To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we have asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment to write a series of blog posts in which he’ll reflect on his classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted
There is much discussion these days about government “investments.” As an economist, I have to assume that what is meant is a federal expenditure that is not only immediately useful (like hurricane forecasting) but that yields a continuing stream of income or benefits (improving education at all levels is probably the one most discussed). It would also presumably be something unlikely to be done, or done as well, by private capital. Looking historically, it appears that the government has made some exceptionally good investments (the Louisiana Purchase, the land-grant universities) and some very poor ones (the high-rise public housing projects of the 1950s, many now razed.)
I’ve been giving some thought to the “investment” aspects of the Weeks Act forests. From a strictly monetary standpoint, they seem to have been a remarkable bargain for the government. I suspect that even John Weeks and other proponents of land purchase in 1911 did not foresee the vast increase in cheap, marginal farmland that would be dumped on the market, and available for government purchase, during the 1930s. A combination of the devastation of the small farm sector in the 1920s and 1930s, with its movement of millions of people from marginal farms to the cities, and the general collapse of economic activity in the Great Depression caused enormous amounts of marginal land to become available for purchase, often through auction for unpaid taxes.
In 1912, the federal government used the Weeks Law to buy 287, 698 acres at an average price of $5.65 per acre. Purchases during the period 1912–1931 amounted to a total of 4.9 million acres, at an average price of $4.40 per acre. But then came the Depression, and with it greatly increased purchases, at greatly reduced prices. For example, in 1935 alone, Weeks Act purchases totaled 4.2 million acres, at an average price of only $2.38 per acre. From 1932 through 1942 (when Weeks Act purchases slowed significantly because of World War II) the government bought 14.1 million acres, paying only $3.44 per acre. This, of course, was not just a consequence of the authority granted by the Weeks Act, but also government appropriations. In 1912, the government appropriated $2 million. But for 1934–35, there was a sudden jump to $34 million, followed by $12 million in 1936. By 1942, the federal government had purchased a total of 19.1 million acres for $71 million, or only $3.72 per acre.