Hammond’s career offers an opportunity to observe him taking advantage of lack of ownership, well-defined property rights, or government as it serves his interests. Where there was a lack of clear ownership, he poached timber from unsurveyed lands, knowing that charges would be difficult to make stick when the government couldn’t identify whether the land was held by the railroads or by the government. He intensely extracted logs without long-term investments. Where the property rights were well-defined, he bought competing lumber mills (and more importantly their timber lands) whenever possible. He built company towns and permanent large mills. And where government policy could benefit his enterprises, he lobbied (or even outright bribed) government officials to put their stamp of approval on clearly false settlement claims.

Scholars of the economic history of labor will particularly appreciate Gordon’s detailed presentation of the struggle of labor versus capital. A.B. Hammond was virulently anti-union and went to great lengths to avoid a unionized workforce. He imported labor from all over the world, shuttered plants, and used his political acumen to bring the force of the law down on strikers. Gordon’s detail allows for a useful comparison between the varieties of capitalism that were emerging in the early 1900s from proprietary capitalism, with its paternalistic attitudes toward workers, to Hammond’s industrial capitalism, where workers were simply inputs to production.

Throughout, Gordon is attentive to the ecological forces at play, and not just the ecological consequences of logging. He notes that the pure stands of ponderosa pine facilitated a mechanized timber industry, that the long regeneration time of 2,000 year old redwoods made sustainable yield a difficult, if not impossible, concept, and that the varied role of fire in the western ecosystems changed how loggers logged.

If the book suffers at all, it is in length. Gordon covers so much ground that each reader may find herself captivated by only a portion of the 400+ pages. Given the contribution Gordon makes to a detailed understanding of the political economy of public land and the history of the conflict between labor unions and industrialists, the book is a worthy read for scholars with a deep interest in either.

Sarah E. Anderson (Associate Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara) is the author (with Heather Hodges and Terry Anderson) of “Technical Management in an Age of Openness: The Political, Public, and Environmental Forest Ranger,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (2013) and “Complex Constituencies: Intense Environmentalists and Representation,” Environmental Politics (2011)

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