Conservation and prison reform were combined in a proposal by R. A. Hawley for the reclamation of the Sandhills of Nebraska in 1893. Hawley believed it feasible to plant the Sandhills with selected varieties of trees using convict labor guarded by federal troops stationed at frontier military posts. The Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln on August 6, 1893, included a letter from Hawley discussing his proposal.
Hawley said, “It has been my privilege to travel over nearly all the territory known as ‘the sand hills’ by rail and stage or carriage until I may claim to be somewhat familiar with their topography and the possibilities of their reclamation for the purposes of agriculture. It is my belief that a judicious application of the principles of forestry will go far toward reclaiming these arid lands and cause what is now little more than a dessert to blossom as the rose. . . .
“It is plainly apparent that this enormous task cannot be undertaken on so large a scale at private expense, besides being in the nature of a public benefit it might properly be done at state expense. I am aware that the planting of millions of trees sufficient to accomplish the end wrought would involve an enormous expense if done in the ordinary way, but in order to reduce the cost to the minimum I suggest that such of the convict labor within our penitentiary as may be trusted under guard to do this work be utilized for this purpose. . . .
“The convicts so employed might be guarded by details of the United States government troops stationed at the frontier posts at no expense to the state if the general government would cooperate to that extent, which it ought certainly to do, much of the lands to be improved belonging to the government. The convicts cost us about $165,000 yearly, or about $400 apiece, and the army as much more from which only a few political favorites derive any substantial benefit. The plan suggested would give the convicts the opportunity to support themselves from the garden patches cultivated during the period of their out door employment and permanently benefit the state through coming generations by their labor.”
Hawley must have suspected that there would be opposition to his plan. He stated that during a recent visit to Fort Robinson he had discussed the idea with officers and soldiers there, and concluded, “While the scheme may appear chimerical at first sight it is worth consideration and may yet prove to be of inestimable value to the state.”