How Mt. Hood National Forest came to be “Our Public Land”

At Bark, we often claim Mt. Hood National Forest as “our public land,” a term used to indicate our connection to the forest and our feeling of responsibility for how it is managed. However, implicit in this statement is an assertion that lands managed by the federal government are “ours” – with the majority of “us” being people of European descent, the literal and figurative children of the Oregon pioneers.

But there is another framing that acknowledges that “our” National Forests are made possible because of an intentional government policy of forced removal and genocide of the people native to this region.

In an effort to help shift the narrative around land, ownership, and colonization, here is a brief history of how the land Bark now calls Mt. Hood National Forest was stolen by the federal government, and its management shifted from preservation to exploitation:

To encourage European settlement in Oregon, the U.S. Congress passed the Oregon Donation Lands Act in 1850. The Act granted 320 acres of designated areas free of charge to every unmarried male citizen of European descent eighteen or older–640 acres to every married couple–arriving in the Oregon Territory before December 1, 1850. In the case of a married couple, the husband and wife each owned half of the total grant in their own name. A provision in the law granted half the amount to those who arrived after the 1850 deadline but before 1854.

The General Land Office, which became part of the new Department of the Interior in 1849, administered this land giveaway. Oregon and Washington Land Offices began with the Oregon City Land Office, which operated from 1855 to 1905.

However, extinguishing Indian title was the “first prerequisite step” to giving Oregon land away. Before Congress voted for the Donation Lands Act in 1850, therefore, it passed legislation authorizing commissioners to negotiate treaties to extinguish Indian title and to remove tribes “and leave the whole of the most desirable portion open to white settlers.” By expropriating Indian land through the treaty process, much of Oregon was made part of the public domain and was available to citizens under federal land laws.

For Native people in Oregon’s three major western valleys (Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue), the Donation Lands Act was a massive disruption, resulting in their relocation to the newly established Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations. These two reservations were established by the executive order of the U.S. President and were not subject to treaty stipulations.

The architect of the coastal reservations was Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Joel Palmer. He justified the reserves by arguing that they were isolated and away from the Willamette Valley, inaccessible by sea, and lacked agricultural potential.

Acting on his orders to clear tribes from their lands, in 1855, Joel Palmer also negotiated a treaty that established the Warm Springs Reservation. Under the treaty, the Walla Walla and Wasco tribes (who lived along the Columbia River north and east of Wy’East, now known as Mt. Hood), relinquished approximately ten million acres of land, but reserved the Warm Springs Reservation for their exclusive use. This reservation now borders much of southeastern Mt. Hood National Forest.

After Indian title was extinguished, and the lands were surveyed, then the General Land Office could issue a final certificate that authorized issuance of a land patent to transfer title to a settler. 7,437 land patents were issued under the law, primarily for the more desirable lower elevation agricultural land. 

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, however, federal public land policy began to shift from disposal to retention of lands in federal ownership. The President, the Secretary of the Interior, and Congress all used their authority to withdraw and reserve lands for public and national security purposes and for the protection of natural resources.

Riding the wave of a growing “conservation” awareness, on February 1, 1886, Pres. Grover Cleveland, by executive order, suspended homesteading in ten townships around Crater Lake and northward to encompass the Diamond Lake area. It was the first withdrawal of public land in Oregon for scenic or forestry purposes. Congress would establish Crater Lake National Park in 1902.

In early 1891, Congress was reconsidering provisions in the nation's land laws, with legislation that allowed the president to establish forest reserves. The act, signed on March 3, 1891, was later referred to as the Creative Act or the Forest Reserve Act.

First Forest Reserves in Oregon

The first attempt to use the law in Oregon was by the City of Portland. In the early 1890s, Henry Failing, chair of the Portland Water Commission, asked that a forest reserve be created around the new municipal watershed. The Bull Run Forest Reserve, covering 142,080 acres, was established by presidential proclamation on June 17, 1892. It was the first forest reserve in Oregon.

The Cascade Range Forest Reserve was created on September 28, 1893, and was managed by the General Land Office. Encompassing 4,492,800 acres and 235 miles in length, the Cascade Range Forest Reserve was the largest forest reserve in the nation.

With this conservation came petitions to dismantle the reserve in 1895-1896. The protests came from sheep owners in north-central Oregon, a few homesteaders in or near the reserve, and miners in the Bohemia Mining District. The entire Oregon congressional delegation was ready to eliminate or severely reduce the Cascade Range Forest Reserve but buckled to public pressure to keep the reserve intact.

Congress transferred all forest reserves and their management to the Department of Agriculture on February 1, 1905, where they were managed by Gifford Pinchot, head of the newly created U.S. Forest Service. The United States Forest Service (USFS) was created on July 1 by making a simple name change from the Bureau of Forestry.

Soon thereafter, U.S. Senator Charles W. Fulton of Oregon introduced an amendment to a bill that would eliminate the President's authority to establish national forests in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. Only Congress would be allowed to establish forest reserves in those states. The amendment also changed the name of the forest reserves to national forests in order to make it clear that the forests were to be used, not preserved.

After the transfer of federal forests to the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 the Bull Run Forest Reserve had become the Bull Run National Forest on March 4, 1907. On July 1, 1908, the entire forest was combined with part of Cascade National Forest to establish the Oregon National Forest and the name was discontinued.

On January 21, 1924 the Oregon Forest was renamed Mount Hood National Forest.

And what of the General Land Office? In 1946 the GLO merged with the Taylor Grazing Service to become the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). All lands that to which the GLO had not transferred title became managed by the BLM.