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The checkerboard effect

April 16, 2015


Like the smell of rain on wet pavement or the taste of a good microbrew, Douglas fir forests seem patently Oregonian. Trees feature prominently in our landscapes, in the Capitol building, and even on our license plates. Today, many lobbyists and citizens push for the conservation of old-growth forests that preserve such an iconic and integral aspect of our state. But forest conservation hasn’t always been at the forefront of Oregonians’ concerns.

Science historian Emily K. Brock joins us today to share a bit of conservation history within the Beaver state. Her new book, Money Trees: The Douglas Fir and American Forestry, 1900 – 1944, explores patterns of forest management and the complicated correlation between humans and nature.


If you look at satellite images of southwestern Oregon today, you can make out faint traces of a gigantic checkerboard design etched into the forest. The checkerboard is a still-visible remnant of management decisions made in the 1860s. The persistence of the checkerboard, and its relation to conservation, is a reminder that when you hike through an American forest, you are always walking through a landscape created by past decisions.

Foresters, loggers, landowners, politicians, regional planners, and many others have made decisions or taken actions that impacted forests. Whether to log, plant, or preserve, those forest management decisions will carry over to the present day. Because forests take so long to grow, decisions they made can resonate in the forest for decades, even centuries, into the future.

We can find an example of the value of forest history in the famously contentious case of the Northern Spotted Owl. Knowing the historical background of the case gives a new insight into why the owl became so threatened, and why conserving it became not just ecologically difficult, but economically and politically difficult too.


This story begins in 1866, when the federal government granted public domain lands to a company called the Oregon and California Railroad to build a rail link between Portland and California. These lands, like most railroad grant lands of the time, were divided into a checkerboard in which the railroad received every other square. In the case of the O&C, their checkerboard squares were mostly thickly covered with intact Douglas fir forest. Generally, as a railroad grew, it would sell off such grantland to raise revenue. However, due to various legal and financial difficulties, little of it was ever put up for sale. The forests eventually came under the control of the General Land Office, but remained mostly unlogged and undeveloped.

It was not until the late 1930s that the checkerboard survey would really have an effect on these forests. With the aim of showing how methodologically sophisticated his department was, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes spearheaded an effort to enact advanced system of forest management on the lands through the 1937 O&C Act. The checkerboard soon became an experiment in sustained-yield forest management and rural planning.

Those property lines caused more trouble than anyone expected when the checkerboard was first drawn. While the public squares of the O&C lands are now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the successor agency to the General Land Office, the private squares have met various fates. Some are still managed for timber, some have been developed for agriculture or settlement, and some were incorporated into the BLM holdings through land swaps.

The O&C Act contained stipulations that county governments benefited more from O&C logging than from logging activity taking place on, for example, National Forest land. Instead of the 25% of gross receipts received from national forest logging taking place within a county’s borders, the county would receive 50% from O&C logging. Many of the eighteen “O&C Counties,” with O&C checkerboard land in them came to rely heavily on that revenue to finance county infrastructure, buildings, and government services. Further, many residents of the counties found steady, well-paid employment in the lumber industry.

Compounding the issue, the Bureau of Land Management habitually authorized more logging, and regulated it less, than did the U.S. Forest Service. As Forest Service regulation became more stringent in the latter half of the twentieth century, the logging on the O&C lands became more lucrative for logging companies to pursue. The rate of logging on O&C lands authorized by the B.L.M. was often well above what sustained yield calculations would have specified. Eventually the overcut would have forced the O&C Counties to a reckoning, but before that day arrived, a little gray owl changed the rules of the game.


The Northern spotted owl is a small, shy owl which lives in Pacific coast forests, and which depends on natural Douglas fir or coast redwood forests for nesting, foraging, and roosting. Its population levels had dipped low enough by 1990 to be federally designated a threatened species.

In the years following this designation, scientists predicted that the owl would go extinct if any more of its habitat was destroyed. The problem wasn’t just the acreage of habitat, but the fact that the owl didn’t like to nest close to buildings, roads, or any other sign of human development. While over seven million acres of federally-owned old-growth Douglas fir forest still remained in the Pacific Northwest, much of that forest was in the form of the O&C checkerboards and other heavily-fragmented landscapes. These forests were already so fractured by human use that much of their acreage was not suitable for the owls.

To save the owl from extinction, the federal government deemed further habitat fracturing had to be avoided. This meant a slowdown of logging in national forests, and an almost complete cessation of logging on the O&C lands. The O&C checkerboard design, which had initially been devised to promote economic growth and regional development, was now the very thing that necessitated a logging shutdown. Because local governments in the O&C Counties had grown dependent on revenue generated by B.L.M. lumbering, the shutdown affected not just those employed by the lumber industry but all citizens of the counties. Local anti-environmentalist sentiment rose as the full ramifications of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan unfolded. The changes do seem to have slowed the decline of owl populations, although the species now faces new threats to its existence.

The residents of the O&C Counties had been pawns in the struggles between private companies and federal government since the 1860s, when their forests had first been gridded with the surveyors’ checkerboard. The federal government reversed the promises of the O&C Act, grounded in 1930s ideals of sustained-yield forest management, in order to enforce the Endangered Species Act, grounded in 1970s ideals of conservation biology. Victims of historical shifts in government goals, environmental values, and scientific agendas, the O&C Counties have still not fully righted themselves from the economic tumult of the twentieth century.

As the example of the spotted owl shows, to understand people’s relationships to forests, it helps to know not just what is going on in them today, but also their history. MoneyTrees

My new book, Money Trees: The Douglas Fir and American Forestry, 1900-1944, is about management of Douglas fir forests, but also about the ways the challenges of managing the Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest influenced the profession of American forestry. The history of the O&C Lands is one part of this bigger story of forest management in this region. Knowing forest history can deepen our knowledge of these landscapes, and aid our understanding of the complex relationships between humans and forests.



Emily K. Brock is a historian whose research focuses on American natural resource management and the interconnections between industry, science, and conservation. After receiving her Ph.D. from Princeton University, Brock went on to teach at several academic institutions, including Stanford University. She currently serves as a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. Money Trees is her first book.


Image Captions & Credits

Checkerboard Landscape: The checkerboard patterning, a legacy of the O&C Railroad land grant, is still apparent in this contemporary Google Earth satellite image of the forestland directly west of Cottage Grove, OR.

Klamath Log Chute: Log rafts on the edge of the Klamath River in 1939, near the small town of Keno, OR. Photo by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress reference LC-USF34-020953.

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