The Olympic ride of FDR

Posted by Ken Campbell October 30, 2008 0 Comment 509 views

Great wealth seems always to inspire much conflict. On the Olympic peninsula, the wealth was the timber. There were those who saw the mighty trees of this most virgin of forests as treasure to be taken, a prize to be won with determination and the misery whip. There were others who saw the value of the land the way it was, and preferred that the trees be left where they had sprouted, centuries before.

So the battle was joined for the heart of the Olympic peninsula. The timber industry fought with the preservationists for the right to log, or not log, as the case may be. A portion of the Olympic backcountry had been designated a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt in the early years of the century, but the acreage it represented consisted mostly of the high country, where rocks were more common than trees. Timber interests lobbied hard to be allowed to log in the lowlands, with an eye to the extensive stands of hemlock, which was wood that was needed for pulp and paper production and which fetched a good return on investment. The preservationists fought back with a plan to turn the national monument and some adjoining national forest lands into a national park. The battle raged.

Conflict continued to the point that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1937, decided to take a trip to the Pacfic Northwest to see what all the fuss was about. Members of the timber fraternity had pushed to have the President on the scene. The idea was, as they saw it, “Once FDR gets a look at how much forest there is, he’ll stop with all that nonsense about creating a park. This here Olympics is a big place boys, we’re just tryin’ to get our share.”

The Prez departed on an automobile tour of the peninsula, a two-day jaunt. Around the north side and down the coast, with a stop for the night at Lake Quinault. On again in the morning, through Aberdeen and back to Olympia. He was taken to places that the lumbermen wanted him to go; he saw largely what they showed him. But they had made a mistake, a matter of perception that turned out to be critical.

The timber boys had taken FDR to clearcuts to show him how much of the resource there was, how small and insignificant their logging efforts were in a region so thick with trees. What the President had seen, however, was something far different, darker. He ended up coming out in favor of a 648,000-acre Olympic National Park, larger than the original goal of the preservationists. It was a moment in our national history, all too rare, when the man in charge makes the right call. It did not end the conflict, great wealth will always bring conflict along with it, but it was a victory nonetheless.

In 1940, shortly before America became a fully committed comabatant in World War II, FDR expanded the park, adding another 187,000 acres. Much of the addition was on the coast, between the Makah and Quinault reservations. This stretch of coastline between Cape Flattery and Kalaloch is one of the longest roadless shorelines in the lower 48, a place that remains as it was, that has not been tamed.

It is also a superb place to kayak.

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