Reed Smoot & America’s Natural Resources, 1903-33

Thomas G. Alexander

Many Utahns remember Reed Smoot for his service as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or for his thirty years as a United States Senator (1903-33). They might remember him for his early battle to keep his senate seat against strong anti-Mormon opposition or for his role in drafting and passing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Many do not know, however, that as a member and chair of the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys (often called the public lands committee) he played a key role in the passage of a number of laws and policies to protect our public lands.

Zion National Park Great White Throne

Smoot supported or sponsored measures that 1) strengthened the hand of the United States president and Forest Service director in protecting national forest lands; 2) established the National Park Service; 3) designated Zion and Bryce as national parks and Cedar Breaks as a national monument; and 4) required those who mined public lands or used river sites for the generation of electricity to pay royalties. For the most part, Utahns supported his efforts.

By the early 1900s many people had become worried about the growing loss of and damage to America’s natural resources. During Reed Smoot’s time in the U. S. Senate, at least four groups proposed different approaches to this problem. One group, best represented by John Muir and the Sierra Club, opposed most uses of public lands and resources that would cause their destruction or change. These might be called preservationists.

Another group, who might be called progressive environmentalists, favored use of the resources by the government itself. Suspicious of both the states and private business, they felt that the government should run the mines and log the timber on the land it owned. Included in that group were Senators Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, Miles Poindexter of Washington, and John F. Nugent of Idaho.

A third group opposed almost all federal management of resources. They believed that anybody ought to be able to use public resources without permission and without paying a fee or royalty. These included Senators Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho, John F. Shafroth of Colorado, Clarence D. Clark of Wyoming, and William H. King of Utah.

A fourth group consisted of business-minded conservationists who favored federal management but thought that mainly private business should extract resources from the public lands. These people also believed that the states ought to play a major role in the management of resources within their borders. This group included Reed Smoot, Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, Irvine E. Lenroot of Wisconsin, Key Pittman of Nevada, and Thomas J. Walsh of Montana. Gifford Pinchot, the head of the U. S. Forest Service, and Theodore Roosevelt would likely fit into this group.

The federal government began to set aside national forests after the passage of the Forest Reserve Act in 1891. In 1905 the Forest Service, under the leadership of Gifford Pinchot, began to manage them. Concerned about the destruction of mountain watersheds from overgrazing and damaging logging practices, Smoot and like-minded senators supported the efforts of the Forest Service to regulate grazing and logging. In opposition, however, Weldon Heyburn and his supporters pushed through Congress a measure that prohibited the president from setting aside national forests in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, or Colorado without congressional approval.

Smoot, however, believed that the president should have the authority to protect the public lands from abuse. He and his supporters insisted that the law allow the president to continue to designate national forests in Utah, California, Washington, and Nevada.

In an effort to publicize the need for conservation, President Theodore Roosevelt invited the nation’s governors and conservation leaders to a conference in Washington, D. C., in December 1908. Recognizing Smoot’s solid support for the Forest Service, Roosevelt invited him to chair the Committee on Forest Reservations at the conference. In Smoot’s keynote address to the committee he emphasized the need for the careful management of forest land and watersheds in order to protect land, cities, and businesses from damage.

In 1910, while William Howard Taft served as president, Smoot—by then chair of the Senate public lands committee—played a key role in drafting the Pickett Act, which authorized the federal government to classify the public lands according to what it considered to be their best uses, whether recreation, mining, grazing, forestry, or farming. After classification, the government could either sell lands; allow miners to buy or lease them to remove minerals; or retain and manage them as national forests, parks, or monuments.

After the election of Woodrow Wilson and a Democratic majority in the Senate in 1912, Smoot lost his chairmanship and became instead the ranking Republican member of the public lands committee. In this role he considered other public land problems. He lined up with John Muir and other preservationists to oppose the Hetch-Hetchy Dam, which would flood the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park in order to generate electricity and provide water for San Francisco.

Smoot had two reasons for opposing the dam. The first was aesthetic, a value that he sincerely believed in. In a speech before the Senate, Smoot defended Muir’s philosophy of preservation. But the conservative Smoot also was opposed to having governments operate utility projects. Despite opposition, Congress passed the Hetch-Hetchy Act.

Smoot began as early as 1912 to propose laws to establish the National Park Service. Until 1916, each of the country’s national parks had its own management, but no government agency provided overall direction. Although Smoot argued that the national parks needed some central administration, his bills failed. In 1916 Congressman William Kent of California introduced his own Park Service bill in the House of Representatives. This Kent bill did not appropriate much money for park service administrative expenses, however, and it allowed for livestock grazing in the national parks.

President Wilson had appointed Stephen T. Mather and Horace M. Albright to advise his administration on national park issues. In his position as ranking minority member on the public lands committee, Smoot worked closely with Mather and Albright to reshape the Kent bill while he shepherded it through the Senate. Smoot introduced amendments to provide larger appropriations, and he insisted on striking the general permission for livestock grazing in the parks—although this surely must have angered some of his constituents.

In his memoirs, Albright gives Smoot credit for his persistence and skill in the passage of the bill. Wilson signed the National Park Service Act on August 25, 1916, and at the inauguration of the service in January 1917 he invited Smoot to speak.

A deadlock of competing interests and problems connected with World War I blocked additional environmental legislation until 1919. In the 1918 elections, the Republican party regained control of Congress, and Smoot again became chair of the public lands committee.

Above all, Smoot wanted to finish the work begun by Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson in setting aside national forests, monuments, and parks and in classifying lands under the Pickett Act. He particularly wanted to pass laws that would allow private businesses to develop minerals on the public lands. Since the states had to build and operate schools and roads for the people who worked on the federal lands, he wanted the federal government to return much of the royalty payments it collected from these businesses to the states.

Along with many others, Smoot thought payments to the states a fair return for the services they supplied. The constitution did not allow the states to tax federally owned lands, yet private property owners paid taxes to support schools, build roads, and pay for police, fire, and other services. In the West, the federal government owned much of the land. In fact, in Utah two-thirds of the land belonged to the federal government. People who worked on those lands used state roads and sent their children to state-funded schools. Smoot thought the federal government ought to help pay for these services.

The federal government had a number of choices about how to manage lands that contained coal, oil, or phosphates. The government could sell land that contained these minerals, as it did lands that contained precious metals; it could lease mining rights to private businesses and collect royalties on the minerals; or it could retain the land itself and hire miners to work the mineral deposits. In general, Smoot opposed federal mining operations and favored publicly regulated private ownership. On this issue he was not inflexible, however, and eventually he came to support leasing.

The bill Smoot introduced in the Senate in 1919 treated the states quite generously. He proposed that the federal government return to the states 45 percent of the royalties business paid for extracting minerals like coal, phosphate, or oil. In addition, he wanted the government to use another 45 percent of the income to pay for irrigation projects in the West. The United States could retain the remaining 10 percent to cover administrative costs.

Various people proposed amendments and provisions for the bill. Some wanted the highest possible royalty and lease charges; others wanted limits on the total amount of land any one company could lease; and some wanted to exclude all aliens from leasing. Representatives of oil companies wanted the government to pay them for developments they had made on the public lands prior to the passage of the Pickett Act.

Congressman Nicholas J. Sinnott of Oregon introduced a somewhat different leasing act into the House of Representatives. On January 3, 1920, after the two houses found that they could not arrive at a compromise on many of the most controversial provisions of the two bills, they turned the negotiations over to Smoot and Sinnott. The two held conferences with representatives of oil companies, the Interior Department, and others to try to work out their differences.

By the end of January the two had reached compromises on everything except one: They could not agree whether or not to distribute part of the royalties to the states. Frustrated by Sinnott’s refusal to consider returning substantial money to the states for schools and roads, Smoot issued an ultimatum. Unless they could agree to pay the states at least 37.5 percent of the royalty income, he said, he “would let the bill die.” Sinnott agreed, and the two houses approved the bill. Wilson signed the Smoot-Sinnott Leasing Act on February 25, 1920.

The act was extremely important because it affirmed certain principles that are still in place. Through this act, the federal government would continue to own and manage lands containing resources such as oil, coal, or phosphates. The government would grant leases to private companies to prospect for these minerals, then it would charge a royalty for those minerals that the miners removed. Except for a small administrative fee, these royalties went to the states for schools and roads and to the reclamation fund to pay for water projects in the West.

In 1920 Congress also worked out a similar system of leases for hydroelectric power sites. Smoot did not play a central role in this legislation, but he made sure that 37.5 percent of the income from the leases came back to the states.

By 1921 the most significant years in Smoot’s role as a conservationist had passed. Unfortunately, however, because of his chairmanship of the public lands committee, he found himself swimming in a whirlpool called the Teapot Dome scandal.

The Teapot Dome affair had its origins during the Taft and Wilson administrations. The threat of war in Europe had led the presidents to fear that a shortage of oil could hamper the effectiveness of the U. S. Navy. To protect the oil supply, these presidents designated three Naval Oil Reserves fields: Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills in California and Teapot Dome in Wyoming.

In May 1921, shortly after Warren Harding was inaugurated as president, the Secretary of the Navy proposed that he transfer management of the reserves to the Interior Department to prevent the loss of oil to private companies that were drilling nearby. The government had apparently lost a substantial amount of oil to outside drilling, and Harding approved the transfer.

In April 1922 Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall granted leases at the two reserves in California to Edward L. Doheny of the Pan American Oil Company and at the Teapot Dome reserve to Harry F. Sinclair of the Mammoth Oil Company. Fall negotiated the leases in secret, and he approved the Teapot Dome lease without getting competitive bids.

After learning of the leases, Senator John B. Kendrick of Wyoming asked for a report on them, and Senator La Follette asked Fall for an explanation. Fall turned over his report to the public lands committee, and Smoot had it printed in the Congressional Record. Smoot actually took little interest in the matter at first because he had turned his attention to other issues, such as tariffs. Besides, he considered the issue to be a political one, with the Democrats trying to gain some advantage from a scandal.

A number of people were concerned about the secrecy surrounding the leasing, and they charged that Fall had failed to follow proper procedures. Smoot thought that this was something the Democrat party was trying to do to gain political advantage.

Under pressure to investigate the lease agreements, Smoot scheduled hearings for October 1923. The hearings were inconclusive, because experts gave contradictory testimony about the loss of oil from drilling near the reserves. Senator Thomas J. Walsh, Fall’s principal antagonist, was not satisfied, and he searched for additional problems. Smoot believed that Walsh, a Democrat, simply wanted to embarrass the Harding Administration, but the revelations of fraud in Harding’s Veterans Administration and Justice Department made Walsh’s task much easier. As the hearing proceeded during October, November, and December 1923, Smoot met privately with Fall and Sinclair. They convinced him, probably by lying, that nothing improper had taken place.

In the meantime, Harding died of a stroke, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president. Increasingly concerned with Senate Finance Committee matters, Smoot became less interested in public lands issues. In January 1924 he resigned the chairmanship of the public lands committee to become chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Afterward, revelations that Sinclair had made loans to Fall led Coolidge to cancel the leases. Fall eventually spent a term in prison for accepting a bribe, and Sinclair was sentenced for tampering with a jury. Doheny went free, and neither he nor Sinclair was convicted of bribing Fall. Smoot himself had an unfortunate relationship with Doheny because he paid money to the California oil man to clear the debts of one of his sons who had lost money speculating in the stock of one of Doheny’s companies.

In addition to Teapot Dome, Smoot also spent some time with other environmental issues during the 1920s. After the negotiation in 1922 of the Colorado River Compact, which divided the water of the river between the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, California’s delegation introduced legislation into Congress to construct a dam at Boulder Canyon on the Arizona-Nevada boarder. This dam—Hoover Dam—would generate power and store water for sun parched California farms. Smoot opposed the dam bill because he thought the federal government should not engage in the electric power business. He also feared that Utahns might lose their water rights to Californians. He changed his position in 1928 only after amendments protected Utah’s water rights.

In addition, he continued to work for the designation of new national parks and the expansion of others, for the management of national forests, and for the reclamation of arid lands. He successfully secured legislation establishing Zion and Bryce National Parks and Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah. He also supported legislation for the enlargement of Mount McKinley (now Denali) National Park in Alaska and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas and for the preservation of sites on the Mormon Trail in Nebraska. He helped create the presidential forest reserve in the Kaibab National Forest near Grand Canyon. And he promoted the exchange of privately owned properties within national forests.

Although Smoot would not be considered an environmentalist today much of what he did set the stage for the management of America’s natural resources during the rest of the century. His work on the Pickett Act provided for the classification of federal lands. The National Park Service Act established the administrative mechanisms that are still in place to manage the national parks. He strongly supported the Forest Service in its efforts to protect the land, trees, and watersheds in the national forests. He helped establish a leasing system that is still in place to manage public lands containing minerals like oil, coal, and phosphates. On balance, he played a significant role in the ongoing effort to provide effective management of America’s public lands.

Sources: Horace M. Albright and Marian Albright Schenck, Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). Thomas G. Alexander, “Senator Reed Smoot and Western Land Policy, 1905–1920,” Arizona and the West 13 (Autumn 1971): 245–64. Thomas G. Alexander, “Teapot Dome Revisited: Reed Smoot and Conservation in the 1920s,” Utah Historical Quarterly 45 (fall 1977): 352–68. Reed Smoot, The Reed Smoot Diaries, Manuscripts Department, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Reed Smoot, In the World: The Diaries of Reed Smoot, ed. by Harvard S. Heath (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997).