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A Brief History of the Willamette National Forest

Black and white photo of an old log cabin under a tree
Ranger Station at Big Prairie (1903)

The Cascade Forest Reserve was created in September of 1893 by proclamation of President Grover Cleveland. This proclamation was in response to numerous petitions from local citizens requesting protection of the Cascade mountain range. The Cascade Forest Reserve stretched from the Columbia River almost to the California border. From 1893 to 1897, the Cascade Forest Reserve was largely managed as a preserve.

The Sundry Civil Appropriations Act of June 1897 (Organic Act) appropriated funds for management of the national forest reserves and mandated management goals. Those management goals included: "…securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of the citizens of the United States."; protection of the forests from destruction by fire and depredations; and development of mineral resources; among other provisions. The Organic Act led to establishment of forest reserve boundaries, forest supervisors, and forest ranger patrol districts. Addie Morris and Cy Bingham were noteworthy early rangers in areas that would become the Willamette National Forest.

In February of 1905, management of the forest reserves was transferred from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Gifford Pinchot was appointed as the first chief of the Forest Service. The result was an increase in professional management of the forests. The philosophy was sustained utilitarian use of the forest resources. In 1908, the Cascade Forest Reserve was divided into the Oregon National Forest, the Cascade National Forest, the Umpqua National Forest and the Crater National Forest. In 1911, the Santiam National Forest was created from parts of the Oregon NF and the Cascade NF. The Deschutes NF was created from the portions that drain into the Deschutes River. In 1933, the Santiam NF and the Cascade NF were combined to form the Willamette National Forest.

Photo of a group of men leaning on a car
Ranger S.L.Taylor & Fire Protection Force Cascade National Forest (1923)

1905 to 1933 was a period of decentralized administration for the forests of the Western Cascades. Forest and district administrative boundaries were further refined. The Forest Service made efforts to establish relationships with local communities and with the forest users. This was a time of extensive recreation planning in the western Cascades. A fire control organization was built. Mining claims were established and the first large timber sales were sold near Detroit and Oakridge.

During the Depression and World War II (1933-1945), the Willamette NF became a representative of the Federal government in the communities of the Western Cascades. Efforts were made to improve employment and economic conditions through the Civilian Conservation Corps and through the use of sustained yield forestry. During WW II, the Willamette stepped-up timber sales to provide resources for the war effort. Between 1942 and 1945, the Willamette sold 559 million board feet (MMBF) of timber.

The years 1945 to 1970 mark an era of intensive forestry and forest management. This era included dramatic increases in recreation use, timber sales, dam construction, campground construction, and wildlife management. Mining claims were looked at much more critically. Grazing on the Willamette NF was reduced and then virtually discontinued during this era. In 1962, the Columbus Day storm downed an estimated 140 MMBF of timber and created many log jams on the rivers. In 1964, the Christmas week flood hit the Willamette hard. Six campgrounds were totally destroyed, seven more were damaged. Roads, bridges, and culverts were also lost. The passage of the Wilderness act in 1964 created new wilderness areas and controversy over the management for the new areas. This era also marked the establishment and growth of an activist environmental movement. The movement is best known for the controversy surrounding the French Pete addition to the Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

The history of the Forest Service, and the Willamette NF, in the period of 1970 to present is one of dramatic change and heated controversies. The Willamette’s timber sales continued at about 750 MMBF per year through the 70’s, however, the price bid per thousand increased dramatically. This price speculation led to timber sale defaults and sale buy-backs in the early 1980’s. The volume not cut in the early 80’s was resold in the latter half of the decade. The "section 318" bill passed by Congress increased the volume sold on the Willamette in 1990 to nearly 1 billion board feet of timber. After that, timber sale volumes declined rapidly. The Willamette NF Land Management Plan was approved in 1990, two and one-half years after the release of the draft plan. The Forest Plan was amended in 1993 by the Northwest Forest Plan (also called the President’s Plan). In 1997, the Willamette’s planned sale volume is 132 MMBF.


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