The National Implications of Land Wars Over the Oregon Cascade Mountain Forests
Heated land use debates in the 1950s and 1960s concerning the forests of the Cascade Mountains in the Northwestern United States, helped define the future of wilderness protection nationwide. While the battle over the dams in Dinosaur National Monument took the national stage sooner, launched the modern environmental movement and set a precedent that would keep industrialists out of the National Park System; the land battles over the lush forests in the Northwestern U.S. began around the same time and cannot be underestimated in their national impact.
Decisions in Oregon and Washington State affected forest management policy in the National Forest System more than the National Park System. Nonetheless, the resulting conflicts and their outcomes played a significant role in the eventual forging of the Wilderness Act in Congress and provided a blueprint for grassroots environmental campaigns all over the country, particularly in the West where wilderness came under the greatest threat of desecration by resource exploitation.
The main purpose of the post-World War II Forest Service was to supply timber. The policy of multiple use often translated into allowing various uses of public lands, as long as they could co-exist with logging. Lumber companies kept pressure on the Forest Service to provide a guaranteed supply of logs. “An era of stewardship of the nation’s public forests gave way to an emphasis on rapid extraction of timber resources,” wrote Kevin R. Marsh in Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest. “This spawned a grassroots movement that ultimately challenged the managerial power of the Forest Service.” It was 10 years in the making, but the Wilderness Act of 1964 finally opened the process to citizen participation, giving the public a say in the drawing of wilderness boundaries. Before 1964, small citizen groups had less power, but after 1964, the two opposing forces of industry and conservation shaped the Wilderness System.
Cascades Wilderness Battles Helped Conservationists Tune Their Message To Become The Wilderness Act
In the Cascade Mountain Range, a string of volcanic peaks and up thrust rocky crags extending from Northern California through Oregon and Washington and into Canada, many groups played a role—the U. S. Forest Service, the timber industry, recreationists and environmentalists. The opposing forces consisted of timber interests and the Forest Service on one side and local groups such as the Obsidians and Chemeketans on the other side, often supported by national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society. When enough national outcry supported the protection of an area, Congressional Law made it official but not without a tremendous fight and wrangling in and out of Congress right up to the final signing as in the case of North Cascades National Park or Olympic National Park. Needless to say, merely obtaining wilderness status for many areas engendered a terrific political and often legal war.
Originally in 1893, President Grover Cleveland established the Cascade Forest Reserve encompassing nearly 5 million acres, from Mt. Hood in Northern Oregon to Crater Lake in Southern Oregon, to limit the cutting of mountain forests and to protect watersheds. Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, a pro-wilderness polemic, set a national example as his worked within the Southwest agency of the Forest Service to found the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico in 1924. Forest Service leaders such as Arthur Carhart in Colorado and Elers Koch in Idaho thwarted the inroads of “progress” into wilderness and fostered the agency atmosphere in line with Gifford Pinchot’s vision from years earlier. These new leaders in the 1920s reformed management practices and created Primitive Areas in the National Forests, which limited but did not end industrial use. “The Forest Service would later argue that these boundaries were not meant to be permanent,” wrote Kevin R. Marsh.
Lumbering slowed significantly during the Great Depression, but took off again during and after the War. In the Willamette National Forest, the volume of logs cut more than quadrupled between 1945 and 1955 and continued to increase for decades. The Forest Service began to reclassify many primitive areas without any input from the locals. Frequented by hikers, fishers and small boaters, Mt. Jefferson Primitive Area had some of the highest recreation levels of any wilderness in the Northwest, second in Oregon only to the Three Sisters Wilderness to the south. The Three Sisters Wilderness lies directly east of Eugene Oregon, a progressive college town that participated fully in the 1960s anti-establishment, anti-war “revolution.”
Conservation Strategy From The Cascade Mountains Became A Blueprint For Local Efforts Nationwide
In 1954, when the Forest Service proposed reclassifying the Three Sisters Primitive Area, a widely divergent range of local hiking clubs, conservationists, scientists and social liberals, began to evolve over the next few decades into a powerful grassroots movement in Oregon and across the nation. Since 1951, when the Forest Service had tried to pass off shrinking the primitive area as beneficial to the local economy, Carl Onthank and his wife Ruth Onthank, Ruth Hopson and other local activists rallied supporters to form the Friends of the Three Sisters Wilderness. Karl Onthank, dean of students at the University of Oregon, described the leaders of the new group as “scientists who know something of our Cascade Mountains and are interested in seeing a little of them preserved for future enjoyment in their natural state and for scientific study.”
Friends of Three Sisters became an example for later site-specific grassroots campaigns. At a 1955 Forest Service hearing, local groups from all over Oregon such as The Mazamas, the Obsidians, chapters of the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society groups, Wilderness Society leaders, the Oregon Federation of Garden Clubs, the Mountaineers, Olympic Park Associates, the Izaak Walton League Eugene Chapter, the AFL and CIO unions and many others rallied against reducing the Three Sisters Wilderness. The Forest Service expected a one day hearing but had to carry it into a second days when a total of 79 speakers wanted their turn. Some voiced concern for retaining recreational space, some for not allowing wilderness to be reduced over and over as in other states, some wanted to protect areas for scientific study, and others thought logging interests could make more efficient use of the existing public and private timber lands.
On the second day of hearings, Howard Zahniser, executive director of the Wilderness Society arrived and testified with hints of the language from the Wilderness Act that would not pass Congress until 1964, but that he had already begun to draft in 1955. The Three Sisters campaign was pivotal to the national cause of wilderness preservation as it would set a precedent for whether people had a say when Federal lands were reduced to benefit private industry. David Brower, Executive Director of the Sierra Club corresponded with Karl Onthank to stay informed of developments. David Brower and other Sierra Club leaders contributed to the campaign by writing letters to the media and leaders in Washington DC, just as Ruth and Karl Onthank and their associates were doing.
Disperate Conservation Campaigns Organized Into The Modern Environmental Movement
Nationally the tide was high for conservation as the wilderness ideals of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau were hitched to a new environmental movement that employed the media, Congressional lobbying, letter writing campaigns, the courts, full-page newspaper ads and grass root organizing. At first it the purpose was wilderness protection, but later environmental campaigns strived to limit water and air pollution and other environmental destruction brought on by land development, growth and a booming industrial age.
In 1955, The Sierra Club published This is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, edited by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Wallace Stegner with photographs by Philip Hyde, Martin Litton and others. A copy of This is Dinosaur landed on the desk of every Congressman just as they were deciding how to vote on the Colorado River Storage Project Bill. David Brower testified in Congressional hearings against the dams and the Sierra Club ran full page newspaper ads warning Congress not to endorse a hotly opposed expensive project in an election year. The new brand of environmentalism worked. The bill passed Congress without the Dinosaur Dams and with a phrase added barring dams in national parks or monuments.
Following this national land conservation victory, Three Sisters activists communicated their position with a growing effectiveness that surprised the Forest Service, but as the struggle went on, the Forest Service defined the debate and wilderness advocates had to stay on the defensive. By 1957, the Friends of Three Sisters had lost the battle and the Forest Service went through with their original planned boundaries. The loss confirmed the fears of wilderness proponents across the country but solidified determination to push for a Wilderness Act to prevent “having this kind of battle on every one of the primitive and the limited areas,” said Karl Onthank. Oregon senators responded by sponsoring the Wilderness Act and helping Howard Zahniser and others draft it. The Forest Service decision on the Three Sisters Wilderness, swung support toward the Wilderness Act but years of conflict over it were yet to come.
Future Blog Posts share the story of the making of North Cascades National Park. For parts of the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area skirmish, see the blog post “Oregon Cascades Conservation: Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area,” which touches on the interrelated role of Philip Hyde’s landscape photography. For a closer view of Ardis and Philip Hyde in action see the blog post, “North Cascades And Mt. Jefferson Travel Log.”