Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration

How the ‘Baby Boom’ and the suburbs set the stage for the ‘Timber Wars’

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

The so-called “Timber Wars” are generally described as having occurred in the 1980s and ’90s. It was a period of conflict waged in both the woods and the courtroom between lumber companies and environmentalists. The federal government was stuck in the middle, sometimes regarded as the enemy, sometimes an ally. The reality is more complex. The “wars” are better understood as a series of battles between a constellation of competing and complementary interests. The involved parties jockeyed for economic, political and often social positions. 

In North Idaho that meant everyone, to varying degrees, had a stake in the conflict. Some “won,” some “lost,” yet all used the woods as an avatar for their visions of the landscape. The so-called “West” and its attendant lands were never “won;” they’ve been constantly contested and still are today. 

This is the story of how the United States navigated notions of conserving its primary commodity — land and the things that grow on it — while leveraging them into its mid-20th century ascendancy, and the bitter conflicts over how that commodity should be managed in a flashpoint known as the “Timber Wars.”

‘Getting out the cut’

Courtesy art.

By 1906, about 23,000 square miles of Idaho lands had been absorbed into “forest reserves” — a policy initiated by then-President Theodore Roosevelt and the precursor to the National Forest System.  

That same year, Idaho Sen. Weldon Heyburn denounced the forest reserves from his seat in Congress. On behalf of the powerful mining and lumber interests of his home constituency in the Silver Valley of North Idaho, Heyburn argued: “It is men we want, not trees.”

A year later, in 1907, Roosevelt’s chief forester Gifford Pinchot — head of the newly created U.S. Forest Service — traveled to Coeur d’Alene to hear the complaints of Heyburn’s supporters in person. He told them why it was necessary to conserve the nation’s timberlands amid an era of “cut-and-run” logging practices, wherein timber cutting operations both big and small “skinned the land” and moved on with no thought beyond immediate profit.

“Forests are disappearing so rapidly that it is estimated that none will remain in 30 or 40 years unless action is taken by the government to protect them,” he said, warning that, “we are rushing with railroad speed toward a timber famine worse than any coal famine that we have ever experience or are in danger of soon.”

The timber famine didn’t materialize. Attitudes toward forest conservation changed dramatically from Pinchot’s days through the 1930s and early-’40s. During the first two decades of the 20th century the mentality was to “cut and run.” But by the immediate pre-World War II era, that notion had been replaced by increasingly complex ideas about the balance between industrial, recreational and ecological uses for timberlands. 

Meanwhile, “conservation” as both a term and a goal had transformed from a lot of “moonshine,” as one former Idaho governor put it in the first decades of the century, to a critical piece of policy that underpinned everything that happened in the forests.

However, as with so many other aspects of American life, everything changed with the country’s emergence from both the Great Depression and the war.

According to Adam Sowards, a professor of environmental history who also serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho, by the end of World War II in 1945, most of the big timber companies had either exhausted their private land holdings or pretty well cut through them. At the same time, service members were returning from the battlefields and starting families in record numbers — the “Baby Boom” was on, and that meant a spike in new home building. While the cities expanded in population, the real growth occurred in outlying areas, as an increasingly mobile and affluent population looked for and found its domestic bliss in ever-expanding suburbs.

“Building those houses required timber,” Sowards said, but with the lumber companies short on their privately owned supply, “the federal forests became the preferred site of our source of lumber.”

There was debate about the wisdom of dipping into the federal forest reserves — by then established as National Forests — which Sowards described as an argument for an “almost socialized timber policy, where federal regulations would also guide private timberlands as well.”

Those voices included Robert Marshall, the “Bob” in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in western Montana. His contribution to the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era “Copeland Report” (so named for New York Sen. Royal Copeland, who commissioned the study) presented a radically different view of public land management. 

Marshall’s policy recommendations were truly revolutionary, calling for 10% of forestlands in the U.S. to be set aside as recreational areas. He also pushed for putting millions of acres of U.S. Forest Service roadless areas into a perpetual wilderness or  “primitive area” designation, and federal oversight of timber harvesting on both public and private lands.

“[I]n the ’40s, there’s a surprisingly vigorous debate about whether that’s the right direction to go,” Sowards said of harvesting on federal forests. Meanwhile, “there’s a big push to cut more trees — they talked about ‘getting out the cut,’ which was sort of a catchphrase for that.”

In Bonner County, the renewed vigor in the timber market had no greater champion than Jim Parsons, who wrote the “Outdoors Notebook” column in the Sandpoint News Bulletin throughout the 1950s. His articles, again and again, circled back to the idea that private lumber companies should have total access to public lands. In his mind, “conservation” was an empty platitude compared to “getting out the cut.”

“There are some strange aspects to the forestry side of the conservation picture,” Parsons wrote in the Oct. 18, 1951 edition of the News Bulletin. “Even here in north Idaho we still have many people who cling to the old wood-famine philosophy that the nation is running out of timber. …

“The ill-informed fail to recognize, first, that trees are Nature’s one renewable resource; and second, that the lumbering industry generally, along with a growing army of farmers, is doing a commendable job of forest management, which has as its goal a continuing supply of timber for generations to come.”

A year later, in November 1952, Parsons wrote, “A majority of Idahoans, I believe, would like to see both our state and our state’s private enterprise have major control of our national resources, rather than getting dictums from some Washington swivel-chair operator who has never been west of Notre Dame’s football field.

“A case in point is our forests. Some, not all, but some high-ranking government officials have been preaching timber famine for years and among them, you can number the secretaries of interior and agriculture,” he continued. “They have led a very considerable number of people, both in forested and non-forested areas, to the belief that if we are to ‘conserve’ timber resources, then we actually must preserve the trees on the stump.”

Parsons regarded that not only as “an untenable position, it verges on being silly.”

Rather, he argued that “good management means regarding trees as a crop, protecting them during the growing period, then harvesting them when they become mature.” What’s more, he railed against federal regulations of forest lands as “socialistic.”

In June 1956, Parsons delivered a full-throated denunciation of conservation itself: “Generally speaking, everyone is for conservation just as he is against sin. Trouble is that all hands haven’t agreed on just what conservation is. … To say that conservation is wise management of resources for the benefit of the greatest number is also without meaning, for there is no general agreement on what constitutes benefits.”

Parsons may not have known it, but the views he expounded in his column to the few thousand readers in the Sandpoint News Bulletin in the 1950s echoed a strain of thinking about timberlands that would remain economically and politically powerful into the present day.

Quoting from National Wildlife Federation Executive Director Ernest Swift, Parsons wrote in 1956, but just as well could have been said in 2022: “Public ownership of resources is often used as the horrible example of socialism when said ownership interferes with grabbing a fast buck. On the other hand, the welfare state as it now exists in our midst becomes the acme of humanitarianism; but just how much soil erosion has been stopped by a Social Security number, how many forest fires put out by unemployment compensation; how much sludge has been dredged from our rivers by a minimum wage law?”

Whatever ground may have been gained by the conservation ethic in the 1930s and early ’40s was being rapidly eroded in the immediate post-war period by a new drive to feed the national hunger for timber from the reserves of the public forests. It wasn’t “cut and run,” but “run to cut,” and would set the stage for escalating conflict in the following three decades. 

‘Doing everything for everybody’

Not everyone was as enthused as Parsons about transforming government-owned forestlands into “crops” to be harvested in service of the suburban building boom. The same year that Parsons penned his screed against conservation as a noble idea lacking substance, work began on legislation that would become the Wilderness Act of 1964. 

Eight years of compromise led to its passage and signature into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, though the effort was spurred by outrage. Some adherents of the “Wilderness Movement” in the 1930s regarded the law as an unwarranted reclassification of “primitive” or “wild areas” into merchantable timberlands.

According to Sowards, the Forest Service, in its willingness to accommodate lumber companies, had embarked on a wide-ranging policy of opening fringe areas of previously protected forest areas to cutting. 

“The Forest Service tried to say, ‘This part is currently in a primitive area but we’re going to cut out this river valley where there’s all this merchantable timber.’ That starts happening in the 1950s most prominently, and local groups get up in arms about this,” he said. 

“At the same time there’s that pressure to protect some lands as permanently out of the way for any sort of commercial harvesting, the Forest Service is ramping up the intensification of its management.” 

That was a recipe for a political collision. Idaho Sen. Frank Church, for whom the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area is named, partnered with then-Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey — and later vice president under Johnson — to resurrect the conservation ethic of an earlier era with a proposal in spring 1959 to establish a Youth Conservation Corps.

Modeled on the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the Church-Humphrey proposal envisioned “a smaller and more education-oriented corps,” as Church described it in a March 12, 1959 article in the Sandpoint News Bulletin.

“The record points out that Idaho’s part in the Civilian Conservation Corps was a major contribution to the success of that splendid program in natural and human resource conservation,” Church said, adding that the proposed YCC “would again see Idaho in the van of those states affording the training ground.”

He and Humphrey wanted 150,000 young men to lend their hands to “improving timber stands, building forest trails and roads, constructing earthen dams, rebuilding game cover, improving campgrounds, fighting forest fires and reseeding deteriorated rangelands,” just as their fathers and uncles had a generation earlier.

“There are many monuments to the CCC in Idaho. They include vast healthy stands of timber that were protected from disease and fire; trails and roads into the wilderness; dams and seeded stream banks that have protected against erosion; bridges, camp grounds and facilities; and not to be forgotten, the enriched lives of men who served and contributed,” Church said at the time.

As with Marshall’s idealism in the “Copeland Report” in the 1940s, the YCC project fizzled amid the mood of national expansion in the late ’50s.

Although former-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in favor of the Church-Humphrey YCC proposal, testimony on the bill in May 1959 ran against its necessity. 

According to a record of the hearings, American Forestry Association Chief Forester Kenneth B. Pomeroy declined to testify in favor, writing, “The American Forestry Association can only consider this proposal from the standpoint of forest conservation. From that viewpoint it appears to be a Depression measure. Such is not the case today.

“If the national economy should decline to a point where public make-work measures are in order, then our association would recommend that the program be carried out through the established public land agencies.”

There was no appetite for the aspirational conservation thinking of the previous decades. The late-1950s and 1960s were to be an era of national ascendance, built on the stumps of the country’s public lands.

The Wilderness Act, however, did put in place meaningful protections for forestlands, accompanied by a subsequent flurry of legislation in the ’60s such as the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act. 

However, that period of intensive conservation-oriented lawmaking still couldn’t outweigh the drive to “get out the cut.” Forest Service timber sales increased and harvests continued to go up on public lands. 

Sowards framed that duality as indicative of a wider trend in U.S. policy amid the Cold War. 

“I think there’s a feeling at this time, from the ’50s through the ’70s, that managers think they can do everything for everybody,” he said. “Looking back that seems super naive, but I think if you look more broadly at American society at that time, we think, ‘Hey we can beat the Russians, we can beat the Vietnamese, we can put people on the moon, we can do anything.’ And I think the conservation version of that is we can have full timber harvests, we can have wilderness protection, we can have high use of National Parks, we can have good rangeland for domestic animals.’ 

“There’s a belief that we can do all of these things,” he added. “The evidence on the land becomes harder and harder to ignore.”

‘People are not very predictable’

Clear-cutting is ugly. There’s no way around it — when an entire mountainside is denuded, it looks like nothing other than a scar. Even at a distance of miles, the results of a clear cut are clearly brutal. The practice had been in place for about a century by the mid-1970s, frequently employed on lands owned by railroad companies, which exemplified the “cut-and-run” method that typified late-19th and early-20th century lumbering.

Opponents of the practice found a way to challenge it in court, leveraging a hitherto obscure piece of legislation known as the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. In essence, the law represented a legal shift allowing the public to formally challenge federal policies in ways they hadn’t been able to previously.

Two lawsuits in western Montana and West Virginia related to massive clear-cutting served as a hinge in the longtime debate over how timber should — or shouldn’t — be harvested.

“What results out of these lawsuits is the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which hamstrings the Forest Service a little bit,” Sowards said. “It doesn’t outright ban clear cuts but clear cuts come out of that campaign much less popular than they had been. It became harder for those to happen on federal lands — not impossible, but harder.”

That’s one outcome, but in more fine-grained detail, Jay O’Laughlin, a nationally-recognized “academic forester,” in his words, and professor emeritus of forestry and policy sciences at the University of Idaho, said the National Forest Management Act is “at the core” of the “Timber Wars.”

According to O’Laughlin, the National Forest Management Act outlined what could be done on the land, but not specifically what could be done “on an acre of ground.” Local conditions had to be taken into account and public involvement became required in the planning process. That was the critical piece: public involvement. 

However, there were unintended consequences.

“The National Forest Management Act also says you need to reforest these areas after you harvest them,” he said. “That has in a perverse kind of way continued the emphasis on clear-cutting. The National Forest Management Act did not ban clear-cutting but it limited clear-cutting to 40 acres. Before that happened, clear cuts covered in some cases thousands of acres.”

Gone were the “skinned-over” tracts of stump fields. But by some interpretations, the reforestation requirement and the 40-acre limitation made the treatment of trees as a crop the most cost-efficient way to harvest timber.  

Meanwhile, by the 1970s, the glorified expertise of Cold War managerial culture — which purported to be able to “do everything for everybody” — was being confronted with the true complexity of the environmental, political, economic and social systems it was supposed to be “managing.”

“You’re talking about 193 million acres here, just with the National Forests. So that’s going to be messy,” O’Laughlin said. “This is the thing about forestry and why it’s so interesting: Every acre of ground is different from every other acre. Every stand of timber is unique in many, many ways, and so it’s hard to generalize about things that are so fundamentally different.”

That messiness was navigated by giving public interest groups a pathway to the table along with the “specialists,” who had previously acted with more or less impunity.

“Up to this point, and before these things get implemented, forest managers have a whole lot of discretion,” Sowards said, “and that erodes a little bit over these decades that are coming. That’s tough for people who used to be able to make the decisions and just make it happen, and now there are forms and there’s ecological studies and you have to talk to people and people are not very predictable, so it becomes a whole lot harder process to manage.”

Into the mix as well, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 — part of the raft of environmental legislation during the Johnson-Nixon eras — would come to serve as a powerful lever in the conflicts to come.

“All these things sort of come to a head in lots of different places, but most symbolically in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s around the northern spotted owl,” Sowards said.

And it’s the owl — and more so what it represented — around which the “Timber Wars” revolved.

This article is another 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 next piece in this series will be published in the Thursday, June 9 edition of the Reader. For more information on this series, visit

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