General Revision Act
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Logo of the U.S. Forest Service
Flag of the U.S. Forest Service
|Formed||February 1, 1905|
|Jurisdiction||Federal government of the United States|
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4,488 Seasonal (FY08)
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|Parent agency||U.S. Department of Agriculture|
The General Revision Act (sometimes Land Revision Act) of 1891 was a Federal legislation initiative signed in 1891 under the Presidential Administration of Benjamin Harrison. The General Revision Act of 1891 reversed previous policy initiatives, such as the Timber Culture Act of 1873, in which land fraud was readily accessible on the behalf of wealthy individuals and corporations. The acquisition of vast mineral and timber resources in the western United States was often cited as a governing motive for such individuals and corporations to claim land rights for future settlement and resource depletion activities, The General Revision Act of 1891's legacy is frequently credited by its ability to catalyze a series of federal land reform initiatives, notably under the Presidential Administration of Theodore Roosevelt. From the Reclamation Act of 1902 to the formation of the United States Forest Service in 1905, the General Revision Act of 1891 acted as a critical first piece of federal legislation granting increased plots of publicly allotted land and decreased extraction rights to privately held western land owners within the early stages of the 20th century.
Prior to the passage of the General Revision Act of 1891, previous major land policy initiatives had allowed for a growing monopolization of western lands on the behalf of wealthy individuals and corporations. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 was passed to foster the growth of timber in arid regions by making available 160 free acres of land to anybody willing to plant trees upon 40 acres of it. Initiatives such as the Desert Land Act of 1877 were also passed, giving 640 acres of land at $1.25 per acre to anybody willing to irrigate the land within three years. These conditional land contracts allowed groups like stock ranchers, timber/mining companies and land speculators to acquire vast sums of land for little cost or consequence. The Jeffersonian idea of small scale land ownership would not apply given these circumstances as monopolization of private lands was occurring at a rapid pace, often spanning 67,000 to million acres per purchase. Despite these transactions, the federal government had secured some large-scale land reserves prior to the General Revision Act's passage. These reserves included Yosemite, secured in 1864 as a permanent trust, as well as two million acres within the Yellowstone Valley in 1872. Upon the General Revision Acts passage in 1891, President Harrison immediately withdrew 1.2 million additional acres from the Yellowstone Valley, the first of an eventual 13 million acre reserve campaign throughout the Harrison presidency.
Participants and Timing
Signed as a repeal of the previous Timber Culture Act of 1878 and the Preemption Act of 1841, Congress passed the General Revision Act of 1891. Additional provisions of the act included the limitation of homestead claims to fewer than 160 acres, limited future claims other than mineral lands to less than 320 acres per person and a tightened adjustment to the Desert Land Act of 1877 by requiring a greater degree of evidence of irrigation plans upon future land sales. As an added component, the General Revision Act of 1891 allowed the president exclusive use to set apart and reserve forested lands as public reservations upon previously unclaimed land parcels. Besides its initial congressional support in Washington, professional foresters and western water companies were the earliest supporters of the act's passage Professional foresters supported the act's ability to limit the commercial overexploitation of western timberlands, hoping to secure timber capital for future extraction and development. Similarly, western water companies supported the act on the grounds of increased watershed protection for irrigation purposes by maintaining previously forested lands
Catalyst for Policy Reform
The legacy of the General Revision Act of 1891 is often mentioned alongside a series of federal policy reforms, which occurred after its passing. Theodore Roosevelt assumed the office of the President in 1901 after William McKinley's assassination in Buffalo, NY of that year. Under Theodore Roosevelt, four significant land reform achievements were realized. First, the National Forest grew to obtain 150 acres of land, 75 of which could be sold under marketable timber through the creation of the Bureau of Forestry in 1901. Second, the federal government emphasized holding onto lands containing reserves of coal, phosphates and oil despite the liquidation of other mineral rich lands. Third, the creation of a government sponsored lease program upon land reserved for waterpower sites grew. And fourth, the Reclamation Act of 1902 passed, ensuring an investment in reservoirs and irrigation networks to be financed by land purchase receipts. The Reclamation Act of 1902 was designed to set aside funds for semi-arid public lands (often found in the Western US) for the maintenance and construction of public irrigation projects. Often seen as a proactive campaign to improve federal land protection policy, the General Revision Act of 1891 helped to ensure the passing of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 in which the U.S. President is granted the ability to set aside acres of unclaimed land for public domain. The General Revision Act of 1891 remains a landmark policy initiative on behalf of the U.S. Federal Government due to its ability to both secure land and designate investment for productive land use programs once acquired publicly.
Attempting to dislodge the components of a monopoly amongst western land speculators, the General Revision Act of 1891 helped to provide reform upon profitable market activities by speculating groups following its inception. Paul Wallace Gates, a notable U.S. land policy historian, describes how numerous western lands purchased in the late 19th century were being held not for settlement but for overextended grazing purposes. By paying less than a fixed allotment of 25 cents per acre purchased, wealthy speculators had the ability to acquire large plots with small resistance to competitors. Under these conditions, the sale of commodities such as minerals and timber goods could be sold at a price above marginal cost, thereby reducing quantity sold and boosting profits forwestern speculating individuals. The Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 eventually came to pass in which a defined legal separation between surface and subsurface rights became a necessary step upon new land purchases. Under this act, resource commodity speculators hoping to profit off of the purchase of undervalued land investments faced a separate fee to acquire mineral reserves, for instance, on top of the active cost of land purchased. Elements of a land monopoly by wealthy speculators were eventually dampened by creating a domestic marketplace of increased government land and heightened private acquisition costs following the General Revision Act of 1891's first passing.
Debates of Interpretation
From 1891 to 1900, over 50 million acres of land became withdrawn from private entities to the public domain resulting from the initial passage of the General Revision Act of 1891. Given the volume of land changing hands at this time, the public debate over the rightful size of government purchasing activities is often discussed regarding this period. Specifically, the debate ranges between the privately held, expansionist and free market school of thought against a public oriented, protectionist and conservation camp. The argument for privatization is often cited alongside the growth of the railroad building activities, namely after the passage of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. In this case, landowners could receive rent payments at a market driven price from the railroads anticipating western growth over privately held land plots. The induction of increased government held land is argued to reduce such rents and diminish the incentives for westward expansion. However, the protectionist argument sterns from the conservation of commodities such as timber, coal and phosphates. By arguing for the development of strategic reserves of such commodities, the protectionist view advocates the idea of delayed consumption best fitting the country's domestic demands.
- Walton 2010, p. 277
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