Legacy of Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant
A Photographic Essay

Railroads & Clearcuts


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"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, Washington, D.C.

"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, Northern Region, 1988-1991.

"Railroads and Clearcuts makes the case that the timber companies are fully accountable to the public and that Congress can, and should, take decisive action. This valuable account is essential information for all those who want to see justice done in the deep woods of the northern tier."

Charles F. Wilkinson, Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado and author of Crossing the Next Meridian -- Land, Water and the Future of the West.

The Lands Council

ISBN 1-879628-09-0
Pacific Northwest $5

Forest Conservation, Railroad Land Grants-History, Forest Products Industry, Public Domain-History.


The Lands Council

Watching one entire square mile of forest being clearcut, then another, and another, in Montana, Idaho, and Washington during the 1980s began for me a painful journey of understanding. This journey led inexorably to Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific land grant, which lies at the core of the forest crisis.

Once understood, this repeatedly violated contract between the American people and the railroad company created by Congress opens the door to new options for resolving the crisis unfolding in the forests and communities of the Pacific Northwest.

So alive and dynamic is Congress's land-grant legacy in the Pacific Northwest that the moment our analysis was finished it was already out-of-date. Companies enriched by Congress's land grant are on the move. The natural history of the timber industry is to overcut and leave behind stumps and unemployed workers. So it was in New England, and so it was in the Great Lakes region. So it is today in the Pacific Northwest, where tensions are escalating over the future of our forests.

This photographic essay is based on the book Railroads and Clearcuts: Legacy of Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant. To order the book, Railroads and Clearcuts, see the order form at the end of this essay for details.

-- John Osborn, M.D.

Railroads and Clearcuts

The legacy of the Northern Pacific railroad land grant is alive in the Pacific Northwest and takes the form of log exports, checkerboard forests, unrelenting "public education" campaigns, wealthy lobby groups, and large corporations that wield enormous political and economic influence in the state capitals of the Pacific Northwest and in Washington, D.C.

Because the land-grant forests and land-grant-based timber companies are central to the forest crisis, policymakers will be unable to find adequate solutions for Pacific Northwest forests and communities until they recognize and correct the problems deriving from the 1864 and 1870 land-grant contracts.

The intent of this analysis is to restore to the national debate over forests the central importance of these contracts, the federal laws that are the legal basis for "private" ownership of millions of acres of Pacific Northwest forests, including lands claimed by Plum Creek and the Weyerhaeuser corporate empire (Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch, and Boise Cascade).

In 1864, during the Civil War, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln conditionally granted millions of acres of the public domain for the purpose of raising capital to build and maintain a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. In Section 20 of the law, Congress explicitly retained oversight of the granted lands and may, at any time, "add to, alter, amend, or repeal" the law.

From the beginning, Northern Pacific failed to meet most of the conditions of the 1864 law. Violations of the grant, coupled with serious threats to the public interest, have prompted Congressional oversight of the railroad grant. The most recent major Congressional investigation was requested by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. The Congressional investigation from 1924 to 1928 concluded that wrongdoing had occurred. Congress then directed the Department of Justice to take legal action against Northern Pacific in 1929. The partial settlement which followed in 1941 left most of the major issues unresolved.

Overview of the Book -- Railroads and Clearcuts

Railroads and Clearcuts summarizes the history of the 1864 Northern Pacific railroad land grant; shows how the land-grant forests helped give rise to Plum Creek and the Weyerhaeuser corporate empire (Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch, and Boise Cascade); analyzes the impacts of overcutting and log exports on Pacific Northwest forests and communities and offers a range of solutions for concerned citizens.

Our analysis is not intended to denigrate railroads, which are recognized as an important part of our nation's transportation infrastructure. Rather, we hope to demonstrate how the 1864 legislation helped create and can also help resolve the current crisis in American forest policy.


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 alternating square miles, which created a "checkerboard" pattern of ownership that is still visible on maps and the landscapes of many Pacific Northwest forests. This pattern of granting some sections while retaining alternating sections--the checkerboard pattern-- was intended to increase the value to the public treasury of land remaining in public ownership (every other section), once railroad access was provided.

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, and Congress granted the holders of the grant the right to raise capital by selling bonds. 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.

Land-Grant-Based Timber 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) and a collection of land-grant-based companies (Burlington Resources). Next, Burlington Resources began to "spin off" its subsidiaries. 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.


In 1864 the Pacific Northwest's forests had not yet been logged and extended from the Continental Divide across parts of the Columbia River Watershed to the Pacific Ocean. Across this same region today, watersheds are unraveling and the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet, the grizzly bear, many runs of salmon, and other species of flora and fauna have become threatened, endangered, or extinct through the last century of excessive logging.

The checkerboard pattern of the land-grant forests complicates management of the National Forests. Management philosophies alternate by the square mile, precluding efforts to manage forests as ecosystems. Cumulative environmental damage from overcutting the railroad checkerboard forests has constrained logging activities in adjoining National Forests.

Log Exports

Many of the raw wood materials exported to Japan and other Pacific Rim nations originate from lands conditionally granted to build a railroad. These land-grant logs, cants, and wood chips bypass local mills and opportunities for value-added industries. Because of loopholes in federal log export reform legislation passed in 1990, companies such as Plum Creek can export land-grant logs to lucrative foreign markets, convert foreign profits to American dollars, and then use those dollars to bid against smaller domestic mills for an increasingly scarce timber supply available from the National Forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Options To Intervene

Oversight authority of the Northern Pacific 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 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 & 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.

The full extent of the public trust obligations pertaining to the 1864 and 1870 laws has yet to be defined by Congress and by the courts. These efforts at clarification could start by revisiting the work begun with the 1924 Coolidge investigation and the subsequent court case.

After completing a thorough investigation, Congress could restore land-grant forests to the public. Such action would be especially important in correcting the checkerboard land ownership pattern that precludes sound, ecosystem-based management in National Forests. Restoring land-grant forests to the public could be accomplished through purchase, exchange, or revestment.

Congress could address the problem of exporting land-grant logs by amending either the 1990 log export legislation or the 1864 and 1870 land-grant contracts to prohibit the export of unprocessed logs and fiber from grant lands.

The crisis for Pacific Northwest forests and communities has at its core the 1864 Northern Pacific railroad land grant, the defining piece of legislation for the Pacific Northwest. Understanding railroad land-grant history opens the door to solutions for resolving the forest crisis. Congress may amend legislation, a power granted to it in the United States Constitution. In the specific case of the 1864 Northern Pacific land grant, Section 20 explicitly provides Congress with oversight authority. Section 20 states:

. . . Congress may, at any time,
having due regard for the rights of said
Northern Pacific Railroad Company,
add to, alter, amend, or repeal this act.

Railroads and Clearcuts

Legacy of Congress's
1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant

A Photographic Essay



© Trygve Steen

. . . Congress may, at any time,having due regard for the rights of said Northern Pacific Railroad Company,add to, alter, amend, or repeal this act.

-- Section 20, 1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant

Forests and the 1864 Northern Pacific Land Grant

Congress's Subsidy to Build and Maintain a Railroad


Checkerboard forest clearcut by Plum Creek Timber Company, Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington. Aerial views of Pacific Northwest forests reveal the checkerboard pattern that is a legacy of Congress's Northern Pacific railroad land grant. This same clearcut is pictured to the right, as seen from the ground.

In the Pacific Northwest, the land grant's checkerboard pattern on forest maps has become a reality in the forest.

The Lands Council


Land Grant Legacy: The Checkerboard Forests

National Archives Collection


Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull (Tatonka I Yatanka), leader of the Sioux nation, said in his language at a ceremony marking the completion of the Northern Pacific's main line in 1883, "I hate you. I hate you. I hate all the white people. You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts, so I hate you." Sitting Bull's words were translated into a friendly, courteous speech for the audience (Glaspell, 1941).

President Abraham Lincoln

In 1864 Congress and President Lincoln created Northern Pacific and conditionally granted it 40 million acres of the public domain for the purpose of raising capital to build and maintain a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean.



Dictionary of American Portraits, Courtesy New York Historical Society

Congress and the Checkerboards

Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific land grant created a swath of checkerboard lands nearly 2000 miles long and up to 120 miles wide between Lake Superior and the Pacific Ocean.

For every mile of track built, Congress conditionally granted Northern Pacific 40 square miles of public lands in the Western Territories.

Congress also allowed NP to select lands in special "indemnity belts" located at the outer reaches of the checkerboard. These belts were 20 miles wide.


Western Territories:

Into the Hands of Robber Barons

Dictionary of American Portraits


Jay Cooke,
Investment Banker

In 1870 Cooke, head of the nation's largest banking house, used his money to "gain the votes of recalcitrant Congressmen" to rewrite Congress's 1864 contract, allowing Northern Pacific to sell bonds rather than stocks. In 1873 Northern Pacific failed, taking Cooke with it and helping to trigger a nationwide depression. (Schwinden, 1950, and Sobel, 1988.)

Frederick Weyerhaeuser,
Lumber Magnate

In 1899 James J. Hill sold to Weyerhaeuser nearly a million acres of Northern
Pacific grant lands. This was Weyerhaeuser's largest of several purchases. Most of Weyerhaeuser's holdings in the Pacific Northwest derive from the Northern Pacific land grant. (U.S. Bureau of Corporations, 1913-14.)


Dictionary of American Portraits,
Courtesy Weyerhaeuser Company


J. P. Morgan and James J. Hill

Dictionary of American Portraits,
Courtesy of Library of Congress


J. P. Morgan,

Financial panic in 1893 swept Northern Pacific into receivership. After this, Morgan and Hill effectively combined the "northern" lines (Northern Pacific and Great Northern), added the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1901, and formed the framework for the Burlington Northern Railroad.

James J. Hill,
Railroad Promoter, Financier

In 1893 James J. Hill completed the Great Northern Railroad, linking St. Paul, Minnesota, with Everett, Washington. In the Pacific Northwest's era of railroad building, Hill became known as the Empire Builder. "Give me enough Swedes and whiskey and I'll build a railroad through Hell," he reputedly said (Schwantes, 1993, p. 133). Hill associated closely with J.P. Morgan and Frederick Weyerhaeuser.

Dictionary of American Portraits,
Photograph by Pach Brothers


Morgan, Hill, and the
Burlington Northern Railroad

Combining the Two Northern Lines and the Burlington

Northern Pacific Railroad

In the 1890s Morgan and Hill effectively combined Northern Pacific with the parallel and competing Great Northern.



Great Northern Railroad

Burlington Railroad

The purchase of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad gave Morgan and Hill rail access to lucrative markets in Chicago and St. Louis, and triggered a battle with Harriman of Union Pacific that caused panic in the nation's stock markets in 1901.



Burlington Northern Railroad

Morgan's and Hill's efforts to form a railroad monopoly, beginning in the 1890s, were repeatedly struck down by the Supreme Court. In 1970 the Supreme Court acceded to the merger, and Burlington Northern was created.

Burlington Northern is the nation's longest railroad, with over 24,000 miles of track. Burlington Northern links Puget Sound to the Great Lakes, and links Canada to Gulf Coast ports in Texas, Alabama, and Florida



Congress passes the Northern Pacific (NP) land grant, creating Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Congress conditionally grants 40 million acres of public lands in a checkerboard pattern to subsidize railroad construction and maintenance.


Weyerhaeuser incorporates Boise Payette.


Congress amends the NP land grant, allowing NP to sell bonds. Construction begins.


Congress revests three million acres of the O & C (Oregon & California) railroad grant lands in Oregon.


NP fails, triggering a national financial panic.


President Coolidge asks Congress to investigate NP.

Congress soon begins investigating the NP land grant. The investigation continues to 1928.


NP completes the main line, seven years after the original deadline.


President Hoover signs a bill directing the U. S. Attorney General to sue NP for the return of 2.8 million acres.


Congress revests railroad grant lands, including two million acres of the NP grant. NP sells 212,722 acres in Minnesota to Weyerhaeuser.


U.S. Attorney General files suit in Spokane against NP.


NP fails financially a second time. James J. Hill completes Great Northern's (GN) main line.


Potlatch joined with Clearwater and Rutledge Timber Companies.


J.P. Morgan and James J. Hill combine NP and GN.


Supreme Court hears United States v. Northern Pacific.


Minnesota and U.S. Supreme Courts rule against merger of NP and GN.
Morgan refinances NP with 100- and 150-year bonds.


Partial settlement between NP and U.S. Attorney General returns 2.8 million acres to the national forests.


Congress establishes Mt. Rainier National Park, enabling NP to exchange "rocks and ice" for other public lands.

NP begins to sell granted lands in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to Weyerhaeuser and associates. By 1940 over 1.5 million acres have been sold to Weyerhaeuser and associates.


Boise Payette joined with Cascade Lumber to form Boise Cascade.


Morgan and Hill acquire the Burlington Railroad.


Supreme Court allows the merger of the Burlington and the two northern lines (NP and GN), thereby forming Burlington Northern (BN).


Weyerhaeuser and associates incorporate Potlatch.


BN reorganizes as a holding company.


U.S. Supreme Court strikes down merger of NP and GN.


Liens on J. P. Morgan's bonds are lifted by a settlement with the bondholders, allowing the railroad's grant lands and natural resources to be spun off into Burlington Resources.


NP claims lands already protected in the Gallatin National Forest, near Yellowstone Park.


Burlington Resources spins off Plum Creek Timber Company.


NP sells about 1 million acres in Montana to Amalgamated Copper (later named Anaconda Copper).


SPO Partners acquires control of Plum Creek, a tax-free limited partnership since 1988.


Plum Creek purchases 867,000 acres of western Montana timberland from Champion International, which had purchased it from Anaconda Copper in 1972, which had purchased it from NP in 1907.

 Weyerhaeuser Comes to the
Pacific Northwest

Mt. Rainier Scrip and Lake States Lumbermen

Frederick Weyerhauser emerged as the nation's preeminent lumberman by logging forests of the Midwest during the late 1800s.

By the turn of the century, the end was near for the once vast pine forests of the Great Lakes region and upper Mississippi River Valley.

James J. Hill was one of Weyerhaeuser's neighbors in St. Paul, spending many evenings at the Weyerhaeuser home. In 1899 Hill sold to Weyer-haeuser nearly a million acres of Northern Pacific grant lands in the Pacific Northwest. Weyerhaeuser, along with other Lake States lumbermen, then shifted operations from the cutover forests of the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest.

Not all of the Northern Pacific grant lands were rich forests. Some were "rocks and ice." But Cong-ress helped Morgan and Hill by creating the Mt. Rainier National Park: a "rider" in the law gave Northern Pacific the option of exchanging nearly a million acres of checker-boards in the Mt. Rainier Forest Reserve (now parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie Nat-ional Forest) for public lands elsewhere. This "Mt. Rainier scrip" was used by the Weyerhaeuser syn-dicate to exchange Cascade Range rocks and ice for control of rich forests elsewhere, including Idaho and Oregon.

Weyerhaeuser's timber holdings in Washington and Oregon, 1959. Most of these lands are based on the Northern Pacific contracts (adapted from Fortune, July 1959, v.60, no. 1, p. 93).


Mark Lawler

Mt. Rainier

(From Puter and Stevens, 1908.)

"Map of the Mt. Rainier Forest Reserve, showing the position of the Mt. Rainier National Park, which was created for the special benefit of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, that the Hill corporation might be enabled to exchange its worthless holdings for the cream of creation."

 Western Washington and Northern Pacific

Map showing checkerboard pattern of timberland ownership deriving from the Northern Pacific Railroad land grant. (U.S. Bureau of Corporations, 1913-1914, Part 2, p. 44.)

Weyerhaeuser holdings on this map totaled 1,372,474 acres, containing an estimated 70 billion board feet; nearly 90 percent of this was acquired from the Northern Pacific. Northern Pacific holdings include 306,261 acres, containing an estimated 11 billion board feet.


The "Group Of Large Holdings" (holding 731,803 acres with 40 billion board feet) is comprised of 33 companies, including Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber, Puget Mill, Simpson, Merrill-Ring, Polson Logging, Western Timber, Great Northern Railway, and others; Weyerhaeuser and Northern Pacific held interests in some of these companies (U.S. Bureau of Corporations, 1913-1914, Part 2, pp. 28, 30).


North Idaho and Northern Pacific

Map showing checkerboard pattern of timberland ownership deriving from the Northern Pacific Railroad land grant (U.S. Bureau of Corporations, 1913-1914, Part 2, p. 130).

Northern Pacific holdings on this map comprise 108,403 acres, containing an estimated 1.6 billion board feet. The "First Group Of Large Holdings" (Potlatch Lumber and Clearwater Timber, largely controlled by Weyerhaeuser interests, and acquiring much of their land from the Northern Pacific; and the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway) is shown on the map with 508,778 acres, containing an estimated 16 billion board feet of timber. The "Second Group Of Large Holdings" (Edward Rutledge Timber, also associated with Weyerhaeuser; Blackwell Lumber; and Coeur d'Alene Lumber) controlled 118,406 acres with 3.4 billion board feet. This second group also largely acquired its land from the Northern Pacific land grant (U.S. Bureau of Corporations, 1913-1914, Part 2, p. 119-124).



Land Grant Checkerboard Forests: Mallard Larkins Region,
Idaho Panhandle National Forests

© Paul Chesley

Congress's 1864 Land Grant and
Patterns of Corporate Power

Interlocking boards of directors, selected examples.


Craig Gehrke

Boise Cascade world headquarters in Boise, Idaho.

Weyerhaeuser world headquarters near Tacoma, Washington, not far from Mt. Rainier National Park.


John Rosapepe

Sam Scott

Potlatch corporate headquarters at One Maritime Plaza in San Francisco, California.

The Weyerhaeuser syndicate incorporated Potlatch in 1903 to log forests in north Idaho. In 1913 Weyerhae-user incorporated Boise Payette, which in 1957 was joined with Yakima-based Cascade Lumber to form Boise Cascade.

 Interlocking Corporate Officers
and Directors (Selected Examples)

Several officers/directors went directly from Anaconda Copper to Burlington Northern in the early 1980s.

Boise Cascade, Burlington Northern, and Burlington Resources were interlocked from 1981 to 1992 by J.B. Parrish.

Boise Cascade, Great Northern, and Weyerhaeuser were interlocked from the 1910s to 1940s (through Frederick and F.E. Weyerhaeuser).

Boise Cascade, Northern Pacific, and Potlatch were interlocked from 1947 to 1955 by G.F. Jewett.

Boise Cascade, Potlatch, and Weyerhaeuser were interlocked from the time of their incorporation by Weyerhaeuser and associates in the early 1900s until the 1980s (through members of the Bell, Clapp, Jewett, Musser, and Weyerhaeuser families).

Burlington Northern and Weyerhaeuser were interlocked from 1969 to 1981 (through Robert B. Wilson and through Frederick Weyerhaeuser's great-grandson Walter J. Driscoll).

Burlington Resources and Weyerhaeuser were interlocked in 1987 and 1988 (through William Ruckelshaus, who formed Burlington Resources' Ecos - a hazardous waste company - and who has been on the Weyerhaeuser board since 1976).

Northern Pacific, Potlatch, and Weyerhaeuser were interlocked from 1935 to 1946 by R.M. Weyerhaeuser.

Potlatch was incorporated by Frederick Weyerhaeuser and associates, and has been interlocked ever since. There are currently two Weyerhaeusers (Frederick T. and William T.) on the Potlatch board. Weyerhaeuser interests are estimated to hold at least 40 percent of the stock of Potlatch.

Selected Corporate Beneficiaries Of The Northern Pacific Land Grants

Northern Pacific (1864, 1870)

38.6 million acres.

Weyerhaeuser (incorporated 1878)

Bought at least 1,489,000 acres from Northern Pacific, 1890-1940.

Potlatch (incorporated 1903)

At least 229,000 land grant in-lieu acres 1901-1927.

Boise Payette (Boise Cascade) (incorporated 1913)

At least 172,000 land grant in-lieu acres 1913-1947.

Anaconda (Amalgamated) Copper (Standard Oil acq. 1899)

Bought more than 1 million acres from NP by 1910.

Champion International

Bought 670,500 land grant acres from Anaconda in 1972;
sold 867,000 acres to Plum Creek in 1993.

Burlington Northern (incorporated 1970)

Railroad track: 24,000 miles.

Burlington Resources (spun off 1988)

Glacier Park Real Estate: 925,000 acres.

Meridian Minerals: taconite, talc, dolomite, kaolin.

Plum Creek Timber (spun off 1989)

Timber: 10.4 billion board feet on 2.1 million acres.

Meridian Gold (1990)

Meridian Aggregates (spun off 1991)

Meridian Oil (subsidiary of Burlington Resources)

Oil & Gas: 5.7 trillion cu. ft. on 13.3 million acres.

El Paso Natural Gas (spun off 1992)

Natural gas pipeline: 17,000 miles.

Great Northern Properties LP (spun off 1992)

Coal: 16 billion tons.

[Sources: Burlington Northern Railroad, 1992 Annual Report, p.27; Burlington Resources, 1992 Annual Report, p.15; El Paso Natural Gas, Mar. 12. 1992 Prospectus, p.F-4; Plum Creek Timber, 1992 Annual Report, p.16.]  

Liquidating the Land-Grant Forests

Clearcutting from Yellowstone Park to Seattle  

By 1980 Morgan and Hill's railroad, the Burlington Northern, still retained about 1.5 million acres of checkerboard forests between Yellowstone Park and the Pacific Ocean. BN's logging arm, Plum Creek, began liquidating the forests in the early 1980s. Plum Creek became a tax-free "limited partnership" in 1989.

In 1907 Hill sold a million acres of the Northern Pacific checkerboard lands in northwestern Montana to Amalgamated Copper, which later became Anaconda Copper. In the 1970s most of this land was sold to Champion International. Champion overcut the forests and in 1993 sold the grant lands to Plum Creek


Plum Creek's holdings in 1989 (adapted from Plum Creek's Prospectus, May 1989, p.54). In 1993 its holdings in Montana more than doubled.

© James R. Conner

Checkerboards. Montana, Mission Mountain Wilderness as backdrop. April 1988.

Checkerboards. Idaho, Mallard Larkins region of the Bitterroot Mountains. June 1989.


The Lands Council

Marianne Gordon

Checkerboards. Washington, near Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Range. October 1986.

 Legacy of the 1864 Northern Pacific Land Grant

Checkerboards - an aerial view. Trail Creek, near the Cabinet Wilderness in northwestern Montana, August 1992. The checkerboards in this aerial photograph correspond to the clearcut pictured below.




Checkerboards - as seen from the ground. Champion International and Burlington Northern/Plum Creek severely overcut the forests in northwestern Montana. Throughout American history, overcutting has forced forest-dependent communities into a difficult transition.

Checkerboards. Eastern Washington, Colville National Forest.


Gayle McKellar

Gerry Snyder

Potlatch. Floodwood forest region of the Clearwater River watershed in
Idaho, 1992. In Idaho during the early 1900s the Weyerhaeuser syndicate's agents used "Mt. Rainier scrip" to gain control of valuable public forests.

Log Exports and Congress'
Substitution Loophole

Exporting Northern Pacific Land-Grant Timber
Worsens Log Supply Crisis

Although the exportation of raw logs from federal and state forests in the Pacific Northwest is illegal, it is legal to export raw logs from lands held by individuals and corporations. This is true even for the formerly public forests whose current title derives from the 1864 and 1870 Northern Pacific railroad land grants.

Corporations sidestep log export prohibitions through a variety of substitution schemes. Regulations and laws banning raw log exports from federal lands do not prevent companies such as Plum Creek (a tax-free limited partnership) from exporting logs from railroad grant lands and using resulting profits to gain access to public timber much of which is sold at a loss to the taxpayer.

Thus, the public's forests, which Congress gave to build and maintain a railroad, are converted via log exports to profits that are used to buy more public timber.


© Elizabeth Feryl

Log export docks in Longview, Washington, located along the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon.

Marianne Gordon

Checkerboard above Lake Kachess in the Cascade Range near Snoqualmie Pass, Washington state, August 1989.

Logs awaiting export. Ownership of many of the logs being exported overseas is based on Congress's Northern Pacific contracts contracts that were repeatedly violated. Exported logs further exacerbate the forest crisis in the Pacific Northwest.


Ron Reichel

Reforming the 1864 Land Grant:

Congress Retains Oversight Authority of the
Northern Pacific Contracts.

Dictionary of American Portraits

Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge asked Congress for an investigation in 1924 after Northern Pacific threatened the National Forests.

Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt greatly expanded the National Forest System to keep the public forests out of the hands of timber syndicates. Despite this, timber corporations (many based on Congress's Northern Pacific contracts) have largely controlled National Forest policies and cut public trees, often at taxpayer expense.

Dictionary of American Portraits


". . . Congress may, at any time,
having due regard for the rights of said
Northern Pacific Railroad Company,
add to, alter, amend, or repeal this act."

--Section 20,
1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant

 Yin and Yang

The Northern Pacific

Northern Pacific's trademark was the opposing forces of light (yang) and darkness (yin). Deriving from ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang represent opposing halves that comprise the whole. Northern Pacific used the symbol from 1893 until 1970, when Northern Pacific became Burlington Northern. (Yenne, 1991, p. 45.)


The Lands Council

The Lands Council (the "Council") is dedicated to the transition of the greater Columbia River ecosystem from resource extraction to long-term community and biological sustainability. The Council will achieve its goal by increasing public awareness through education and promoting public participation in decision-making processes.

Begun in 1983 as the Spokane Resident Physicians Action League by the physician "house staff" at Sacred Heart and Deaconess Medical Centers in Spokane, Washington, the group changed its name in 1985 to The Lands Council.

The Council publishes Transitions, a journal which chronicles the historic change underway in America's Pacific Northwest.

The Council's Forest Watch Program, started in 1990, has organized and trained 20 grassroots groups on 29 ranger districts in nine National Forests in the four states of the Pacific Northwest. The purpose of Forest Watch is to provide citizen oversight of the federal government's decisions about forests.

With the assistance of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Council established the Public Lands Legal Program in 1994. The program provides local citizen groups with legal advice and litigation support.

The Council's public outreach program has helped hundreds of volunteers take the message of forest destruction door-to-door in the neighborhoods of eastern Washington and north Idaho, and alerted the public through billboards, busboards, radio, and newspapers.

After nearly a decade of research and documentation of forest destruction, the Council is restoring Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific land grant -- neglected for nearly half a century -- to the attention of the American people, where the issue belongs.

Lands Council

Railroads and Clearcuts
Publications and Publication Ordering

RAILROADS AND CLEARCUTS (book) 15.00, Members Special Rate 13.00

Railroads and Clearcuts -- A Photographic Essay
A photographic summary of the land grant and the forest crisis is available for $5.


Dating from the 1860s until the present, original newspaper stories, photographs, and analysis help tell the powerful and moving story of Congress's Northern Pacific railroad land grant. These documents are presented in the Council's journal, Transitions, in the Railroads & Clearcuts multi-part series.

These may be ordered individually for $3 each or $2 each when ordering 10 or more.


Two bibliographies are available, each containing over 100 pages of references:

1. Bibliography on Railroad Land Grants, the Northern Pacific Railroad and its Burlington Northern Spin-offs.
2. Bibliography on Plum Creek, Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, Potlatch and Associated Timber Companies.

These are available for $20 each.

Railroads and Clearcuts Compendium

The full set of publications is available for $70. The compendium includes the multi-part series in Transitions, the two bibliographies, and the book, Railroads and Clearcuts.

To Order

Send request to: The Lands Council, S. 517 Division, Spokane, WA 99202-1365
(509) 838-4912 · Fax: (509) 838-5155 · Internet: tlc@landscouncil.org

Please include the following information:

Ship To:
Name (please print) Name (please print)
Item Amount Shipping & Handling
0 - 15.00 add $2.00
15.01 - 30.00 3.00
30.01 - 50.00 4.00
50.01 - 100.00 5.00
If your order exceeds $100, then please contact us by phone or fax.
Washington state residents
add 8.1% sales tax


© 2001 The Lands Council , This web version with updates.

© 1995 The Lands Council, the original Photo Essay Publication

517 South Division
Spokane, WA 99202-1365
Phone: (509) 838-4912
Fax: (509) 838-5155
Email: tlc@landscouncil.org

Production: Easy

Graphics: Chuck Carter and Donald Walls
Layout: Kate Wilhite

Printed on recycled paper with ecology-conscious soy ink.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from The Lands Council.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Lands Council.
Railroads and clearcuts, legacy of Congress's 1864 Northern Pacific railroad land grant -- a photographic essay / John Osborn, M.D.
ISBN 1-879628-09-0
1. Forest Conservation. 2. Railroad Land Grants-History.
3. Forest Products Industry. 4. Public Domain-History.
I. Osborn, John II. Title. III. The Lands Council
Cover Photo: Mt. Rainier National Park and clearcuts. © Trygve Steen