Mossback’s Northwest: Early WA eco-advocacy captured in color

A lost film from the ’50s details a beach hike devised by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice to save a pristine stretch of the Olympic Peninsula coast.

In “Upon Further Review,” Mossback’s Northwest’s series within a series, host Knute Berger and producer Stephen Hegg reflect on and update an older episode after viewer feedback. Here, they look back on last December’s half-hour anthology, “Wild Times,” on the history of the Northwest wilderness, focusing on Supreme Court Justice and Washington native William O. Douglas, an avid hiker and wilderness advocate.

On the Court, Douglas was a great advocate for wilderness preservation – helping to “save wild areas all across America from the Potomac to the Pacific,” Berger points out, but always retaining a special fondness for his Northwest roots. “In the 1950s,” Berger continues, “[Douglas] led a group of activists and enthusiastic hikers down the wild Pacific coast of Washington from Cape Alava to La Push … to protest a proposed highway down that coast.”

Asked about his interest in Douglas, Berger says, “I’ve been an admirer of Douglas since the 1960s … in high school I wrote him a fan letter and he replied. He’s always embodied the Northwest environmental ethic.” Amazingly, footage of that 1958 hike exists: “[Douglas] invited activists, government people, the media to come along. And one filmmaker did, Louis Huber,” who specialized in filming the outdoors.

Justice William O. Douglas leads a group of hikers in a still from Louis R. Huber’s film “The Beach Hike.” (Oregon State Historical Society)

“After the special aired,” Berger says, “I was contacted by Mossback viewer Philip Fenner, who said he had found that film in the basement of the founder of the North Cascades Conservation Council … He had it digitized and it was in terrible condition. He contacted another filmmaker [who] found Huber’s films were donated to the Oregon Historical Society.” Huber’s own print, restored in 2015, was the one used for this episode – and is available on YouTube for everyone to see, simply titled “Beach Hike,” with the original narration: “Something was at stake that concerns you and me and our children, and the children of our children,” he intones ominously.

But then as now, environmental preservation was a magnet for controversy, and the opposition made an economic argument: The proposed highway would increase access to the coast and the tourist dollars would benefit the Olympic Peninsula. “So, at the end of the hike,” Berger says, the party is “confronted by a protester and his son, and they’ve made a whole bunch of signs.  And my favorite one was ‘Bird Watcher Go Home.’”

A man and his son confront Justice Douglas with a counter-protest. (MOHAI)

But Douglas wasn’t alone in spearheading the movement. A woman named Polly Dyer had moved to Washington from California about 1950, bringing a deep and energetic commitment to environmental activism, says Berger: “[Dyer] testified for the Wilderness Act.  She was involved in helping to preserve parts of Olympic National Park. She was a co-founder of the North Cascades Conservation Council, which won the fight to create North Cascades National Park. She served on their board for nearly 60 years” before her death in 2016.

Polly Dyer interviewed by media before the hike. (Oregon State Historical Society)

“The early A-Team,” Hegg calls Dyer and Douglas for their work in preserving parts of the wild Northwest, a team whose environmental advocacy was preserved on film – “activism in action.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.