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Land for trees: The Timber Culture Act of 1873

When Congress enacted the law, many hoped that giving settlers deed to public lands in return for growing trees would reshape the environment of the West.

A good tree claim in Lyon County, c. 1900.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When Congress enacted the Timber Culture Act of 1873, many hoped that giving settlers deed to public lands in return for growing trees would reshape the environment of the West. However, legal loopholes meant that most of the tree claims filed under the Timber Culture Act were never planted with trees. Fraudulent claims and wild speculation meant that the act was repealed less than twenty years after it was enacted.

As Euro-American settlers moved west, the dry climate and treeless landscape of the prairie made farming difficult. At the time, some naturalists mistakenly believed that planting trees on the prairie would cause rainfall. More trees, they argued, would bring much needed water to the dry soil and make farming easier. At the same time, others recognized that prairie settlers needed lumber and fuel to survive. Both groups urged Congress to create an incentive for planting trees in the West.

In 1873, the United States Congress enacted the Timber Culture Act. Like the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act granted a claimant 160 acres of public land for no cost in exchange for making improvements to the land. The Timber Culture Act originally said that if a person planted and nurtured the growth of trees on forty of their 160 acres for ten years, they could claim the land. The act was amended in 1874 to restrict claimants to being over the age of twenty-one (or the head of a household) and a citizen, or soon to be citizen, of the United States. The amendment also established a schedule for how much of the land needed to be planted in each year of the claim. In 1878, the Timber Culture Act was amended again. This time, the amount of land that had to be covered in trees was reduced from forty acres to ten. The amendment relaxed the schedule established in the 1874 amendments and also made exceptions for trees that had been destroyed by harsh climate or grasshopper plagues.

The goal of the Timber Culture Act was to increase the number of trees in the West, providing fuel and lumber to a growing number of settlers. By 1880, more than a million acres of Minnesota land had been claimed under the Timber Culture Act and Minnesotans had planted 25,000 acres of trees. In the end, Minnesota patented over 400,000 acres of land, or about forty percent of the acres claimed through Timber Culture entries. While many of the trees planted were later removed to create more farmland, the act was responsible for many of the groves of trees in southwest Minnesota today.

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However, environmental and legal problems made the act a failure overall. Outside of Minnesota, much of the land available was arid grassland where trees were simply not able to thrive. Worse, loopholes in the legislation meant that it was open to fraud. Since a person who claimed land did not have to live on it, or even live in the same state, some made claims under the Act hoping that the land would become more valuable and allow them to profit. Family members gave claims to other family members, which allowed them to continue using the land for years without formal ownership or taxes. Nationally, only about thirty percent of Timber Culture Act claims were successfully completed.

Soon after the act was passed, it was already being criticized for its flaws. Newspapers published exposes criticizing the fraudulent tactics that were being used by land speculators. The articles conceded that the act was a benefit to real settlers who nurtured trees on the land. However, they argued that the majority of tree claims were held by those with no intention of following through. They called for an end to the speculation and fraud. In response, Congress repealed the act on March 3, 1891.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.