The public was railroaded

  • Clearcuts west of Mount Rainier

    Trygve Steen

Railroads and Clearcuts: Legacy of Congress's 1864

Northern Pacific Land Grant

Derrick Johnson and George Draffan with John Osborn. Inland Empire Public Lands Council, Box 2147, Spokane, WA 99210, 1995, $15. 198 pages, paper.

Review by Ken Olsen

The Northern Pacific Railroad snookered us out of ground it wasn't entitled to, fostered timber barons instead of helping homesteaders and left the Pacific Northwest with a seemingly unsolvable timber crisis 130 years later.

This in return for a gift of 40 million acres, the largest land grant in U.S. history. The checkerboard 2,000 miles long and 120 miles wide stretches from Lake Superior to the Puget Sound. The land grant was intended to finance a rail line that would open the Northwest to settlement. Largely it was a disaster.

So charges the new book, Railroads and Clearcuts, a daring salvo from physician John Osborn and writers Derrick Jensen and George Draffan, all of Spokane, Wash.

They say the men behind the Northern Pacific - today part of the Burlington Northern Railroad - repeatedly violated the terms of the land-grant legislation President Abraham Lincoln signed. They didn't meet congressional deadlines for building the railroad, failed to sell the land after going bankrupt the first time, as the law required, and illegitimately claimed millions of acres of Indian reservation land.

Most egregious in the authors' view, the land barons sold a huge chunk of the original land grant to Frederick Weyerhaeuser. This gave rise to the most powerful timber companies in the Northwest - Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch and Boise Cascade - which have common founders and still share some corporate directors. Along with Burlington Northern's logging spinoff, Plum Creek Timber Co., these corporations have created the current timber shortage in the Northwest, the authors charge, and now that the corporations have exhausted their supplies, they are putting extraordinary pressure on the national forests.

Railroads and Clearcuts boils complex history into easily digestible prose. There are copious footnotes, startling photographs of clearcuts, and a bibliography to make an academician proud.

The book seems aimed at readers with little knowledge of forestry issues and though that tone will please the novice, it will leave the seasoned environmentalist wanting more. References provide clear direction to additional information, but the writers should have pulled more of the meat out of the footnotes and into the text.

Railroads and Clearcuts is still an intriguing read and poses an innovative solution to forest problems. Congress, the book says, still has the authority to review the land grant and it could force the companies to compensate the American public or even take back the land. There is historic precedent: In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge started an investigation, saying "the defaults of the Northern Pacific were numerous and flagrant." The company forfeited 2.9 million acres and paid a $300,000 fine.

This book couldn't come at a better time, as Congress seems determined to repeat the Northern Pacific land-grant largess by giving away more than 4 billion board-feet of public timber under the guise of salvage logging. Railroads and Clearcuts is photo album and script of what we seem doomed to repeat. n

Ken Olsen reports from Pullman, Washington.