How they drew lines in the Northwest's forests

An environmental historian traces the century-long evolution of a government-managed patchwork in the Cascades. In the end, designating wilderness areas was as much about cutting down trees as preserving them.
Crosscut archive image.

A logging truck hauls timber out of Gifford Pinchot National Forest
in the Washington Cascades in 1951. (U.S. Forest Service)

An environmental historian traces the century-long evolution of a government-managed patchwork in the Cascades. In the end, designating wilderness areas was as much about cutting down trees as preserving them.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from a new book, Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press, 2007).Wilderness boundaries matter because the process of defining them is a distinctly human endeavor that deeply shapes – and is shaped by – our history. This is true for all the borders, walls, fences, frontiers, lines, and boundaries that humans impose on the landscape. Referring to Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," legal scholar Eric Freyfogle suggests an additional meaning for its most famous line, "Good fences make good neighbors." The poem tells the story of two New England neighbors who meet every year in the spring to repair portions of their adjoining stone wall that "the frozen-ground-swell of winter" has brought down. Nature, Frost suggests, does not recognize the wall as a boundary. Humans do recognize the wall, however, and "good fences make good neighbors" has become a proverb to justify individual property rights. Freyfogle, though, asks us to think about the cooperative process of building and repairing that wall rather than the divisive presence of the wall as a barrier. Good fences make good neighbors because a solid, strong fence requires neighborly cooperation in maintaining communal property lines. Rather than being a closed and elitist process, as critics have often portrayed it, political conflicts over public land have encouraged countless citizens to become more involved in decisions over their own resources, thus challenging the previously exclusive authority of the U.S. Forest Service in these matters. Since the 1960s, the question of wilderness is among the issues that have elicited the greatest public input to government decision-making in American history. So this is not a story of political elitism, nor is it solely a heroic tale of a growing grassroots political movement for wilderness overcoming the obstacles of powerful industrial interests. Rather, it is a story that demonstrates the growing complexity of the political process in the post-war era and the much broader public participation in that process. Wilderness and non-wilderness lands on the national forests represent different patterns of land use. The boundaries themselves, however, are a joint product of competing interest groups, far more than is explained by the traditional interpretation that preservation was imposed upon public lands by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. In the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the timber industry has had a powerful influence over where those boundaries lie. In the history of Cascade wilderness, the proverbial neighbors have done far more than just repair walls; they have moved them, taken them down, and built new ones around different areas. The drawing of lines around wilderness areas also illuminates significant historical conflicts in the history of the American West. According to Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the leading interpreters of the West, "Western history is a story structured by the drawing of lines and the marking of borders." Competing imperial land grabs, nations, Indian reservations, private land, mining claims, homestead claims, railroad land grants, forest reserves, and territories, states, counties, and municipalities are all important examples of land designation in western history. A wrinkled landscape The Cascade Mountains create a thin band of rugged, spectacularly wrinkled geography from northern California to southern British Columbia. It is the dominant geographical feature in the Northwest, a region often referred to as "Cascadia." Most of the range is national forest land, and debates over designating wilderness areas in those federal lands have been continuous since 1950. In southern Oregon, the range sprawls across the landscape like a discarded towel, with a maze of deeply eroded river valleys. The ridges do not reach high elevations in this region, but the slopes are extremely steep and densely covered with a thick mat of brush and forests. Rich stands of Douglas fir dominate the vegetation here, providing valuable sources of timber even to this day. Partly due to the value of these forests to the timber industry, the wilderness areas in this part of the Cascades tend to be quite small. Although debated for decades, many of these were not established until 1984, after much effort on the part of wilderness advocates to protect these forests, such as those around Waldo Lake, with legislation. The volcanic legacy of the Cascades is clear as one heads north toward the Three Sisters of central Oregon, site of the first major postwar wilderness debate in the Northwest, 1950-64. These relatively young volcanic cones rise to 10,000 feet and sit atop the "Old Cascades," the broad, ancient lava flows that form the base of the Oregon Cascades. The Three Sisters support a series of glaciers, and their aprons of lava and pumice create a mostly treeless barrier around their bases. The Old Cascades, with their steep slopes and dense forests, spread far to the west, until they settle into the Willamette Valley. Drier forests of ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine reach up shorter slopes from the east out of the Deschutes River basin. These lower forests, especially on the west side, were the focus of wilderness debates beginning in the 1950s. A little way to the north, Mount Jefferson, standing alone and taller and older than the Three Sisters, is a towering, glaciated presence, the most intimidating of all the peaks of the Oregon Cascades. It sits on a narrow bench, and the lower, western forested valleys delve in nearly to its base. At the northwest foot of the mountain lies Jefferson Park, perhaps the most photographed and most popular backcountry recreation site in the Oregon mountains. Although Jefferson Park is the most visible symbol of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area, the debate over the area's boundaries focused on the valley forests below the alpine zone. The Forest Service used a definition of "pure wilderness" ("the purity doctrine") in its attempt to limit the amount of timber Congress protected in this area in 1968. From the north bank of the Columbia River, the Washington Cascades rise until they reach the climax of the entire range along the border with Canada. Mount Rainier is a dominating presence, visible from long distances and an elegant and powerful symbol for Washington state. In 1899, three years before the creation of Crater Lake National Park, Mount Rainier became protected under national-park status. Congress had given much of central Washington to the Northern Pacific Railroad in the nineteenth century, which later passed it on to timber companies. The federal government traded public lands in other states to consolidate ownership for Mount Rainier National Park and transferred acreage from the Pacific Forest Reserve to the national park, setting a precedent for later heated disputes over jurisdiction of Cascade forests between the Forest Service and the National Park Service. National forest origins As early as the 1890s, growing concern over the abuse of land distribution laws by timber companies and the desire to protect timber and watersheds in the Cascades had led to the establishment of the forest reserves. These new boundaries, established by the president under the authority of the General Revision Act of 1891, placed much of the upper elevations of the Cascade Range off-limits to private ownership at the turn of the century. In the words of historian Paul W. Gates, this law was a "turning point in public land policy." Creation of the forest reserves set the stage for more than a century of debates over the proper management of public lands. Boundaries drawn in the Cascades in the 1890s have deeply shaped the course of land use since that time by permanently establishing public lands. In response to local petitions, in 1893 President Grover Cleveland created the Cascade Forest Reserve, which encompassed most of the Oregon Cascade Range, from Mount Hood in the north to Crater Lake National Park in the south, nearly 5 million acres. In the Washington Cascades, President Cleveland established the Pacific Forest Reserve around Mount Rainier the same year, and on George Washington's birthday in 1897, he created the 3.6-million-acre Washington Forest Reserve and expanded the Pacific Forest Reserve into the 2.2-million-acre Mount Rainier Reserve. The Forest Service was created in 1905 under the Department of Agriculture, and the forest reserves were renamed national forests two years later. The economic focus in the mountains has been on the low- to middle-elevation forests of the western slopes, especially since the development of industrial logging in the late-19th century. The massive stands of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar have attracted investors throughout the world and have inspired poetic descriptions of their grandeur. In 1869, Samuel Wilkeson, reconnoitering proposed routes for the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Cascades in Washington, wrote glowingly about the potential resources of the region and the riches that would be opened up for exploitation by the forthcoming railroad. He described "forests in which you cannot ride a horse ... forests into which you cannot see, and which are almost dark under a bright midday sun ...; surpassing the woods of all the rest of the globe in the size, quantity, and quality of the timber." Most of the low-elevation, coastal forests that Wilkeson described no longer existed by the mid-20th century. Private timber companies and settlers had claimed the best lands and most valuable forests in the 19th century and proceeded to cut timber rapidly through the mid-20th century. The most valuable sources of timber came from these private lands outside, and at lower elevations than, the national forests. The national forests represent the middle and higher elevation zones of the Northwest, and the timber on their lower slopes and valleys became the staple supply for the region's forest industry only after World War II. These forested valleys have since served as the main arena for debates over the proper use of public lands in the region and where to determine the boundaries of protected wilderness. It was with respect to these valleys that the most important and contentious decisions were made on where to draw lines in the forest. Recreation and environmentalism The U.S. Forest Service clearly shifted its priorities toward increased extraction of timber from the national forests in the years following World War II. An era of stewardship of the nation's forests gave way to an emphasis on rapid extraction of timber resources as part of broader federal strategies to promote economic growth during the Cold War. Private timber companies had exhausted most of their supply before the war, and now federal foresters enthusiastically stepped forward to meet the growing demand. Their prior dedication to wilderness protection clearly took a backseat to timber sale and road construction programs during these years, as evidenced in their slogans of "multiple use" and "intensive management." The Douglas fir forests of the Cascades became the leading source for this boom in timber supply. The post-war era also witnessed an increase in outdoor recreation and in political support for environmental protection, including concern for undeveloped sites. In direct response to increased development on public lands, this growing environmental movement organized to promote passage of a national wilderness bill to remove from the Forest Service its previously autonomous authority to decide the fate of wildlands under its jurisdiction. Debates over forestlands in the Cascades provided critical impetus for the creation and expansion of the American wilderness system in the succeeding decades. For this reason alone, a study of Northwest wilderness debates is important for understanding wilderness history throughout the nation. Advocates saw wilderness designation as an important and effective tool to limit logging on public lands. Brock Evans, one of the leading architects of Northwest wilderness campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, recalls, "The issues are not really wilderness purity and the legalism of the Wilderness Act or any of those things. The struggles always were over logging first." Conservationists used other tools as well, such as creating a national park (where logging is not allowed) out of Forest Service land in Washington state in the 1960s and turning to lawsuits to protect endangered-species habitat after Congress restricted wilderness debates in the mid-1980s. But wilderness advocates continued to favor wilderness designation over other options, because after 1964, when the Wilderness Act was passed, it was more permanent than legal injunctions and more effective in preventing development than other land use designations, such as national parks. Their opponents in the timber industry valued wilderness decisions as an important opportunity to secure access to reliable timber supplies, and, like environmental groups during this era, industry coalitions organized on an increasingly national scale to lobby for their interests. Their role is not that of the simple opponent; they are very much responsible for the passage of various wilderness laws and the resulting boundaries on the land. Those in the timber industry employed wilderness designation as a tool to define specific boundaries, outside of which they hoped to count on a more reliable supply of timber from public land. Without the wilderness boundary, the fate of large areas of roadless forestlands often remained in limbo, with timber sales increasingly challenged by environmental lawsuits beginning in the late 1960s. Drawing boundaries that left valuable forests outside protected areas was as important as putting trees in the wilderness. A.W. Greeley, assistant chief of the Forest Service, expressed this interpretation clearly after Congress created the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area in Oregon in 1968: "We construe the passage of the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Act as an expression of Congressional intent that the lands outside the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness area should be managed for uses other than wilderness." Both sides of the debate were influential, as evidenced by the impressive growth in acreage of protected land under the Wilderness Act and the simultaneous transformation of the majority of old-growth forests on public lands into industrial tree farms. One lesson from this history is that designating wilderness in the Northwest benefited both preservation and logging interests. Decline of the Forest Service If there is a clear loser in this story, it is the bureaucratic autonomy of the Forest Service. In the 1950s, the agency had complete control over setting wilderness boundaries; neither the timber industry nor conservationists seemed to have much leeway in influencing those decisions. By the 1970s, however, the Forest Service had in many cases the least control of any major player in the debates. As the influence of the federal bureaucracy declined, both the industry and wilderness advocates consistently improved their organizational structures and ability to shape debates in Congress, which itself asserted absolute authority in establishing or changing wilderness boundaries after 1964. Another result of these changes is that by the 1970s the debates became far more open to broad public participation than they had been in the 1950s. Historian Paul Sutter has noted in his study of the founding of the modern wilderness movement, "Prior to World War II, wilderness politics were insular; after the war they became increasingly popular." This process, which began after the war, accelerated greatly after passage of the Wilderness Act. The public had limited access to and influence with the Forest Service, but after 1964, when Congress assumed the authority to define wilderness boundaries, the public had more influence over the outcomes of the debates through their congressional representatives. This is one of the most significant, though neglected, legacies of the Wilderness Act nationwide, and much of this development was a product of the conflicts that erupted over logging in the Cascades. Particularly in the West, land has been gilded with a surplus of expectations as the basic source of an ongoing faith in national and individual opportunity. Wilderness, too, has been asked to carry more than its share of expectations. In many cases of rhetorical flourish, wilderness advocates promoted wilderness preservation "as a panacea of the nation's ills," as "part of the geography of hope," and as one last place to experience the true individual freedom of an earlier, frontier era. In response, opponents accused wilderness laws of locking up the public's land and thereby limiting individual initiative. Just as opponents exaggerate its threats, often it seems that advocates have asked or demanded too much of wilderness; it cannot solve our national problems. Activists have repeatedly used the rhetoric of a romanticized wilderness, falsely free from all human impact, to generate public sympathy for their cause. The works of many 19th-century landscape artists promoted this mythology, as did various exhibit-format photography books published to support specific wilderness campaigns in the Cascades and elsewhere. In turn, the timber industry and the Forest Service often rested their cases on old myths of the yeoman lumberjack or the altruistic, professional forester. Looking beyond the rhetoric, however, we see that wilderness is more than just an idea; it is a form of land use. Wilderness boundaries separate two dominant visions of how people should use certain forested regions of the Cascades: resource extraction or preservation. Most national forest land lies outside the boundaries of wilderness areas and has been developed for resource extraction and motorized recreation. Within wilderness areas, such development is banned to save space for the range of non-motorized and non-extractive uses and to, according to the Wilderness Act, provide "outstanding opportunities for solitude." Though quite distinct, both sides of the line represent human decisions and values. Historian William Cronon observed this in his landmark study of land use in colonial New England: "The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem."


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