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The Legitimacy of Forest Land Ownership

The roots of the debate over forest management in the northwest go back more than 130 years to when Abraham Lincoln signed into law the largest railroad land grant in United States history.

The Northern Pacific Railroad Company was created by Congress in 1864 to build a rail line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. To help pay for construction and maintenance, Northern Pacific was granted 40 million acres of land laid out in one-square-mile checkerboard fashion in a band 40 miles wide through states and 80 miles wide through territories. Such financiers as Jay Cooke, J.P. Morgan, and James J. Hill helped create the economic descendants of Northern Pacific, which today are major players in the timber industry: Weyerhaeuser, Potlach, Boise Cascade, and Plum Creek.

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But a new history of the era ("Railroads and Clearcuts" by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan) charges that "from the beginning, Northern Pacific failed to meet most of the conditions of the 1864 law." Rather than make those millions of acres available to industrial foresters, the authors assert, "all lands were to be opened to homesteaders within five years of completing the railroad."

The legality of Northern Pacific's actions was debated in the courts and in Congress well into this century. "Railroads and Clearcuts" (published by the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, an environmental group) argues that the ownership of railroad land-grant acreage by the timber companies "remains in doubt."

In any case, they write, serious environmental damage has been the result. "It is unknown whether Plum Creek's use of New Forestry will succeed in reducing environmental degradation or overcutting," they warn. "It is possible that it will do no more than allow current trends to continue."

In a rebuttal, Plum Creek Timber Company officials reject the book's premise and conclusions about the legitimacy of land ownership. And, they argue, "To not report the latest three years of history ignores the best examples of integrating environmental protections with forest management."

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