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Railroads and Clearcuts

Legacy of Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant

by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan with John Osborn

198 pages, paperback, Inland Empire Public Lands Council, 1995

Railroads and Clearcuts documents the mismanagement of the Northwest forests obtained by today's large timber companies from a federal land grant in 1864. The authors urge Congress to take action to correct the mismanagement in accordance with the authority it holds under the provisions of the 1864 grant.

Praise for Railroads and Clearcuts

"This is the story of the biggest land grant in American history, larger than 10 Connecticuts, to railroad companies and how the timber companies got hold of huge forests to clearcut. Jensen and Draffan point the way to returning these lands to their rightful owners--the American people, who will preserve them for future generations. A revealing report of government giveaways and corporate perfidy and greed that motivates corrective action."--Ralph Nader

"Here at last is a book which documents in detail the abuses of public trust which have so scarred the wilderness legacy of our Pacific Northwest states, and which at the same time offers some hope for redressing and making right, at last, these ancient wrongs."--Brock Evans

"This book shows clearly how Congress has always had the authority to oversee the Northern Pacific land grants but it has rarely exercised it. Federal oversight to protect the public interest is even more essential today than 100 years ago."--E. Kimbark MacColl

"Ecosystem management will never be achieved in the Pacific Northwest until the checkerboard railroad lands are returned to their rightful owners--'the American public!' Probably no other single event in this country has contributed more to the current Northwest forest crisis than the profit-driven harvest activities on the old railroad checkerboard lands."--John Mumma, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester

Quotes from Railroads and Clearcuts

"In 1864 President Lincoln signed into law the largest of the railroad land grants, the Northern Pacific railroad land grant. This law conditionally granted public lands for the purpose of building and maintaining a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. The law gave public lands for a railroad right- of-way upon which to lay the tracks and 40 million acres (an area slightly smaller than Washington state) to raise capital needed to build and maintain the railroad. The land was granted in alternative square miles, which created a 'checkerboard' pattern of ownership that is still visible on maps of many Pacific Northwest forests. The checkerboard pattern was intended to guarantee that railroad access would increase the value of that part of the checkerboard not granted to the railroad.

"In 1870, after Congress had extended deadlines, track had still not been built. Financier Jay Cooke persuaded members of Congress to revise the 1864 grant. Congress granted the holders of the grant the right to raise capital by selling bonds, which had not been previously allowed. If Northern Pacific failed financially, then it was to sell the remaining grant lands at local auction. In any case, all lands were to be opened to homesteaders within five years of completing the railroad. In 1873 and again in 1893, Northern Pacific failed financially, but the lands were never legitimately sold at local auction. Ultimately, millions of acres of railroad forests would pass from Northern Pacific to Weyerhaeuser and other corporations.

"Today Plum Creek, Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch, and Boise Cascade are based on the railroad grant forests which, in turn, are based on the conditions of the 1864 and 1870 contracts. Plum Creek Timber Company is a direct corporate successor of Northern Pacific. In the 1890s, J. P. Morgan and James J. Hill combined Northern Pacific and Great Northern to form a railroad monopoly across the northern tier states. The Supreme Court struck down the monopoly in 1896 and 1904, but allowed it to stand in 1970. The merger resulted in the formation of Burlington Northern.

"In 1980 Burlington Northern segregated itself into a railroad and a holding company for the railroad grant lands. In 1988 this separation became formal and the company divided into a railroad (Burlington Northern Railroad) and a collection of land-grant-based companies (Burlington Resources). One spin-off from Burlington Resources was Plum Creek Timber Company, which controls the grant forests not previously sold by Northern Pacific/Burlington Northern.

'Despite the law requiring that the Northern Pacific grant lands be opened to settlement within five years of completing the railroad, Northern Pacific sold large tracts of the land grant forests to Frederick Weyerhaeuser and his associates. Weyerhaeuser purchased millions of acres of land-grant forests in the Great Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest, mostly during the 1890s and early 1900s. The largest of the many Weyerhaeuser purchases was 900,000 acres in Washington state in 1899. Weyerhaeuser subsequently incorporated Potlatch and Boise Payette (later Boise Cascade) to cut lands obtained in Idaho.

"The largest purchase of Northern Pacific grant lands in Montana was about a million acres bought by Amalgamated Copper Company (later Anaconda) in 1907. About 670,000 acres of these land-grant forests were purchased by Champion International in 1972. Champion began liquidating the land-grant forests in the 1970s, and in 1993 sold these lands to Plum Creek."

"Oversight authority of the railroad grant lands is explicitly provided to Congress in Section 20 of the 1864 grant. Congress has exerted oversight several times since 1864. Failure to fulfill contractual obligations has led Congress to take back millions of acres of railroad grant lands and restore them to public ownership. Major revestments (or forfeitures) occurred in 1890, involving Northern Pacific and other railroad companies, and in 1916 when Congress revested the Oregon and California railroad grant lands in western Oregon.

"In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge asked Congress to investigate the Northern Pacific grant. Coolidge noted in his letter to Congress that the defaults by Northern Pacific on the 'contract or covenant' were 'numerous and flagrant'. The Congressional investigation which followed prompted the Attorney General to recommend judicial review of the grant. Congress voted to seek court action against Northern Pacific. Despite a partial settlement in 1941, major legal issues raised by President Coolidge and Congress were never resolved and have not been resolved to this day."

Table of Contents of Railroads and Clearcuts

The Land-Grant Timber Corporations
Photographic Essay
Log Exports
Options to Intervene
1. 1864 Land Grant (13 Stat. 366)
2. 1870 Land Grant (16 Stat. 378)
3. President Coolidge's Request for Congressional Investigation
4. Corporate Interlocks
5. Chronology of Events

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