Gifford Pinchot and Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve

Contributed by Paul Di Salvo

A friend and I were recently traveling down from Portland to Northern California with extreme excitement to see the infamous towering trees of Redwoods National and State Park. We piled our gear for the long weekend into my car, threw a few PB&Js on top, and sped down the I-5 corridor. Before we would reach the Redwoods, I pulled off the main highway into the sleepy town of Cave Junction, OR and embarked on a windy and narrow, yet paved, road through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. After about 20 minutes of squeezing past oncoming RV campers, we finally saw the welcome sign to Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.

This park was established in 1909 by President William H. Taft, or as many Americans know him– the president who got stuck in a bathtub. Before I get to how Gifford Pinchot, first U.S. Forest Service Chief, persuaded Taft used the Antiquities Act to protect the monument, indulge me in telling you the story of what happened after we encountered the welcome sign, and ultimately why the story of ORCA’s founding is even important in the first place .

After ditching the car, we took the short walk past the beautiful wooden chateau and lodge, built in 1926, to join a cave tour at the visitor’s center. Standing outside the entrance to the cave, the seasonal ranger pointed to the plaque nailed into the rock, which stated: “Oregon Caves National Monument, Set aside by President Taft July 12, 1909”. The ranger told the group a quick summary of how Oregon Caves was established and ultimately spared from profitable timber interests in the surrounding Siskiyou National Forest.

view of Siskiyou National Forest from ORCA_Paul
View of Siskiyou National Forest from Oregon Caves NM&P (Paul Di Salvo)

The long story goes like this.

America was on the move west in the early 1800’s, scouring the new Louisiana Purchase lands for furs and natural resources. The Oregon territory was acquired in 1846 and modern-day California in 1848, causing quite the calamity when gold was found there shortly after. Nearby Josephine Creek and Canyon Creek were discovered to be rich in gold, prompting miners to give up their lives back east and make the journey to Oregon. However, Oregon in general only ever had a fraction of the total gold found in the west in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Most of the easily accessible deposits were scooped up by the 1860s and the area surrounding the caves began to decline in residents.

With less gold available, the remaining settlers either moved on to Colorado, Nevada, or eastern Oregon. Those left behind took up farming and ranching. The residents transported their goods by train to the Willamette Valley. Yet again, this proved to be a difficult practice, as the soils in Josephine County were not as rich, mountains took up quite a bit of the land, and there were less and less people to sell their products to.

One local resident, Elijah Jones Davidson, found what is now known as Oregon Caves on a hunting trip in 1874. While the story varies, Davidson found the cave and placed a deer carcass at the entrance, luring a bear out, which he shot. Davidson published his story ten years later and visitors started taking to the caves to experience the beautiful formations for themselves. By the 1890s, cave tours became a popular occurrence and destruction was imminent, with passageways being blasted and visitors taking “souvenir” formations.

Meanwhile, the railroad and timber industries began to boom by the early 1900s. The federal government began to fear that forests would be denuded too quickly with the growing influence of timber production and stepped in to create greater amounts of forest reserves, rather than simply indiscriminately disposing of public lands to private entities for logging and mining. President Roosevelt withdrew 1.2 million acres of land in southwest Oregon in 1903, hoping to establish a permanent reserve. Public scrutiny, however, kept stalling the creation of the reserve, as many argued that doing so had removed valuable agricultural land from production. Others argued that mining should be allowed on reserves, and that agriculture wouldn’t work anyway, given the mountainous topography.

Crib_trestle_on_the_Columbia_and_Nehalem_Valley_Railroad_(3227293964)
Crib trestle on the Columbia and Nehalem Valley Railroad (Oregon State University Special Collections)

Embroiled in the battle were the inclusion of Oregon & California Railroad Compact lands in the reserve (which was solved by eliminating sections already granted to O&C) and opposition from Curry County, where the reserve would have tied up three-fifths of the county’s area. Two days before President Roosevelt’s authority to create reserves would expire, he created the future “Siskiyou National Forest” as part of “midnight reserves” in Oregon and five other western states.

However, it wasn’t until 1907 that 2,560 acres surrounding Oregon Caves was included in the forest reserve in order to prevent a mining claim from being established in the area, a pretext for controlling the cave. This was seen as a “temporary measure” until the full extent of the caves boundaries could be determined, but was likely made small to not limit the amount of timber harvest that could occur. Through Gifford Pinchot, first U.S. Forest Service Chief, the Service preached government efficiency and public lands being used for a multitude of resources, a popular Progressive Era sentiment.

Pinchot worked with western states to encourage “conservation commissions” and later led to Oregon Governor George Chamberlain to establish the quasi-public Oregon Conservation Commission in 1908. This commission lobbied for orderly and efficient development of the state, including a natural resource policy that included water power, irrigation and forestry recommendations. The U.S. Forest Service and the Commission’s continued concern of the vandalism occurring at Oregon Caves prompted Pinchot to push for a proclamation for Oregon Caves to become a national monument.

President Taft signed the legislation on July 12, 1909, which used the Antiquities Act to protect 480 acres a national monument:

Whereas, certain natural caves, known as the Oregon Caves which are situated upon unsurveyed land within the Siskiyou National Forest in the State of Oregon, are of unusual scientific interest and importance, and it appears that the public interests will be promoted by reserving these caves with as much land as may be necessary for the proper protection thereof as a National Monument;

Now, therefore, I, William Howard Taft, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the power in me vested by section two of the Act of Congress, approved June eighth nineteen hundred and six, entitled” An Act For the preservation of American Antiquities” do proclaim…Oregon Caves National Monument.

Interestingly, this legislation allowed for dual designation of the 480 acres, whereas use of the area could not impact the preservation of the cave, but could also be used of its natural resources. Presumably timber and mining could still occur in the area as part of the Siskiyou National Forest. However, Taft, moving away from Roosevelt’s conservation mentality, may have seen this as a compromise to still allow use of the forest resources while bending to the former-President’s ever-looming influence.

inside the cave_Paul
Oregon Caves (Paul Di Salvo)

Fast forward to today. On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order for Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review national monument designations established under the Antiquities Act of 1906. All national monuments and expansions established since 1996 of 100,000 acres or more are under review to ensure that “monument designations that result from a lack of public outreach… [do not] create barriers to achieving energy independence… [or] curtail economic growth.” Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve is not on the list, as the property’s expansion in 2014 was less than the required acreage. But there were 27 terrestrial and marine national monuments on the list for review.

As of August 24, 2017, it seems that at least three national monuments—Cascade-Siskiyou, Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante—will have some changes in size, but not be removed completely. However, the summary report does not indicate the extent of the changes, nor the fate of the other monuments on the list that have not already been cleared. The fate of marine monuments was also absent from discussion. Removal of national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906 has never been done by a President before and is thought to require an act of Congress to remove a designation. However, Presidents have reduced the size of national monuments about 19 times.

Views_from_Cascade-Siskiyou_National_Monument_(18336510486)
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (BLM Oregon).

Almost 100 years after Pinchot persuaded Taft to use the Antiquities Act, the battle between using our natural resources for profit or preserving them with a national monument is again at the forefront. While no one knows how the process will be negotiated, both sides might be able to look back to the compromises which allowed for Pinchot’s conservation ethic to prevail, and ultimately protect a national treasure while promoting natural resource development.

Only time will tell how Secretary Zinke, and ultimately President Trump, will change these national monuments and whether compromise between development and preservation can be reached.

Thanks to Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve staff for providing the historical background and references on ORCA, including their 2006 publication “Domain of the Cavemen: A Historic Resource Study of Oregon Caves National Monument” by Stephen R. Mark.

Cover photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the National Park Service.

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