The story of the Tillamook Burn starts with a forest fire in August 1933, purportedly touched off by a careless logging operator. The fire, fanned by a hot east wind, burned 240,000 acres of mostly virgin Douglas fir forest — an area one-third the size of Rhode Island — in Tillamook and Clatsop counties on the northwestern Oregon coast. Three more fires, in 1939, 1945, and 1951, left a massive blackened landscape and caused people to wonder if they would ever see trees growing in the Tillamook country again.
Salvage operations, begun almost before the embers were cold, recovered a substantial fraction of the trees that were charred but not consumed. But what was to be done with the burned land? Public concern over the fate of the Tillamook Burn led Governor Earl Snell to appoint a citizens’ committee to study the question. The committee recommended a huge reforestation effort, bigger than any ever tried, to restore the area to its “natural, wealth-producing status” and to turn it into “a 300,000-acre growing tree farm,” in the words of a contemporary newspaper account.
Much of the burned land was owned by Tillamook and Clatsop counties, delivered into their hands by owners who had defaulted on property taxes during the Depression. To accomplish the reforestation, the Oregon Department of Forestry proposed a deal: the counties would deed the land — which was worthless to them — to the state of Oregon, and state foresters would rehabilitate the Burn. The payoff was the money that would eventually come to county coffers from logging the grown-up forest.
It was a controversial idea, not popular in Tillamook County, which might have expected to benefit the most. Nevertheless, with the help of a successful statewide vote on a bond issue in 1948, the reforestation effort became reality. By the early 1960s the Tillamook was cloaking itself again in green.
Governor Tom McCall dedicated the new Tillamook State Forest in July 1973, speaking these words: “More than a million snags are gone...and in their place is a new stand of Oregon’s economic life blood. The trees will grow, and suffer our harvest, and grow again. The forest...again will feed us.”
The Tillamook is not Oregon’s first state forest — that distinction belongs to the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay. But the unique circumstances of its creation opened a new role for the state of Oregon in owning and managing timber lands. Over the last three decades, trees in the Tillamook State Forest have grown tall even as public enthusiasm about the commodity use of timber has cooled. State foresters, who have struggled to develop a balanced plan for the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests, now find themselves in a tug-of-war between the forest-products industry and county officials, who push for more logging (endlessly reminding the state foresters of the deal they made with the counties sixty years ago), and environmentalists, who would prefer that the Tillamook State Forest be mostly reserved from logging.
© Gail Wells, 2006.