Conservation: From the Timber Wars to Collaboration

The deep roots of 20th century timber politics — Part 2

By Zach Hagadone
Special to the Reader

The first part of this article appeared in the Feb. 3 edition of the Reader. Find it online at

‘A national ownership’

In the Inland Northwest, the end of the 1920s saw many of the large lumber mills bought out by even larger corporations, including Oregon-based Weyerhaeuser, which acquired Humbird’s holdings in 1929.

Sagle loggers c. 1910. These are white pine logs.

But by May of 1931, the Humbird store attached to the company’s mill in Kootenai, Idaho closed after 29 years, and by December 1931, the mill and store in Sandpoint shuttered its doors.

Within the space of a year, the panhandle’s largest employer— which had once extended its influence through nearly all aspects of everyday life — disappeared. But a new period of collaboration in the forests was on the horizon, fueled by federal involvement.

As the Depression wore on, and the New Deal programs began affecting northern Idaho, the word “conservation” began cropping up in the regional newspapers — and not as a derisive allusion to the “conservation theory” that animated the much-hated forest reserve policy of the Roosevelt administration more than 30 years earlier.

The Northern Idaho News in 1932 reported on what Chief Forester Robert Y. Stuart had to say about “forest problems” in the West: “The basic problem, according to the chief forester, is one of maintaining the power of the country’s forests to grow continuously the kinds and quantities of wood that our economic life will require.”

This was still a fundamentally economic problem. But, it was being framed differently than in decades past.

According to Stuart’s report, “the complete denudation of 60 million acres of land because of fire and bad logging practices” had resulted in “marked impairment of the economic and social values which depend upon our forest resources.”

Stuart believed that, “While policies and measures designed to promote conservation have had some effect on the balance, they have been insufficient to offset the powerful and relentless pressure of economic forces created by the pursuit of private profit.” 

Reports such as these suggest that timber communities throughout the Western U.S. were in some cases waking up from a decades-long hangover. What these communities needed — and what the nation needed — was some rehabilitation. One of the most powerful tools for doing so came with the Civilian Conservation Corps. While being one of the briefest of the New Deal programs, the so-called “Tree Army” was arguably one of its most successful in terms of transforming Americans’ view of their forests and themselves.

The Northern Idaho News of Nov. 3, 1933 carried a headline that would have been very much out of place 10 years prior: “Montanans Tell Views on CCC: Hundreds of Unsolicited Letters Give Praise to Conservation Program.”

This program, in addition to doing its basic work of fire protection, forest reclamation, tree planting and infrastructure development, was also a doorway to easing some of the sectionalism that infused the debate over forest land management in previous decades. As the article stated: “Of the about 18,000 CCCs in Montana and northern Idaho this last summer, approximately 16,000 were from the east. And, to a large extent, from eastern cities. That’s a big influx of outsiders and it may be interesting to learn what are the reactions of Montanans to the plan which provided for such an influx.”

The article went on to quote from a selection of letters received by the regional forester’s office in Missoula.

As one letter “from a logger and a father,” whose two native-born Montana sons were enrolled in CCC, stated, “The advent of eastern boys entering western forests has broadened their ideas of the vast public domains which belong to and which are supported by both east and west. Many of these young fellows are going home with vanishing ideas of state or sectional lines and a broader vision of national unity of possession.”

Likewise, the letter-writer said CCC work had a similar effect on Westerners: “Many of the people of the west living in or contiguous to the national forests have had an erroneous idea of the vast public domains [as] an encroachment on their rights, but they are fast grasping the idea of a national ownership.”

This could hardly be a larger departure from the popular feelings in the region during the first 20-plus years of the century.

The first logging truck in North Idaho. Photo taken on Trestle Creek between 1918 and 1919. James Campbell is driving and Dick Therien standing. Donated by Paul Croy. Photos courtesy Bonner County History Museum.

Another letter described as coming “from a college president” struck a similar — though frankly less eloquent — note: “I saw a number of the boys on the train on their way from the camps back to their New York homes. They had fine color and showed lots of vigor and enthusiasm. When these fellows get back to the cramped living conditions in New York, they are apt to become pretty restless there, and will want to return to the conditions which built them up physically, gave them an appreciation of the worthwhileness of honest labor, and some insight into the glories and beauties of [a] natural mountain environment.”

Harkening to those earlier times of conflict over conservation, “an attorney” wrote: “I have always been an ardent advocate of the conservation of our forests and was greatly pleased when Theodore Roosevelt made it a major part of his program, although it was then greatly condemned by all those who wanted to exploit our forests and make easy money in a very short time without regard to the destruction of our forests to the detriment of the next generation.”

These sentiments are almost entirely absent — and certainly were not expressed with such force and clarity — from the newspaper articles published in the days of the “forest reserve” question.

“I think that that sounds very much like the mission of the CCC,” said Adam Sowards, an environmental historian who serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho. “It’s an attempt to rehabilitate the woods, to rehabilitate the young men who were there working to also help rehabilitate the economy.” 

And it worked.

“The time these men spent doing these jobs — it’s just a few years, I mean, the program did not last very long, not even a full decade — it transformed those men not only physically and economically, but their whole sense of themselves and of the nation and of nature, I think really was in some cases radically transformed,” Sowards added.

The presence of the CCC was especially felt in Idaho and more so in northern Idaho, which according to the Northern Idaho News, in 1933 had the most camps: 23 emergency conservation forest camps in Montana, eight in Glacier, four in Yellowstone, four in Washington and 52 in the Idaho panhandle.

The effect this had on the public’s perception of forest conservation was underscored in a Northern Idaho News article in 1934, which bore another headline that would have been inconceivable in the previous 30 years: “Must Push Fight for Conservation.”

That news item detailed the creation of the Clearwater River Valley Conservation League, which drew more than 200 attendees and delegates from Lewis, Clearwater, Nez Perce and Asotin counties. This organization, however, touched on another distinct strain of argument in favor of conservation, which had been quietly growing for the past decade: recreation, and its interplay with environmental health.

“If sportsmen and game conservationists had organized and fought for preservation and conservation 20 years ago, there would be no problems of overgrazing, soil erosion and fish and game propagation,” said Tom Lally, the Spokane chairman of the Washington Fish and Game Commission, speaking at the meeting in Lewiston.

The new league adopted a “broad program,” including “the propagation and protection of all wild game and fish, protection and conservation of forests and mountain areas constituting the watersheds of the streams, conservation and protection of timber and forest resources, improvement and conservation of natural grazing areas, prevention of improper use and pollution of streams, and the fostering of good sportsmanship and fellowship among the sportsmen of the area.”

Lally said that “Roosevelt has a real program for conservation,” and, “Last session with representatives at the legislature we gained more than in all the other years together.”

Furthermore, Lally took aim at chambers of commerce and other groups that never lifted a finger to preserve game resources.

“The outdoors is the only thing we have to sell outside buyers for spot cash,” he said.

‘A great national playground’

A curious event took place in Boise in March 1936, when retired U.S. Army Captain Burt B. Spilman, delivered a speech on the topic of economics, recreation and conservation in Idaho. 

Spilman’s talk was a refutation of another address given by well-known Idaho author Vardis Fisher. According to the paper’s report, Fisher had said Idaho was “finished” except for phosphate extraction and recreation. Spilman took exception to that, arguing that while “the state needs to develop its recreational resources and encourage tourists,” it was still rich in timber, mining, electrical power generation and agricultural resources.

According to the paper, both men agreed that “the state should be advertised and tourist money should be brought to America’s last frontier in order to develop here a great national playground,” but Spilman took issue with Fisher’s inconsistent claim that Idaho had too many miles of highways. 

“Eastern tourists must have good highways in order to reach the recreation areas of Idaho,” Spilman said. “Tourists are not going to ride horses and drag pack animals into the back country to reach hunting and fishing areas.”

A logger cutting a tree after digging it out from about six feet of snow. Photo by Ross Hall, courtesy of the Hallans Gallery and Bonner County History Museum.

At their basic level, Spilman and Fisher were expressing a complex of ideas not only about the notion of recreation and conservation as valuable economic drivers in themselves, but the best way to go about encouraging them both. 

According to Sowards, these ideas were rooted in a belief that there were places that represented “the pioneer past of America and they were worth protecting and left as is.” Some people at the time felt that these “primitive” experiences — as they would call them — were critical to American identity. 

Sometimes called the Wilderness Movement, the idea of protecting landscapes for their own sake can be found dating back at least to the turn of the century — and certainly the National Park system established by Theodore Roosevelt’s administration was an expression of that. But, it didn’t take a central place in the wider conversation about conservation until the late-1920s and early-1930s.

“I think the reason that you see it rising in importance [in that era] is because the pressure comes from the widespread access to the automobile and airplanes and backcountry airstrips that allow people to penetrate into these places and, on the one hand, there’s an opportunity to get into the backcountry and to go hunting, and then you’ve also got people saying, ‘I’m not sure we want to do that; we want to make sure we’ve got some places where we keep these machines out,’” Sowards said, pointing to the creation of the Idaho Primitive Area in 1931 as an example. 

“The 1920s and the ’30s seem to be the hinge on which this recreation boom swings, and I don’t think you ever see it going away after that,” he said.

However, that’s not to say that recreation advocates were necessarily opponents of resource extraction.

“That’s often been the case, but in the ’20s and ’30s era, part of the argument is not against cutting trees or mining; part of the argument is against too much mechanized outdoor recreation and too many tourists and the need to preserve places where you can have what they would have called a more ‘primitive’ experience in the outdoors,” Sowards added.

Just how radically ideas about forest land management had changed since the turn of the 20th century can be seen with the 1935 publication in the Journal of Forestry of an article titled “The Passing of the Lolo Trail,” by Elers Koch.

A native of Bozeman, Mont., and one of the lead foresters in fighting the Great Fire of 1910, Koch bemoaned the over-development of backcountry spaces in the West — and northern Idaho in particular — sneering at the Forest Service’s version of “progress.”

“It opened up the wilderness with roads and telephone lines, and airplane landing fields. It capped the mountain peaks with white-painted lookout houses, laced the ridges and streams with a network of trails and telephone lines, and poured in thousands of firefighters year after year in a vain attempt to control forest fires,” he wrote.

“Has all this effort and expenditure of millions of dollars added anything to human good? Is it possible that it was all a ghastly mistake like plowing up the good buffalo grass sod of the dry prairies? Has the country as it stands now as much human value as it had in the nineties when Major Fenn’s forest rangers first rode into it?”

His answer, of course, was “no.” And the culprit, he argued, was the thousands of miles of road and communication infrastructure put in place by the Forest Service with the express purpose of suppressing forest fires, yet “the results in fire control have been almost negligible.” 

“Every really bad fire season has seen great conflagrations sweep completely beyond control, nullifying the results of every fire extinguished in the more favorable seasons,” Koch wrote.

His solution — which would have been nearly unthinkable to suggest in the years preceding his article  — was to leave the forests alone and let them burn as they would. 

In essence, greater conservation of wildlands could be achieved by not trying to “save” them from fire. Referring to the Clearwater River, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Bitterroot National Forest Koch argued that, “Its special recreational values were probably greater than they are after thirty years of Forest Service management.” He later concluded, “[I]t is time to withdraw from a losing game before more millions are expended with little or no results.”

Sowards noted that the editors of the Journal of Forestry recognized the unorthodoxy of Koch’s argument, and appended a disclaimer stating their awareness of how controversial it would be. Yet, he said, the article represented a “really interesting moment of reflection about the futility of being able to actually control something like fire in such a vast landscape.”

It also ended up being rather prophetic, in that it hinted at future criticisms of the Forest Service for over-managing forest lands — to the detriment of everything from ecology to recreation. 


Into the late-1930s and through the war years, Eler Koch remained an outlier. As the Great Depression continued, the newspapers became ever-more laudatory of the Civilian Conservation Corps and, to an extent, the Forest Service itself.

Even better, the collaborative efforts engendered by the CCC’s work in the forests was an economic windfall at a time when money was tight all over. The Daily Bulletin in Sandpoint put some hard figures to that boon in a July 1936 article, reporting that business and industry in Idaho had benefited to the tune of $26 million during the previous three years of the CCC’s operations. That amount would have exceeded $500 million in 2022 dollars. 

The Northern Idaho News in 1938 described the CCC as “a sound practical national institution for conserving youth” as well as the nation’s forestlands — reversing the damage done by decades of “cut-and-run” logging practices, protecting it from fire and other ecological threats, and carving out a “great national playground.” 

“Each year millions of persons use the forests and parks of the nation for healthful outdoor recreation,” The Northern Idaho News wrote. “Through their labors in developing park and forest lands for recreational purposes, CCC enrollees have opened up hundreds of thousands of acres of land for the use of the people during their nonworking hours and on vacations.”

Beneath the triumphalism of the period, however, were the seeds of new conflicts that would only deepen as time went on. Paradoxically, the deep collaboration between the federal government, state and local agencies, and industry set the stage for showdowns over who and what belongs in the woods.

Even before Koch penned “The Passing of the Lolo Trail,” federal forester Robert Marshall could see where things were headed, with industry beginning to exert increased pressure on public lands. 

The son of a constitutional lawyer, reform activist and conservationist, Marshall served several stints in the Forest Service, including in Missoula, Mont. in the mid-1920s, and by 1937 had risen to the head of the newly created Forest Service Division of Recreation and Lands. 

He contributed the section on recreation in the 1933 National Plan for American Forestry, in which he presented a radical vision for the future protection of the nation’s woods. 

In the “Copeland Report,” so called because it was commissioned by New York Sen. Royal Copeland, Marshall argued that as much as 10% of all the forest lands in the U.S. be designated as recreation areas. What’s more, he advocated for establishing the Forest Service’s millions of acres of roadless holdings as wildernesses or “primitive areas” and, even more sweeping, the federal government should fully regulate timber harvesting on private as well as public lands.

“This is a socialist argument and certainly there was opposition to that but they didn’t look at him like he was completely crazy,” Sowards said. “In fact, that idea continued to be bandied about in the 1940s and early 1950s — the idea of getting it all if not controlled by the federal government then having a set of rules and regulations that would be abided by even on private timberland.”

The debate over the Copeland Report spilled into the postwar period and onto the pages of the Journal of Forestry. Meanwhile, the large mill owners pushed back, fearing their loss of discretion and control over access to federal forest lands.

While adapting some of the Copeland Report’s recommendations to the New Deal — including more vigorous fire suppression efforts — Roosevelt shied from federal control of private timberlands. And, though similar calls for federal control continued, Congress, too, consistently refused to act. 

Marshall died of a heart attack in 1939, and so didn’t live to see what he’d feared would transpire as the U.S. exited World War II a fundamentally different nation — one that despite its burgeoning conservation ethos in the 1930s now looked on federal forests as industrial assets.

“Governments, whether state or federal, can work most effectively and easily with larger concerns, larger companies, industries, etc., and so there’s an effort in the ’30s with the New Deal to write codes that guided working conditions and wages and production schedules and those sorts of things,” Sowards said. “Often the New Deal is seen as hostile to big business but in this case … in a large respect these legal codes get written by the industries themselves.”

The upshot to that relationship was that small mill owners were cut out to the benefit of the big timber operations, which now had a much greater stake in controlling public lands.

“If you are a large timber owner in 1900 you probably don’t have to worry a whole lot about it because you have control of enough timber for yourself to keep your mills running and don’t have to think about federal conservation in any sort of way,” Sowards said. “The 1930s start to be around that time when your own land might be cut over a little bit, you’ve got this depression happening and that’s when they might end up in some of these agreements with the federal government, and by the time you hit World War II things might shift a little bit because a lot of the private timber holdings had been depleted by then.”

With the onset of World War II and the lessening of the Great Depression, Sowards said demand for raw materials — including timber — began a steady, then dramatic, upswing. Construction experienced an historic boom in the wake of the war, feeding on the massive expansion of suburbs around the country. While the amount of timber cutting off the national forests had been a “pittance” before the early-1940s, “If you go and look up timber harvest levels on federal forests you see them really boost after World War II,” Sowards said.

“By the 1950s the Forest Service is a super-willing collaborator with private timber interests,” Sowards said, adding that the pro-Marshall advocates in the Journal of Forestry had lost their battle to convince the national government to take the lead in conserving its own forests. 

“They just decide to allow private industry to ransack the public forests in a whole lot of ways. I think that’s how I look at it,” he added.

From the “cut-and-run” mentality and fierce opposition to forest reserves as an unwanted “eastern” notion of conservation-by-bureaucracy; to the recognition of the practical benefits of preserving forests for economic, ecological and recreational uses; to the opening of the forests for “ransack” by commercial interests, the vision for public lands had fundamentally altered over the course of 50 years. Swinging from conflict to collaboration and back again, the contours of the politics and opinions regarding conservation would continue to swing for the following 50 years and beyond — deeply informed by the ground that had been gained and lost, often literally, in the past, and establishing patterns that would come to a dramatic flashpoint with the late-century “Timber Wars.”

This article is the second part of the first installment in a multi-part series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. The first part appeared in the Feb. 3 edition of the Reader. Subsequent parts will be published in the Reader in the spring and summer. For more information on this series, visit

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