Cleator, Frederick William (1883-1957), Forest Ranger

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 1/30/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10014

Frederick William Cleator was a forester and conservationist who in the first half of the twentieth century was instrumental in the federal government's efforts to survey, establish, regulate, and protect national parks, forests, and trail systems in the Northwest. As an early employee of the Forest Service, which was established in 1905, Cleator explored and surveyed Olympic National Forest, the Wenatchee and Chelan national forests, the Cascade Crest Trail, and other remote areas in both Washington and Oregon. He became one of the Forest Service's first recreational specialists and developed the guidelines for private summer homes in the region's national forests. After 35 years with the Forest Service, Cleator retired from his federal post and went to work for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, serving as both assistant director and chief forester before retiring for good in 1956.

A Young Man Goes West

Frederick William Cleator was born in Minneapolis in 1883. Little is recorded of his childhood days, but it is known that his interest in forestry was first sparked in 1903 when, at the age of 20, he stopped briefly in Seattle while on his way to a job as a storekeeper and postmaster at the little town of Tonka on Kupreanof Island in Alaska. Cleator saw an article in a Seattle newspaper that described a new occupation called "forest ranger."

Cleator continued on his way north, but his interest was piqued. He wrote to his father, asking for help in finding out more about what it took to become a forest ranger. As Cleator recalled many years later, "He sent me a little book all right and thought I might make $65 a month at it if I was good" (McDonald, "Forest-Recreation Adviser Retires -- Again"). Although he couldn't have known it at the time, Cleator would spend nearly all of his life working with the forests, and he turned out to be very good at it indeed.

After a short stint in Alaska, Cleator returned to Minneapolis and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He'd saved $600, but this was not quite enough to allow him to complete his education, and he left the university in 1908 without a degree. He decided to move out west again, but he took the federal civil service exam before his departure.

While Cleator had been in Alaska and attending school in Minnesota, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was vastly expanding the nations' forest reserves and revamping the manner in which they would be managed. Millions of acres were designated as new reserves, and professionalism replaced cronyism in hiring Forest Service personnel. The existing agency culture of poorly regulated exploitation was replaced by a guiding philosophy that the nation's public forests should be managed for the benefit of the public. It was in this promising new arena that Fred Cleator would find his life's work.

The National Forest Service

The U.S. Department of the Interior was created in 1850 and for many decades had the primary responsibility for managing the nation's public forestland. While Americans were still pushing into new areas in the West, there was a general sense that the young nation's natural resources -- land, timber, water, minerals, and wildlife -- were virtually inexhaustible. The Interior Department viewed as its primary obligation the disposition of those resources to private enterprise for exploitation. Preservation and protection of forests was, in the temper of those times, widely viewed as an undemocratic, unwarranted, and probably illegal interference in the efficient workings of private enterprise.

The wilderness was not without its advocates, but they were few, and even fewer were in positions of authority. This began to change in 1889 when President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) appointed John W. Noble (1831–1912), the U.S. district attorney for the eastern district of Missouri, to head the Interior Department. Two years later, and with Noble's support, the U.S. Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which for the first time gave the president authority to establish by proclamation forest reserves on public-domain land, without congressional oversight or interference.

On March 30 of that year, President Harrison created the "Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve," the nation's first. By the end of his term in 1893, he had "proclaimed" a total of 15 forest reserves covering 13 million acres, including the Pacific Reserve in Washington state. Many more were to follow, designated by several different presidents. On one day alone, February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), in one of his last acts in office, established no fewer than 13 forest reserves, including the Mount Rainier (an enlarged and renamed Pacific reserve) and Olympic reserves in Washington state.

But the battle to conserve the forests was far from over. The Interior Department still was largely in favor of exploitation and development, and Congress was heavily lobbied by powerful timber, mineral, and railroad interests. Gradually, however, the forces for conservation gained access to and support from the centers of political power. In June of 1897 President William McKinley (1842-1901), who had succeeded Cleveland, signed legislation that provided for the proper care, protection, and management of the new forest reserves. But the power to implement this new standard still rested with the Interior Department's General Land Office (GLO), and its core philosophy still favored exploitation over conservation. There were other problems as well -- jobs within the land office were largely patronage appointments, and expertise did not seem to be an important criterion for employment.

Then came Theodore Roosevelt. He assumed the presidency in September 1901 after the assassination of McKinley and would in later years be recognized as the first "environmental president." It was during his administrations that the idea of actually protecting and conserving the nation's natural resources took on some of the characteristics of a popular crusade. During Roosevelt's nearly eight years as president, the nation's forest reserves well more than quadrupled, from approximately 43,000,000 acres to about 194,000,000 acres. By the time he left office, the areas designated as reserves were larger than France, Belgium, and The Netherlands combined.

It's important to note that in those days none but the most radical conservationists proposed complete protection for wild areas. Most in the mainstream opposed only unbridled and unregulated exploitation. They wanted development to continue, but to continue in a manner that was controlled and that would be of benefit to the whole country. Such things as power generation and irrigation would still be largely private, but land for dams and powerlines would be leased from the government. Mineral deposits on public land similarly would be leased and not sold. Logging and grazing would continue on public lands, but under license and in a sustainable manner.

Up until Roosevelt, the responsibility for the forest reserves was bifurcated and unclear. Although the reserves were under the overall control of Interior's land office, what little forestry expertise existed was concentrated in the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry, which had virtually no regulatory powers. After being elected president in his own right, but before his inauguration in 1905, Roosevelt took a radical step that would have a huge and lasting impact on the future of the nation's forests -- on February 1, and after intense personal lobbying by his friend, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), he transferred jurisdiction over the nation's forest reserves from the land office to an upgraded "Forest Bureau" in the Department of Agriculture. He appointed Pinchot to lead this revamped agency and gave him a specific, conservation-oriented, mandate -- to sustain healthy, diverse, and productive forests and grasslands for present and future generations. A few months later, on July 1, 1905, the name of the bureau was formally changed to the "Forest Service," which it has remained since.

The First American Forester

Gifford Pinchot was a well-born Yale graduate who took an early interest in forestry only to find that no college in the United States offered a degree or even a single course in the subject. Determined to pursue it as a career, he crossed the Atlantic and attended a forestry school in Nance, France. With this education he would become America's first native-born professional forester.

Pinchot returned to the United States after a year in France, worked as resident forester for the Vanderbilts' Biltmore Forest Estate for three years, then for the National Forest Commission, a creation of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1898 he joined the government, becoming the head of the agriculture department's Division of Forestry (later upgraded to Bureau of Forestry). It was from that position that Roosevelt promoted him to head the Forest Service in 1905.

Pinchot's philosophy of resource management was clearly set out in a memo that, although issued by the Secretary of Agriculture, had been coauthored by Pinchot and his assistant, Frederick Olmsted (1822-1903) who, with his nephew and adopted son, John, would go on to fame as America's premier landscape architects. It said in part:

"In the administration of the forest reserves it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people; and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies. All the resources of forest reserves are for use, and this use must be brought about in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner, under such restrictions only as will insure the permanence of these resources. The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advance in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore in-dispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of this Department for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value" (underlining in original) (Roth and Williams, "The Forest Service in 1905 …").

Pinchot made one important change almost immediately. The previous system of patronage hiring was replaced by one in which an applicant became a "forest ranger" only after passing comprehensive field tests and written civil service examinations. Within a short time this produced a workforce that was professional, knowledgeable, and dedicated, and among whose early members was Fred Cleator.

Fred Cleator, Forest Ranger

Cleator had been in Oregon working at a logging camp for only three days in 1908 when he got a telegram advising him that he had passed the civil service exam and was to report to Washington, D.C. His dream almost ended before it began; he had no money and no way to  travel back East. His boss, a logging contractor, pointed out that there weren't too many trees in Washington, D.C., and suggested that he telegraph back and ask if he could possibly report to someplace a little closer to where he was. As he recalled many years later,

"In reply I was told to be in Wenatchee July 1. I borrowed money to get there. From then on I was in the Forest Service" (McDonald, "Forest-Recreation Adviser Retires -- Again").

While in Wenatchee, Cleator worked under a more experienced ranger while he learned the ropes. His earliest days seem to have been spent spotting and extinguishing small fires, which was not without excitement. On one memorable day, he and his partner were shot at by a rancher who had kindled a blaze to clear land for grazing, and a bullet passed through his coworker's hat.

In a young agency with a vast portfolio, promotion was not long in coming, and Cleator's career from then on was one challenging assignment after another. In 1909, after less than a year with the Forest Service, Cleator was given the job of defining the boundaries of the Chelan and Wenatchee national forests (in 1907, all national forest reserves were renamed "national forests"). There were no roads into these areas; Cleator, traveling alone, went by horseback, on a mount he named "Pinchot." Starting at the Canadian border, he traveled south to Ellensburg, going township by township and documenting each with pictures and notes.

In 1910 Cleator was transferred to the Colville National Forest headquarters at Republic. It was here that he met and married Marjorie Monteith and where he fought his first major forest fire. The record of Cleator's specific activities for the next few years is sparse, but it seems that he performed the normal duties of a forest ranger at locations in both Washington and Oregon.

Planning Summer Cabins

By about 1915, a new idea was starting to take hold in Forest Service. Much of the "high country" in the national forests was leased out for grazing, and there was a growing sentiment among foresters that the "recreational use of the peaks, passes, glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes and tarns should be dominant, with grazing a secondary use ..." ("History of the Willamette National Forest"). It was in the area of recreational planning that Cleator was to make his lasting mark, and his first assignment came in 1919 when he was asked to survey and lay out sites for summer homes in what was then called the Rainier National Forest, and along the White River in Western Washington and the Naches River east of the Cascades. This was the start of what Cleator would call his "summer-home work" (McDonald, "Forest-Recreation Adviser Retires -- Again").

Private cabins had been allowed in forest reserves since 1897, but the program had been poorly administered. Permission had to be renewed every year, with no guarantee, and most people were hesitant to make any investment with so little certainty. In 1915, Congress passed the Occupancy Permits Act, which allowed for permits to be granted for up to 30 years. Interest in building cabins in the national forests blossomed, and Cleator was to become a pioneer in mapping out sites for such cabins and for establishing building and use standards. His philosophy was straightforward:

"We backed the homesites away from the highway, out of the dust ... . I made plats to fit river and shoreline, providing isolation, but not too much of it. I found that persons who thought they wanted to get away from everyone soon got too much of being alone. I made it so they could see a light in the distance" (McDonald, "Forest-Recreation Adviser Retires -- Again").

Cleator became one of the Forest Service's leading recreational planners, and in 1932 the service published a guide he authored entitled Summer Homes in the National Forests of Oregon and Washington. Cleator was then the assistant inspector for the Forest Service's  Region Six, which encompassed Washington and Oregon. In his booklet he listed the multiple recreational uses that it was his job to both encourage and regulate:

"Future needs are planned for, in so far as they can be foreseen, and the land is subdivided into parcels for free camp grounds, picnic parks, and playgrounds; resorts, hotels, and commercial enterprises which foster recreation usage; organization sites and summer-home sites"(Cleator, 1)

He went on to instruct the public, step by step, on how to find a location, get a permit, build a suitable cabin, and plan for sewage and garbage disposal. Under the category "General Regulations," Cleator noted:

"It is the intention of the Government that permittees shall have all the liberties and privileges that they might enjoy on their own land, provided the rights and liberties of others are not infringed upon" (Cleator, 9).

To that end, he included short chapters on "Good Manners in the Forest" and a "Smokers Code" for fire prevention. The booklet was liberally illustrated with his photographs of cabins, with such captions as "Good taste in both house and grounds" and "Improper location of toilet -- too exposed and too near the road" (Cleator, 6, 10).

Thirty-five Years a Ranger

Cleator did much more in his 35 years with the Forest Service than just facilitate the building of summer homes. It seems there were very few forests in Washington or Oregon that he didn't pass through, usually on foot or horseback. A partial list of his accomplishment would include these:

  • In 1920, Cleator virtually created the Skyline Trail in the Oregon Cascades, traveling by pack horse on old Indian and prospectors' trails. Cleator took with him a large number of trail markers and signs, and communicated with his headquarter by carrier pigeon. The areas he marked out as the Skyline Trail were later incorporated into the Pacific Crest Trail that now runs from the Canadian border to Mexico. His plans included shelters every 10 miles, which were eventually built in the 1930s as Depression-era public works projects.

  • In 1921 Cleator was transferred up to Washington state to map out summer-camp sites in the Olympic National Forest. He developed a recreational plan for Lake Crescent that included campgrounds, picnic areas, parks, summer-home sites, administrative sites, and a state fish hatchery on 16,600 acres. A similar Cleator proposal, for Lake Quinault, was completed in 1924.

  • In 1925, back in Oregon, Cleator laid down a proposed route for a mountain Skyline Highway that would carry motor vehicles from south of Mount Hood to Crater Lake. He concluded that such a highway was feasible, but that in some years it would be impassable. It was never built. During this trek, Cleator also stocked several lakes with trout that had been carried to a road-end by truck, then to the lakes by packhorse. In that same year, he prepared a topographical map of Austin Pass near Mount Baker in Whatcom County, identified sites for private cabins, and recommended restrictions on logging.

  • In 1927, Cleator walked from Darrington to Lake Chelan, marking out a trail in what is now the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

  • In 1927 and 1928, Cleator was again on the Olympic Peninsula, working on a comprehensive recreational plan that set aside 15 specific geographic units specifically for limited recreational use, most of which were in Olympic National Park. Cleator's proposal included designating nearly half a million acres as perpetual wilderness areas, to be left free of development and largely roadless.

  • In 1928, Cleator was appointed supervisor of recreation for the Forest Service's Region 6. In that same year, he began advocating for and working on the Cascade Crest Trail, which would run from the Canadian border to the Columbia River. In the early 1930s, Cleator traveled through the Washington Cascades on horseback, identifying potential wilderness areas and gathering information for trail development. It is illustrative of Cleator's long span with the Forest Service that he later did part of his reconnaissance for this trail by airplane.

  • In 1930, Cleator proposed a scenic highway between Skykomish and North Bend. The Seattle Times was an enthusiastic supporter and ran a rotogravure article on the proposal, illustrated with photographs taken by Cleator.

Some of what Fred Cleator did and recommended in his long career may seem out of step with current concepts of environmentalism and conservation, but his positive contributions have never really received the credit they deserve. As the authors of the Forest Service's in-house history of the development of the Willamette National Forest point out:

"the most important individual in this work [wilderness management] was Fred W. Cleator, who served with the title of forest examiner for 20 years, with regional responsibilities for the planning and development of recreational areas. Cleator's contributions were widespread, ranging from the rain forest of the Olympic National Forest and the alpine peaks of Goat Rocks to the rivers and mountain valleys of the Willamette and the Rogue River National Forests.

"Cleator's policies for the Region overall deserve scholarly attention. They are comparable with and equal in importance to the contributions made by Arthur Carhart in the Quetico-Superior area, and of Aldo Leopold in the Rocky Mountain Region. They were well adapted to the relaxed pattern of outdoor enjoyment typical of the Pacific Northwest from 1900 to 1945 ... [but] somewhat at odds with the recreational pattern which developed in the period after 1945" (Lawrence and Mary Rakestraw, History of the Willamette National Forest).

The Cleator Plan

Cleator's greatest accomplishment during his 35-year career with the Forest Service may well have been the development of the "Cleator Plan" during his time on the Olympic Peninsula in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It also demonstrated that, despite his work to facilitate summer homes and highways in national forests, Cleator was at heart a conservationist in the more modern sense of the word. As summarized by the Lawrence and Mary Rakestraw:

"The so-called Cleator Plan also recommended the establishment of a 316,960 acre 'Mount Olympus Snow Peaks Recreation Area' in the upper east fork Quinault drainage and an adjoining 134,240 acre 'Olympic Primitive Area.' The only modifications in the primitive area, Cleator noted, 'should be in the way of such Forest Service administrative improvements as are absolutely necessary for protection, such as trails, telephone lines and lookout houses. Other buildings beyond such rough shelters as may be considered necessary should be kept out.' (The Olympic Primitive Area was, in fact, created by the chief forester in December 1930, and later enlarged by the Secretary of Agriculture" (Lawrence and Mary Rakestraw, History of the Willamette National Forest).

Fred Cleator's boot prints and horse tracks were all over the national forests of the Northwest, and he is owed much by the hikers, campers, hunters, and skiers of Washington and Oregon. He was lucky enough to get his start in a new agency with a new mission, and he devoted his 35 years in the Forest Service to making some of the nation's most beautiful wild areas accessible to the public. And then he started his second career.

Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission

Fred Cleator retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1943 at the age of 60, but he clearly was not ready to hang up his hiking boots. While his activities for a few years following retirement are not well documented, he was at that time living in Portland, Oregon, and was deeply involved in the creation of that city's urban Forest Park. He next appears in the public record in 1949 when he was appointed "recreation technician" for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Despite the job title, Cleator spent his first months with the commission tackling several problems that plagued state parks at the time, including fires, vandalism, timber theft, poaching, and illegal grazing. To address these issues, he developed both a universal policy that applied to all state parks and individualized approaches to specific problems in specific parks.

Cleator wasn't a "recreation technician" for long; by 1950 he had risen to the position of assistant director of the commission. In June of that year he announced that the state would begin a survey of the Mount Pilchuck area in Snohomish County with a view to creating a year-around recreational area. In 1957, the state did open a ski area at Mt. Pilchuck, but poor annual snow conditions caused it to close permanently in 1980. (Cleator also played a role in developing other ski areas within national forest in Washington and Oregon, most of which have fared better.)

Retirement at Last

Cleator finally retired for good in January 1956, when he stepped down from this position at the state parks commission at the age of 72. State civil service rules usually would have required that he retire at age 70, but his work was so valuable that he was asked to stay an additional two years. His job title when he stepped down was "chief forester."

During his years with the state parks commission, and until his death, Cleator worked with the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs to develop Federation Forest State Park along the White River in King County. The park today features two "Fred Cleator Interpretive Trails," along which are explanatory placards describing the area's evergreens and its understory of native shrubs and woodland flowers.

In addition to his other accomplishments, Cleator was a member of the prestigious Commission on Geographical Names. He was personally responsible for naming some 1,000 remote lakes, peaks, and other landmarks in the Northwest, including Enchanted Valley in Olympic National Park.

Other honors came Cleator's way in recognition of his long and productive career. In the North Cascades, a 7,630-foot peak was named Mount Cleator. In May 1956 Xi Sigma Pi, a national forestry society, made him an honorary member, one of only eight in its then-50 year history.

Cleator died of heart disease in Seattle on February 2, 1957, barely one year after his "final" retirement. His name may not be well known today, but anyone who has hiked, camped, or skied anywhere in the national forests of Washington and Oregon should tip their hat to Fred Cleator, who almost certainly was there long before.


Sources: "National Forests Created by Theodore Roosevelt," Theodore Roosevelt Association website accessed January 16, 2012 (http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/conNatlForests.htm); "Presidential Proclamations," Presidency Project website accessed January 16, 2012 (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/proclamations.php/);  Robert M. Utley and Barry Mackintosh, The Department of Everything Else (online book) (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1989) available at (http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/utley-mackintosh/interior6.htm); "John W. Noble (1889–1893): Secretary of the Interior," University of Virginia's Miller Center website accessed January 17, 2010 (http://millercenter.org/president/bharrison/essays/cabinet/385); "History -- Gifford Pinchot, First Chief, 1905-1910," U.S.D.A.  Forest Service website accessed January 17, 2012 (http://www.fs.fed.us/aboutus/history/chiefs/pinchot.shtml);  "The Beginning Era of Concern about Natural Resources, 1873-1905," U.S.D.A.  Forest Service website accessed January 17, 2012 (http://www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/Publications/first_century/sec1.htm); Lucile McDonald, "Forest-Recreation Expert Retires -- Again," The Seattle Times (Magazine), January 8, 1956, p. 7; Dennis Roth and Gerald W. Williams, "The Forest Service In 1905 -- USDA Forest Service,"  United States Forest Service website accessed July 18, 2012 (www.fs.fed.us/.../1905%20Renaming%20the%20Forest%20Service.doc); Gerald W. Williams , The USDA Forest Service -- The First Century (Washington, D.C.: USDA Forest Service, 2005); Occupancy Permits Act (P.L. 63-293, Ch. 144, 38 Stat. 1101, as amended; 16 U.S.C. 497); Fred W. Cleator, Summer Homes in the National Forests of Oregon and Washington, (Portland: USDA Forest Service, 1932); The Modern City magazine, Vol. 6, No. 7 (July 1921), p. 21; Lawrence and Mary Rakestraw, History of the Willamette National Forest (Eugene: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Willamette National Forest, 1991) (electronic version available on Forest History Society website (http://www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/Publications/region/6/willamette/index.htm); "Opening Up Another Cascades Wonderland: The Proposed Skykomish-North Bend Highway," The Seattle Sunday Times Rotogravure Pictorial Section, January 12, 1930, p. 6; "Topographical Map of Austin Pass Region Made," The Seattle Daily Times, August 9, 1925, p. 7; "Wilderness Area in Olympics is Forester's Plan," Ibid., April 29, 1928, p. 38; "Recreational Center for Mount Baker Region," Ibid., June 26, 1925, p. 14; "Commission to Conduct Survey of Pilchuck Area," The Seattle Times, June 18, 1950, p. 3; "Fred W. Cleator, Veteran Northwest Forester, Dies," Ibid., February 3, 1957; John Pinkerton, Fred Cleator Interpretive Trails (Olympia: Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, 1967); "Mt. Pilchuck State Park," StateParks.com website accessed January 18, 2012 (http://www.stateparks.com/mount_pilchuck_sp.html).

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