Washington's Timberlands (Part 1)

  • By Adam M. Sowards
  • Posted 5/20/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22983
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Washington's forests changed during the nineteenth century. When the century began, forests dominated most of the region. They were homelands for diverse and sovereign Indigenous nations whose reciprocal relationships with these places made them thick with stories, family relationships, and material culture. European and American nations claimed these forests too. By the midcentury, Americans arrived in greater numbers intent on making farms, building towns, and developing resources, attracted in part by the abundant timber. National and local governments helped. In 1854-1855, territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) signed treaties with tribes and bands across the territory that extinguished Native title to millions of acres. Thus did American legal practices allow forests to be transformed from Native ancestral homes to non-Native-owned property. Lowland forests became farms and towns as Congress offered incentives to claim timberlands, but fraud often followed. Congress also supported transcontinental railroads with land grants, including forest lands, and by the late nineteenth century timber companies were buying large tracts of forests across Washington. In 1900, Weyerhaeuser bought 900,000 acres of timberland from the Northern Pacific, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another.

From Indigenous Sovereignties to American Ownership

Washington easily earned its nickname "The Evergreen State." Thick forests covered the territory's mountains and lowlands except for the southeast section. The dominant species differed depending on geography, but forests offered habitat and resources across the region. Indigenous peoples held sovereign authority over all these forests since time immemorial. The diverse tribes throughout the Northwest developed cultural and material relationships with these forests. Maintaining those relationships has always constituted a key element of maintaining Native sovereignty with the land. Those living, evolving relationships existed within distinct communities across the Northwest. In these relationships, forests were not static things to be owned or sold, but places where community and individual lives unfolded with reciprocal exchanges.

Colonization disrupted all that. Until the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819), Spain held a claim to the Northwest along with the United States and Great Britain. The United States and Great Britain agreed to jointly occupy Oregon Territory until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, and their imperial claims were overlaid onto Indigenous territories where Native peoples still dominated

During these years, European and American explorers who traveled through the region remarked on the forests. Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), who served as naturalist on Captain George Vancouver's expedition that reached Puget Sound in 1792, reported on the forests frequently. Near the Olympic Mountains, the peaks "were every where covered with one continued forest of Pinery," he wrote (Newcombe, ed., 28). Near Everett, Menzies saw the land covered "with a thick forest of different kinds of Pine trees" (Newcombe, ed., 44). When the US Exploring Expedition searched the Northwest, Charles Wilkes also found forests. When the party visited the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver in 1841, they observed a sawmill preparing boards to be sold in Hawaii. The Northwest's forests were already being pulled into global commerce, a trend that continued and began to unravel ancient forest relationships.

While explorers were still marveling at the region's forested riches and traders were beginning to export milled lumber, the area's Indigenous nations retained their rights. Americans, however, aimed to extinguish Native title to the land. Isaac I. Stevens was appointed by President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) to be Washington Territory's first governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. Stevens made haste and arrived in the territory in late 1853. A year later, beginning in December 1854, Stevens "negotiated" treaties across Washington over the course of several months. From the United States perspective, treaties freed up land to be claimed by Americans for use in economic development. The treaty negotiations were fraught and imposed long-term consequences. According to the American logic and law of the treaties, Native nations exchanged the majority of their lands for reservations, material support, and continued rights to fish, gather, and hunt. The forests across Washington became public domain, their legal authority resting with the United States, based on the idea of ownership, not reciprocal relationships. The implications of this ideological shift would be profound.

Settling, Developing, and Railroading

Explorers, fur traders, and missionaries scattered through Washington in the first half of the nineteenth century. Settlers arrived, too, and with the treaties completed, they arrived in growing numbers. For these newcomers, the forests were both an obstacle and a draw. The newcomers who planned to farm often had to clear spaces in the forest for their homes, barns, crops, and animals. Town sites, too, required clearing. These were laborious, time-consuming, and necessary processes to build the future they envisioned. The first settlers who would establish Seattle arrived in 1851. Henry Yesler (1810?-1892) opened a steam sawmill there in 1853, but his was not the only sawmill on Puget Sound. Cutting trees and building communities were part of the same impulse.

Forests offered a strong foundation for a large commercial economy, not only because of their abundance but also because the California gold rush that began in 1848 brought increased demand for lumber, as did widespread destruction in San Francisco caused by repeated fires. Several sawmills started on Puget Sound were owned by Californians, including Port Ludlow, Port Blakely, Port Madison, and Port Gamble. The mills sat in strategic places – close to the water, near big timber tracts, away from populations. Mill owners did not want to draw the attention of government officials, because millowners did not purchase the timber. Few bothered with who owned the forests, because until 1878, there was no legal way for individuals to acquire large tracts of timberland from the public domain.

An investigation in the late 1870s estimated that $40 million worth of timber had been taken from the public domain without compensation to the government purse. This theft was an open secret, and few officials tried to stop it. When John J. McGilvra (1827-1903) arrived in 1861 to be U.S. District Attorney in Washington Territory, he investigated the situation closely. He observed that more than a dozen sawmills on Puget Sound were cutting between 5,000 and 40,000 board feet of lumber daily, clearly violating federal laws. He adopted a compromise position. McGilvra realized that stopping the operations would harm the territory's economy, so he charged a stumpage fee based on the lumber the mills produced. The fees were low. When the government threatened to raise them, locals objected strongly enough to stymie reform.

Securing property rights or at least viable economic options were critical as the population of Americans grew. Railroads were most important to this phase. By the middle of the nineteenth century, railroads seemed to be an engine for economic development. Many leaders in Congress believed they were needed to expand the nation's control and development of the West. Congress sent several surveyors west in 1853-1855 to locate the best route for a transcontinental line. Stevens, besides being territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, led the survey of the northernmost route.

Sectional conflict over slavery slowed progress because regional politicians debated where the transcontinental line should cross. When Southern states seceded and Democrats lost their associated power in Congress, the transcontinental line finally started when Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act (1862). Although the first route selected was not the route through Washington Territory, the incentives included in the package later shaped the Northwest's forests significantly.

Building rail lines across the continent was expensive, and private corporations were unwilling or unable to risk it. Because transcontinental railroads promised great economic development for the public, Congress agreed to support and subsidize corporations. In 1862 Congress granted railroad corporations a 400-foot right-of-way along the route of their tracks. In addition, Congress offered 10 sections of land in an alternating checkboard pattern for each mile built. Each section was a square mile, split evenly on either side of the route. In 1864 Congress extended that to 20 sections of land. Later still, Congress granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad an even larger strip of checkerboard land: 20 miles wide in the states and 40 miles wide in the territories, including Washington. This land grant was the size of New England.

Constructing tracks across a continent was an engineering accomplishment, but railroads needed people and products, and they underestood the importance of timber. In an 1894 Northern Pacific Railroad brochure, the company wrote: "The lumber resources of Washington are practically inexhaustible; the immense forest which envelops Puget Sound and covers the Cascade and Olympic Mountains is the finest body of timber in the world, and is estimated to contain 160,000,000,000 feet." Later, it claimed, "Western Washington, comprising the Puget Sound country, is a region of dense forests and lofty, snow-clad mountains. Lumbering is the most important industry." What it neglected to mention was that the company owned millions of acres of those trees. That ownership forced change to the status quo.

The Demand for Change

While federal officials at first accommodated the mills by charging only stumpage fees and not issuing trespassing charges, the Northern Pacific Railroad demanded change. The checkerboard pattern that Congress created meant that on the forested landscape it was impossible to tell whose land a tree grew on. Would-be timber thieves could not easily distinguish whether they were stealing timber from the government or from the railroad. The company pressured the federal government to intervene, worried that it would not get full price for its lands if they were denuded of trees. Log rafts were seized; restitution payments were made. The free-wheeling days of taking timber were coming to an end, although reform came in fits and starts.

Meanwhile, Congress passed its first land law specifically to sell timberland, the Timber and Stone Act (1878). The law offered 160 acres for sale at $2.50 per acre. This was the first time federal land law specifically distinguished land as primarily forest and unfit for farming. Purchasers had to affirm they did not plan to speculate with the land. The Timber and Stone Act also established harsher penalties for destroying timber on any public lands.

Although the law's proponents intended it to reduce fraud, it encouraged it in new form. Most of the land laws of the previous two decades that were meant to convert public domain into private property were aimed at farmers, using 160 acres as a baseline. Anyone coming to Washington to farm would not want a densely forested 160 acres that would have to be laboriously cleared of trees. To business interests intent on acquiring timber to keep their sawmills humming for years, 160 acres of Douglas fir or ponderosa pine forest amounted to little, so companies hired people, often immigrants or employees, to claim the land and promptly sign over the title to the mills. These men were known as dummy entrymen, who filed claims using various land laws. In 1882-1883, 200,000 acres of Washington forests transferred from public ownership to mill owners who were amassing tens of thousands of acres. Investigations by the Public Land Commission found a company near Olympia had hired several employees to acquire 2,700 acres, while a speculator near Vancouver hired 45 men to acquire 7,000 acres. This kind of fraud was as open a secret as had been the earlier timber theft.

In this way, forests were soon dominated by large timber companies. Almost immediately, Washingtonians clamored against these monopolistic practices. The Oregonian railed against the practice: "No very large transactions ... have been known in Oregon, the business being small and unimportant beside the enormous grab of the Puget Sound Lumber Company near Seattle, an association who emulate the great robber barons of medieval Europe in their hoggish propensities" (Bunting, 144). Eventually, such fraudulent practices led to calls for national reform.

Creating Federal Forest Reserves

While timber companies were acquiring tracts of forest across Washington, the national scene also affected the fate of Northwest forests. The timber industry in the Midwest rapidly logged off the landscape, leaving behind devastated communities and forests. Fearing the same fate might meet Western forests and leave the nation in a timber famine, conservationists – in and out of government service – advocated reform. So did members of Congress, who worried about the rampant fraud associated with timber theft and dummy entries on the public domain.

In 1891 Congress passed a reform bill, the General Revision Act, that repealed and tightened policies for public lands. In its final section, the law provided presidents with the power to "from time to time, set apart and reserve" forests on the public domain (Trask, 100). Known first as forest reserves and later as national forests, these lands would remain under federal control, off-limits to settlement. Presidents wasted no time reserving forests across the West, including in Washington. In 1893 the Pacific Forest Reserve was established, and in 1897 was folded into the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve. Also in 1897, President Grover Cleveland created Olympic and Washington forest reserves. (The boundaries and names in some cases have changed in the years since their establishment: Washington Forest Reserve now is part of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Mount Rainier Forest Reserve has been distributed across several forests.)

At first, Congress provided little guidance or support for these forest reserves. Their creation, though, established a new land-use category for Northwest forests. Sometimes the diverse existing categories got complicated. For instance, forest reserves carved from the public domain contained within them some of the railroad grants. In 1897, Congress passed the Forest Lieu Exchange Act to allow railroads to swap their holdings within reserved lands for lands elsewhere not so restricted. The Northern Pacific Railroad used a similar in lieu provision of the act that created Mount Rainier National Park. The company exchanged land it held within the new park's boundaries, much of it high and mountainous without especially high-value timber, for land elsewhere better suited for timber production. Throughout Washington's forests, ownership and jurisdictions were often similarly tangled.

The Race for Timber

With railroads owning millions of acres and millions more acres held in federal forest reserves, timber companies sought ways to secure holdings of their own. By the 1890s, Midwest companies and their subsidiaries swarmed over the region's forests, searching for the best remaining lands. The historian John Fahey captured the tenor of the times by describing these lumber executives as "Great Lakes Invaders" and characterizing the pace as "a race" (Fahey, 190).

Perhaps the biggest winner of the competition was the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Frederick Weyerhaeuser and James J. Hill were neighbors in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Hill was president of the Great Northern Railway, the only transcontinental line that did not take federal land grants. But Hill had grabbed control of the Northern Pacific by 1900, along with what remained of its federal land grants. The men negotiated and settled on $6 per acre for 900,000 acres of timber. The $5.4 million price stretched Weyerhaeuser and his backers, but they found a way. On January 3, 1900, they signed the agreement; two weeks later, the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company incorporated. This sale – one of the nation's largest land sales – symbolized a changing era. Private timber companies and the federal government now controlled millions of acres of Washington's forests. The region's economy and identity for the coming century were shaped in important ways, and two dominant forces – commercial timber companies and the federal government – would dominate the state's timberlands.

Coming Soon: Washington's forests in the twentieth century and beyond.


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