Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration

The deep roots of 20th century timber politics

By Zach Hagadone
Special to the Reader

This story winds through the earliest days of economic development in North Idaho taking in the booms and busts of the first half of the 20th century. It illustrates the deep roots of what would come to be called the “Timber Wars,” which shook the nation in the 1980s and ’90s, and brings us into the 21st century with a changed spirit of how to leverage conservation for both ecological and economic benefit. 

The central themes of conflict and collaboration — especially as they relate to timberlands and how to manage them — require a longer view. The conversations surrounding them, unearthed in the records of regional newspapers, sound eerily familiar even as far back as the turn of the 20th century. 

To understand how the conflict of the Timber Wars has evolved into collaboration, then we must start at the beginning — with the development of the timber industry and how its interplay with notions of conservation changed during the first five decades of the 20th century. Using the experience of the Inland Northwest, and North Idaho in particular, as a case study offers a unique perspective on the far larger trends that continue to resonate today. 

So it is there that this story starts, amid the forests, mountains, lakes and river valleys of Bonner County and its surrounds.


It didn’t take long for Euro-American settlement in the Inland Northwest to run headlong into the forests of the region. In the larger states and territories of the West in the late-19th century, timber harvesting had been a booming industry for decades. But as the 19th turned into the 20th century, what had been considered backcountry or pass-through land on the way to the Pacific Coast was starting to fill up with homesteaders, hacking out farms and fields from the vast stands of old growth.

One large wave of settlement followed the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres to citizens or those who planned to become citizens. Rooted in the ideal of an agrarian America, this land clearance would provide a massive economic boon while acting to expand and tie together the United States after the Civil War. However, this was accomplished at the expense of Indigenous tribes across the country, which were displaced by land seizures, faulty treaties and violence that culminated in the strategic and systematic removal of native people from territories that federal policies insisted were best exploited by white settlement and industry.

Bonner County lumberjacks pose in the woods with their tree cutting equipment in the early 1920s. Photo courtesy Conner Co. Historical Society.

Yet, as settler colonists moved farther west, into the thick forests and rugged terrain of places like western Montana, northern Idaho and the then-Washington Territory, those 160 acres started to feel inadequate for establishing a profitable agricultural operation. And so, from the 1870s to the 1890s, Congress passed a raft of laws that allowed settlers more options for increasing their homestead allotment — if they installed irrigation, for instance, they would be entitled to more acreage. One of those laws, the Timber Land Act of 1878, expanded the ability of settlers to buy large sections of forested territory. In 1892, it was extended from the states of California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington Territory to all public land states, including Idaho.

While the Homestead Act had been intended to support agrarian settlement and the removal of Indigenous peoples, supplementary laws in the Northwest had morphed it into an invitation to commercialize timber cutting. Why bust your hump clearing a mountain valley full of rocks and trees unless you could make something off the labor itself? Indeed, why even bother with the trouble of digging and blasting stumps to plant crops when the stone and timber itself could be more profitable than the produce of your fields?

Adam Sowards, an environmental historian who serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho, described this as part of a “cut-and-run mentality” that was common at the time.

“On the one hand a really strong, prevailing ideology in that era was that land should be farmed and trees were sort of in the way of that, so the first step in improving the land was to cut down the trees,” he said.

However, following the flurry of legislation surrounding the Homestead Act, it became clear that “almost all of these laws were horribly corrupt and ineffective in doing what they were set up to do.”

“Land agents would look the other way when there was fraud,” Sowards said, “it was really easy for a timber company for example or a mining company to hire people to acquire the land and then sign it right over to the company.”

The newspapers published in the communities of northern Idaho in the late-1800s and early-1900s are filled with evidence of the boom in timberland purchases empowered by federal legislation — sometimes whole pages of broadsheet covered in notices of claims made in the Coeur d’Alene land office that settlers would “offer proof to show that the land sought is more valuable for its timber or stone than for agricultural purposes.”

From the beginning of these policies, there came concerns from observers in more densely populated regions — and, critically, among those in the East — that unrestrained exploitation of timberlands would result in a “timber famine.”

“With that ideal of improvement and that ideal of laissez faire economies you have a recipe for cutting and running, not a lot of investment from timber owners in communities and a real concern as you got toward the end of the 19th century that we’re going to run out of trees — we’re going to run out of wood,” Sowards said.

The solution in 1891 was to actively conserve some of those forested sections, putting them aside in a system of reserves to be administered by the federal government.

“In fact the law that timber reserves were created out of in 1891 was mostly about reforming and revising some of these other laws,” according to Sowards.

The reserve policy, well-intentioned as it was, proved to be among the first flash points of conflict between resource exploitation and conservation in the West — and the newspapers of early-20th century northern Idaho reflected clearly just how vigorous the opposition to that policy was, touching on a range of arguments and issues that would continue to simmer into the present day.

‘It is men we want, not trees’

In the first few years of the 20th century, forest reserves encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland were established along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, in the Priest River area, in the region of the Clearwater River and in the Cabinet Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border. All of them elicited thunderous responses from state and local political leaders.

A report in the Northern Idaho News of May 19, 1905 illustrated how tangled forest policies had become with politics. Giving much ink to anti-forest reserve partisans like former-Gov. William J. McConnell, who according to a republished quote from the Lewiston Tribune had referred to the “forest reserve movement” in Idaho as “just plain moonshine.”

“The creation of those Clearwater reserves will not and cannot serve the purpose that is claimed by the department. As I understand it an object of the reserve is to conserve nature’s water storage. Nature, however, makes its own forest reserves,” he said.

What’s more, McConnell added, “It is true that agents are doing some good in preventing the theft of timber from the government, but the forest reserve menace has gone beyond such purposes.”

Idaho Democratic Sen. Weldon Heyburn — an attorney representing mining interests in Wallace — rose to the front ranks among the critics of then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s forest reserve policy. As the lead front-page article of the Feb. 1, 1906 edition of the Pend Oreille Review put it, Heyburn was locked in combat with the conservation-minded Republican president so as to “preserve Northern Idaho from becoming a huge forest reserve.”

According to the paper, Heyburn spoke from the Senate floor, blasting the forest reserve system, which he claimed had already gobbled up 23,000 square miles of the state.

“It is men we want, not trees,” he said.

Back home in northern Idaho, citizens in Sandpoint and Clark Fork gathered at mass meetings to oppose the reserve system, in one instance forming a committee to present an appeal to Roosevelt that he “stay the impending injury to our homes, our schools, our churches, our industries and the various complicated interests of our growing communities.”

Unrest over the “conservation theory,” as it was derisively referred to in the regional papers, drew no less than Roosevelt’s chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, to visit Coeur d’Alene in July 1907 to hear the complaints in person.

According to a report from the Pend Oreille Review, preserved in the digital archives of the Bonner County Historical Museum, Pinchot had been “besieged for hours by rich lumbermen, small claimholders and protesting citizens,” all clamoring over the forest reserve policy and making for “a strenuous afternoon and evening” for the federal official, who by then had been at the head of the U.S. Forest Service since its establishment in 1905 by Roosevelt.

Pinchot explained that the argument that forest reserves locked out settlement was “a mistaken idea.” He pointed out that at the recommendation of his department, Congress had authorized settlement within the reserves, though under certain conditions.

“If a man wants to go upon a piece of land and make a home the department wants to help him,” Pinchot said. “If he wants to sell out, to get the timber and dispose of it to some lumber company, we want to hinder him and we will if possible. President Roosevelt has no use for the man who skins the land and moves on.”

Pinchot went on to underscore the Forest Service’s goal of conserving timberlands for future use.

“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 told the audience in Coeur d’Alene. “We are not able to tell just how long our timber will last but we know that it is being cut three or four times as fast as it is being reproduced and 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.”

‘North Idaho is full of leeches’

As the furor over the forest reserve policy continued through the first decade of the 20th century, widespread timber cutting had vaulted Inland Northwest communities into an economic and population boom.

Articles appeared routinely, trumpeting the wealth and possibilities of northern Idaho. Sandpoint’s population had grown from 300 to 3,000 between 1900 and 1906. This growth was spurred in part by employment at the 20 or so mills that had sprung up in the county, as well as the mining operations and rail connections that gave the Sandpoint community “advantages as a commercial center second to none.”

Inside the Humbird Lumber Mill c. 1920. Photo courtesy Bonner Co. Historical Society.

At that time, the Humbird Lumber Company alone employed 550 workers across its mills, yards, stores, bank and general offices — illustrating how deep the company had penetrated in the life of the county. In nearly every newspaper of the period could be found large advertisements for the wares being sold at Humbird company stores — from ladies’ shoes to Spanish olives — the financing deals for land purchases at its bank, even marketing for its foray into providing electricity to the area.

Of the 17 top employers listed in one 1906 article in the Northern Idaho News, 10 were timber-related and at the top was Humbird.

Sandpoint, according to the writer, was “where labor finds its reward.” 

By 1908, the Sandpoint population had grown to 5,000, making it “the metropolis of the upper Panhandle.” It boasted a supply of “the choicest white pine to be found in the rich white pine section of Idaho … [and shipping] more cedar poles than any other city in the United States.”

At the same time, the area had developed to the point where tourism entered the marketing pitch, described as “a most accessible summering place.”

“The location of Sandpoint on Lake Pend d’Oreille makes it an excellent summer resort,” the article stated. “The beach is good and the wild picturesque scenery so quickly accessible to the launch makes it the headquarters for picnic and camping parties. Good hunting and fishing make glad the heart of the sportsman.”

Not everyone was so pleased with the marketing of northern Idaho — nor of the infusion of timber wealth that had created an outsized class of “professional men, real estate boosters, clerks, grafters and knockers, which altogether make up three thousand of the possible six thousand of our lake city and environments, and we want no more of that fraternity.”

That was according to Louis Arnold, who penned an op-ed titled “Ranchers the Need of the Country” in the Nov. 19, 1909 edition of the Pend Oreille Review.

Arnold looked at the tracts of cut-over lands, “where nothing but great expanses of stumps and brush and second-growth timber are to be seen,” and bemoaned the fact that relatively few rural homesteaders seemed willing to put in the work to remove the stump fields and replace them with productive farms.

Instead, he wrote, “In Bonner County there are 50 attorneys at law — one to every good rancher — enough to get the common people into and out of trouble 313 days in the year. We have 21 saloons in Sandpoint, when there should be but five. We have dozens of commercial houses …

“In all advertising matter sent east it should be made plain that North Idaho is full of leeches and that further importation is undesirable. The frugal, thrifty, labor-loving ruralists are the citizens we need for the solid welfare of this county, and the call should be made for this class.”

The conflict over who should benefit from the wealth of the woods — even how or whether they should benefit — landed on Pinchot himself, as the local papers transformed him into a symbol for all that they despised about the “outside” influence on land management.

When then-President William Taft dismissed Pinchot from his post in January 1910, the Pend Oreille Review printed a decidedly unobjective item on the news. 

“[S]tates which have been ‘blessed’ with forest reserves greet Pinchot’s dismissal with every evidence of satisfaction,” the unsigned article stated, going on to refer to Roosevelt’s former right-hand man on land use matters as a hobbyist who came to “consider himself and his bureau as something sacred.” 

“He rode his hobby horse to a fall,” the article continued.

At the root of the dislike for Pinchot and his forest policies was a strain of sectionalism. According to the Review, “The contention of the West that the same form of government should exist here as existed in the development of the eastern states has been growing steadily and there are a great many more opposed to the forest reserve idea now than there were four and five years ago when Roosevelt put so much western land into forest reserves and thus took from settlement vast areas capable of sustaining great populations.”

“Certain eastern people, who selfishly believe the West is the property of the East and who are opposed to state control of its boundaries, will hail Pinchot as a martyr,” the article concluded. “The West, which wants to develop its own territory, will hail Pinchot’s retirement, however it was accomplished, as a signal victory over the bureaucratic form of government he had prescribed for the West.”

According to Sowards, at the U of I, the sectional nature of the conflict over how best to manage timberlands was more than a little disingenuous, with many partisans claiming “these are our woods,” while themselves being newcomers — “they quickly become ‘natives’ in a very short amount of time.”

Meanwhile, the first school of forestry in the U.S. was at Yale, “and I think the anti-elitist perspective that we see so common today in 2022 was certainly the case 120 years ago as well,” Sowards said. “So there was this idea that you couldn’t understand the woods properly if you were educated at a college ‘Back East,’ which is how they would have put it.”

‘Is timber worth protecting?’

Despite the anti-conservation rhetoric in the newspapers, larger economic conditions would soon shift public opinion creating opportunity for collaboration rather than conflict in the woods. Even Sen. William Borah — the “lion of Idaho” — in a mid-November 1909 visit to Sandpoint spoke of reaching a “middle ground” when it came to forest reserves.

Regardless, the political climate remained such that he felt obliged to employ a bit of grandstanding. He joked that the reserve lands in Bonner County had been made by the brother of Sen. John McLaurin, of South Carolina, who “stood on the steps of the Murray Hotel and looked about him and designated the timber, agricultural and mining selections between drinks.”

Likewise, the papers sniped at the “young men” who came from the East to mark out the reserve boundaries, suggesting that they “looked over the country with a spy glass and smoked cigarettes that they didn’t even roll,” spending “half their time fishing and the other time hunting.”

Still, according to the Pend Oreille Review, Borah said he “believed in conservation of such lands as were timber lands” — though not that a sole federal agency should be wholly in charge of making those designations.

The climate changed — literally and figuratively, in August 1910, when about 3 million acres of forest land went up in flames in northern Idaho and western Montana. What has come to be called “The Big Burn” or “The Great Fire of 1910” fundamentally altered how not only Northwesterners but the nation viewed land management.   

For more than a decade, lumber companies had already partnered with local governments and forest reserve administrators, coordinating to suppress fire and deal with pest and disease outbreaks. But the 1910 fire provided a stark lesson in how valuable a collaborative approach to protecting timberland could be.

“Some people have argued that those fires were what really solidified political support for the Forest Service, to show the need for a national Forest Service but frankly it’s a national Fire Service, as well,” Sowards said.

Another factor in play was the ascendancy of the big mills. By the 1910s most of the easily accessible and marketable timber had been cut and its underlying acreage claimed. The big timber “syndicates” were in control of what was left.

The newspapers of the era show a steady decline in individual “timber and stone” claims, replaced by large-scale land auctions hosted by regional mills, as they began dipping into their reserves. And those reserves were ample. According to one 1908 article in the Northern Idaho News, the Northern Pacific, Menasha Woodenware and Inland Lumber companies alone hadn’t even touched their holdings, amounting to 135,000 acres in total in Bonner County.

With the mills in control of the majority of timber cutting and the vivid threat of devastating wildfire fresh in the region’s memory, the Forest Service, its rangers and reserves came to be seen more as partners than adversaries.

“Idahoans and other Westerners, too, within a pretty short amount of time realized the restrictions [in the reserves] weren’t too terrible,” said Sowards, adding that fire suppression, tree nurseries and burgeoning research partnerships all ended up being a boon to timberland communities.

“That initial opposition was tamped down pretty quickly,” he said.

Far from the “cut-and-run” mentality and anti-forest reserve sentiment of the earlier part of the 20th century, the public conversation shifted in the 1920s toward how protection of timberlands would secure future prosperity.

For instance, the Northern Idaho News carried a lengthy article on the blister rust “menace” affecting forests throughout the West in 1925. Ominously, the paper reported, blister rust had moved “within a few miles of the northern boundary of Idaho.” This prompted collaboration between the state of Idaho, U.S. Department of Agriculture and private timber owners to fight the blister rust. 

Further detailing various efforts to fight the disease in Oregon and California, the paper posed a compelling question: “Is Timber Worth Protecting?”

The paper wrote, “In order to make local control effective and in many cases possible it is necessary that the owner balance the future value of these reproductive stands against the cost of local control.” 

Such an opinion would have been a distinct minority in the previous decades.

Beyond the pure economics of the timberlands, the paper went further to point out that the health of the forests not only affected timber sales, but the overall environment. 

One example cited by the Northern Idaho News was an attempt being made by the University of Idaho School of Forestry in 1926 to investigate the environmental, rather than commercial value, high-elevation five-needle pines.

“Should the blister rust sweep through these timber-line pines and destroy them little protection would be afforded the watersheds they once shaded, and streamflow water supply and irrigation would perhaps reflect the irreparable damage that was done,” the paper reported.

According to Sowards, “Anything that allows conservation to be practical I think makes it saleable to local residents.”

“When you first create forest reserves and say, ‘We’re marking this out, and this can’t be owned by a timber country or an individual anymore,’ that sounds really restrictive,” he said. “But when it ends up being some place where you can still cut trees with permits and can get help with firefighting and blister rust campaign support, it becomes a much more popular, practical thing to do.”

This article is the first in a multi-part series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. The second part will be published in the Thursday, Feb. 10 edition of the Reader. For more information on this series, visit

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