History of Oregon BLM Lands

The history of the 2.5 million acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in western Oregon dates back to how the west was settled. One of the biggest obstacles to westward expansion was transportation. Moving goods from one place to the next and encouraging people to move thousands of miles across a rugged, wild landscape was a challenge without the infrastructure and modes of transport we enjoy today. 

Just after the Civil War, in order to assist settlement, Congress began offering land grants from federally owned land to assist rail and wagon road construction. In 1866 the State of Oregon was fortunate to receive a huge grant including every other square mile in a 40-mile swath of land stretching from Portland south to the California border.

Oregon then awarded a private railroad company the land, to sell to settlers, in order to cover the costs of railroad construction and to encourage settlement.  Under the grant, the company – the Oregon & California Railroad – would take over management of the railroad they built, and other lands would be sold with certain stipulations:     

•     Bona fide settlers must buy and settle the land.   
•     Only 160 acres could be sold at a time, and only to one settler.    
•     $2.50 per acre was the maximum price.

The Great Oregon Forest Giveaway

The Oregon & California Railroad Company started building the important railway and promptly violated all three conditions placed on the disposal of the land. Instead, the company sold off the productive forests to the highest bidder. In 1903, the Southern Pacific Railroad – which bought the O&C Railroad Co. and finished the railway – ceased selling the land to settlers altogether because of the mounting value of the old-growth timber.

These violations led the State of Oregon – whose interest was in seeing the land settled, not sold off to timber interests – to seek action from Congress, which eventually passed a resolution that reclaimed the land to federal ownership. The railroad sued.  Legal battles drug on for years and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. The high court ruled that Southern Pacific had to give the land back and enjoined any further land sale.

The court left it to Congress to figure out what to do with the land. They passed the Chamberlain-Ferris Act in 1916 and the O&C Act in 1937, putting the management of these forests in the hands of the General Lands Office (GLO). The GLO merged with the Grazing Service in 1946 to become the Bureau of Land Management. Some of the revested O&C lands ended up under the management of the U.S. Forest Service, but about 2.4 million acres of public forestland was given to the BLM – an agency more accustomed to managing cows in arid deserts than forested watersheds – to administer.

Because the land granted to the O&C Railroad was every other square mile (section), it formed what has been called a “checker board” ownership pattern.  Several areas have been consolidated over the years as a result of land exchanges and large blocks of roadless ancient forest do still persist on the Oregon BLM.

Legacy of Abuse

The federal timber sale program began in earnest with the post-World War II housing boom.  The logging of the Pacific Northwest’s ancient forests is infamous. In 50 years, over 80% of the old growth was leveled. The western Oregon BLM Districts facilitated logging by administering timber sale contracts. Logging reached a feverish pitch in the 1980s, leaving many damaged watersheds, boom/bust rural economies, and a monoculture of tree plantations dominating a once lush landscape of cathedral forests.  

Since the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the early 1990s – because of the high rate that this old-growth forest dependant species’ habitat was being removed – logging has been dramatically reduced on BLM forests. There are still old-growth timber sales, but many remaining forests were protected in old-growth reserves under the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP).