A Win for the West
Photographs by Steven Gnam and Benjamin Drummond
“The West was inevitable,” wrote journalist Ray Stannard Baker in 1908, “but the railroad was the instrument of its fate.”
Ports, cities and towns sprouted when the railroad came, and rail transport built industries. Time itself was transformed by trains: The railroads instituted coordinated clocks and standard time zones. But there’s a troublesome side to the West’s rail-built legacy: It also divided much of the landscape into a checkerboard of ownership, fracturing forests and perplexing land managers for more than a century.
Now, one of the largest land deals in The Nature Conservancy’s history is reuniting portions of those divided landscapes in Washington and Montana. As part of the Great Western Checkerboards Project, the Conservancy has just purchased some 165,000 acres from Plum Creek, a timber company descended from the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The 48,000 newly protected acres in Washington fill in critical gaps in state and federal wilderness areas in the central Cascades, reconnecting fragmented habitat for elk, wolves, wolverines and spotted owls. The purchase includes the headwaters of the Yakima River, famous for its salmon and steelhead fisheries.
In Montana, the deal builds on the monumental Montana Legacy Project, a phased acquisition of 310,000 acres of former Plum Creek timberlands completed in 2010 by the Conservancy and its partners. The new 117,000-acre purchase in the Blackfoot River valley protects one of the largest tracts of private land in the 10-million-acre Crown of the Continent, which is among the most intact ecosystems remaining in the world’s temperate zones. This Rocky Mountain landscape is home to grizzly bears, elk, lynx and wolves, and it’s also beloved by people who have hiked, hunted and fished there for generations.
Checkerboarding began on paper. When the nation was young and the future Western states were still just federal territories, surveyors mapped the land by dividing it into square-mile, 640-acre “sections.” The big giveaway began in earnest in the 1860s. Driven by the ideal of creating a nation of independent farmers and settling the wild West, Congress gave out half sections and quarter sections to pioneers willing to farm them. Land was also given to veterans to reward service, to townships to fund schools, and to states to facilitate things like roads and canals.
But settling the West required railroads to connect pioneers to supplies and markets. To get private industry to build them, Congress also passed a series of bills granting land to railroad firms, most notably through the Pacific Railroad Act of 1864. Much of the land was doled out in alternating square-mile sections on either side of a proposed rail route, creating a checkerboard pattern of ownership. The arrangement was intended to be mutually beneficial: The railroads would sell land to settlers to fund construction, and once the trains were running, the remaining federally owned land would increase in value.
From 1850 to 1870, some 7 percent of the nation—a total of 223 million acres—was handed over to private railroads. The biggest beneficiary of this government largesse was the Northern Pacific Railway, which agreed to build a route between Lake Superior and Puget Sound. In exchange, the railroad received a land grant about the size of New England, a 40-million-acre swath nearly 120 miles wide, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Pacific.
The land the Northern Pacific received turned out to be less promising as farmland than as timberland.
The forests between the Pacific Northwest coast and the Great Lakes were unlike anything east of the Mississippi. Threaded with raging rivers and punctuated by ice-capped peaks were millions of acres of forests filled with gargantuan trees: cedars, spruces, hemlocks, ponderosa pines and western white pines. By the time the train tracks were built, making it possible to transport enormous logs, timber companies in the East and Midwest were running out of trees to cut. The industry turned to the Northwest. One acre there, declared one chronicler, “contains more timber than did five acres of the biggest, thickest stuff Maine or Michigan could offer.”
Huge tracts of the railroad land grants were sold to timber companies or logged by the railroads themselves. Clear-cutting proceeded at such a clip that by the turn of the century, foresters were using the term “forest devastation.” Concerned, the federal government began setting aside federally owned tracts as forest reserves, most notably under conservation-minded President Theodore Roosevelt. Thus was born the system of national forests—comprising nearly 200 million acres by Roosevelt’s departure in 1909. But it quickly became apparent that checkerboard ownership would complicate land management in the West.
“It is obvious that these great National Forests cannot continue to exist and be protected and efficiently managed while including a checkerboard arrangement of odd sections over which the Government has no control,” wrote Henry S. Graves, the nation’s second chief forester and a cofounder of the Yale School of Forestry, in 1920. This fragmentation continues today in areas where sections of public land alternate with squares now owned by the timber companies that were created by the land-grant railroads.
From an Ecological standpoint, conserving all the white squares on a checkerboard is a far less effective strategy than protecting half the board in one big block. The land’s value—for wildlife habitat, hunting and fishing, water quality, and ecological resilience—is severely compromised by fragmentation. The Forest Service has long understood this and has enacted land swaps whenever possible, trading sections inside conserved tracts with sections elsewhere, working toward a landscape-scale approach to management.
Purchasing large blocks of the original land grants in a single transaction—the way most landowners prefer to sell—can be a stretch for public agencies. So when Plum Creek, a timber company spun off from the Burlington Northern Railroad—formerly the Northern Pacific—put more than 165,000 acres of Montana and Washington timberland up for sale last year, the Conservancy recognized a big opportunity. But the clock was ticking. If those checkerboard squares were purchased piecemeal for development—transformed into shopping malls or housing subdivisions—public access would be curtailed and the fragmentation of the land would be permanent.
Last fall, the Conservancy and its funding partners stepped in to purchase the lands for $134 million, structuring the transaction through its new conservation impact investment platform, NatureVest. The goal was not long-term ownership but simply to buy time to work with stakeholders to develop plans for the lands that will benefit both the environment and the people who depend on it.
“We want to listen to the community and understand what the values of the land are—not just the conservation values, but the economic and recreational values,” says Chris Bryant, a Conservancy land-protection specialist in Montana.
The process will be similar in Washington, says James Schroeder, conservation director for the Conservancy’s Eastern Washington division. “We are reaching out to the local communities and stakeholders and partners that we work with in the area to understand how they want to see the forest conserved going forward,” he says.
Options in both places include different kinds of public ownership, private sales under conservation easements and sustainable community forestry projects.
History has written itself onto the Western landscape: The railroad’s legacy is spelled out in steel rails and property lines still visible from the air. Reconnecting lands that have been fragmented for more than a century is a way of turning the page—and building a new legacy for the people and wildlife of the future.