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Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, J.C. French, 1919
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From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French


A Hit From the Shoulder

The Other Side of the Question
Why Forests Were Destroyed
(By an Old Forester)

 Written for the Altoona Tribune by C.W. Dickinson, veteran woodsman and hunter, with foot notes by John C. French.

 “Why are our forest disappearing so fast?”  The writer had heard this question asked many times and as many theories advanced as to what ought to be done to save some of Pennsylvania’s fine forests.  All the theories we ever heard advanced in this matter are simply foolish rot.  We are going to give you some facts and figures to show why this land is being denuded of the trees growing thereon.

 In 1888, F.H. and C.W. Goodyear purchased a tract of land of about 29,000 acres; 2,000 acres were in the northeast corner of Cameron County, 3,000 acres in the northeast corner of Elk County, and 24,000 acres in McKean County, in the townships of Norwich and Sergeant.  This is the forest land that our statement refers to.  The assessors of the two townships have kept increasing the value of those lands for years until about twelve years ago, when they had gotten the valuation so high they dare not put it any higher.  The assessors, with the aid of the county commissioners, put the valuation of these lands at $75 per acre on al of this tract of forest, or timber land, with an additional $4 per acre as mineral land, making the total valuation on these lands $79 per acre, which is the amount of the assessment books in the commissioner’s office shows.  There is about 1,200 acres of this tract which the timber was cut off of something like twenty years ago, so that would leave nearly 23,000 acres of this tract of timber land in the two townships above mentioned.  The taxes levied on the assessed valuation in the county is about 33 mills on the dollar.  Twenty-three thousand acres valued at $79 per acre would put the valuation of this tract of land at $1,817,000; but with a 33 mill levy it would make the annual tax of this property $59,961.  In ten years’ time the taxes on this same property would amount to $599,610.  Now, with the risk of cyclones and wind storms which blow down quite a lot of trees annually, and the risk they run against forest fires, what chance have the owners of forest lands but only to cut off the trees as quickly as possible?  For no man living can pay such outrageous taxes and live on.  It would only take a few years to put him to the wall.  This looks to me like a legal robbery.

 One of the assessors who raised this valuation to $75 per acre owns a farm that is nearly surrounded by the lands in question, there being only about eleven rods of his boundary line at the northeast corner which do not join these wild lands.  He has two houses, two barns and other outbuildings and about half of his land is cleared and under a good state of cultivation.  With all the improvements on his land and about half of his farm a forest, the same as the land adjoining, he only assessed his land at $8 per acre, while the land adjoining him on all sides, minus eleven rods, was assessed at $75 per acre.  How much value would a man like this attach to the oath he was required to take before taking up the duties of an assessor?

 If a man had wild land given to him he could not hold it twenty-five years, unless he was at least a millionaire.  But we will wager dollars to buttons that he would never get back the amount he had paid in taxes, to say nothing of the use of the amount he had paid in taxes for the twenty-five years.
Concord, Mass., May 23, 1917

Compounding Taxable Values On the Forest Land

 This method of taxation, based upon the value of the product of past years, that had been taxed, from year to year, as it matured, was confiscation of property, by compounding the yearly earnings of the land; instead of basing the tax at about the value of growth of timber, for the year it was levied for, and paid, seems to evade and annul, in fact, the fairness contemplated in Section I, of the First Article of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  It also ignores the principle that our usury laws are founded on.

 The first clause of Section I, Article IX, of our constitution, is, likewise, set at naught, by the unfair practice described in the above letter.  While classes of subjects may be legally made, for the purposes of taxation, there should be no frivolous or selfish motive masked by a technical compliance with the statutes, made and provided, while the spirit of the constitution is made abortive.

 As stated in his letter, Mr. Dickinson has given a brief outline of the tax history of the lands only, that lie in the townships of Sergeant and Norwich, in McKean County.  The 5,000 acres in the counties of Cameron and Elk are not included in his history of valuation and the taxes levied, which became so burdensome that the owners decided, about five years ago, to remove the bark and timber as rapidly as possible.  It had been held by them 24 years, since 1888, and was the last forest of original hemlock timber left in the entire state.

 The last hemlock will be cut into lumber in the near future, and the small trees can become great when forest fires cease to destroy them.  Like the passenger pigeons, the hemlock timber of Pennsylvania has served mankind and is gone.  Both may be cultivated in future years; but never shall either be seen upon the earth, as the birds and the trees were beheld fifty years ago, when our Black Forest existed, clothing hills and valleys with verdure and the gloom of a real “umberland.”

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 7/23/2001
By Joyce M. Tice