Reckoning with History: When we overcame political division

50 years ago, a functional Congress enacted four important conservation bills.


Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

After decades of advocacy by the Save-the-Redwoods League and the Sierra Club, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated Redwood National Park on Oct. 2, 1968.

and new depths of partisan rancor, until it all culminates in an episode like the one last week. At the bitter Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, a defiant Supreme Court Justice nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, fumed at aggressive questioning by Democrats, who were then targeted by Republicans tirades. As a numbed and shell-shocked public processed accusations and denials of sexual assault over the weekend, Congress allowed the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire, a victim of the distracted gridlock and partisan acrimony that has eclipsed any sense of hope or public responsibility. Then, earlier this week, as the FBI launched a limited investigation into the Kavanaugh allegations, four major milestones in conservation marked their 50th anniversary — laws protecting wild and scenic rivers, national trails and two national parks.

This 50-year juxtaposition brings to mind the British writer L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted observation: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” These days, the United States of the late 1960s seems like a very distant country indeed. 

Just after lunch on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke from the White House’s East Room to a typical gathering of Washington, D.C.’s elites, . Johnson announced that he had signed four bills: the , the , and the legislation creating both  and . With the election barely a month away, Johnson’s presidency was winding down, and he and the 90th Congress were taking care of long-unfinished business. These laws had meandered through years of deliberate negotiations and careful consideration, especially by the House Interior Committee chair, Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colo., whom journalist Drew Pearson dubbed “molasses-moving Aspinall.” Despite this languid pace, the dam was breached in autumn 1968, and the package of conservation measures flowed through Congress.

Protecting fragments of grand nature was not new in 1968; the federal government had been doing that since the mid-19th century, beginning with Yosemite and Yellowstone. Sometimes, legislators acted to keep a unique landscape from being developed commercially for tourism; sometimes, they acted to prevent logging or other extractive industries from taking hold. The latter was the case for both Redwood and North Cascades national parks. A timer ticked, louder and louder, and Congress responded.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act were far-reaching measures that embodied political compromises, bearing within them the marks of experience won during the fight over the Wilderness Act in 1964. Both the rivers and trails acts immediately established protected areas (the Rogue River and the Pacific Crest Trail, to name two) and instructed federal agencies to study other potential corridors worth protecting. By deferring to future studies, Congress allowed for further negotiations on more controversial designations. In the rivers legislation, for example, the “study” provision broke a stalemate between Idaho’s two senators, Republican Len Jordan and Democrat Frank Church, over whether to include the Salmon River. By reaching a compromise to immediately protect the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and to study the main Salmon, Church, who managed the legislative process, delivered a unanimous vote in the Senate.

Because both rivers and trails move across jurisdictions and property lines, one of the more controversial parts of both laws in practice has concerned reaching agreements with private landowners, whether for scenic easements or outright purchase. Some historians, such as Sarah Mittlefehldt, have argued that systems like the national trails, by their nature, demand and build civic engagement and compromise in service to conservation. From their modest beginnings, the nationally designated rivers and trails have expanded from stretches of eight designated rivers and two trails to more than 200 rivers and 30 trails.

The two national parks faced longer histories and more challenges. Efforts to protect California’s redwood forests began at the beginning of the 20th century. The rather patrician Save-the-Redwoods League, founded in 1918, raised money to purchase land and donate it as California state parks. By the mid-20th century, logging threatened the last remaining redwoods. In response, conservation groups, including the league and the Sierra Club, rallied and set their sights on a national park. Much of the drama of this episode came from the conflicting worldviews and strategies among these groups, as the Sierra Club aimed for a much larger park to protect whole ecosystems and not just the most majestic trees. The squabbling gave timber companies an opening to start clear-cutting, demonstrating that, in the words of historian Darren Speece in , “North Coast companies were hell-bent on derailing any discussion of creating a national redwood park.” The continued logging brought activists together and prompted legislators to compromise on several measures, including size. Ultimately, they reconciled Aspinall’s smaller version, some 28,000 acres — for which, according to his biographer Stephen C. Schulte, Aspinall received more hate mail than for any other issue — versus the 61,000-acre Senate version. The end result was a 58,000-acre park, which was added to in subsequent years. In , President Johnson recognized time had drawn down to the wire for the redwoods: “For once we have spared what is enduring and ennobling from the hungry and hasty and selfish act of destruction.”

In 1968, 671,000 acres of land changed hands from the Forest Service to the National Park Service to create North Cascades National Park, viewed here from Port Townsend, Washington, during sunset.

The idea of rescuing forests from selfishness also appeared in the campaign to create North Cascades National Park. By the 1950s, the North Cascades, snug up against the U.S.-Canada border, had become a battleground for wilderness, with conservationists split among those who favored the U.S. Forest Service’s emerging wilderness strategies and those determined to see a national park in place. By 1966, Kennecott Copper Corp. had proposed an open-pit mine in Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, a desecration allowed by compromises in the Wilderness Act. Activists pushed hard against this context to strip acres from the Forest Service, which they believed primarily served the region’s timber industry. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash., blazed the legislative trail, holding local hearings in a way that Aspinall found “irresponsible,” according to the local press. Meanwhile, at his own hearings, Aspinall was overwhelmed by the support for the park. In the end, the law signed on Oct. 2 transferred 671,000 acres to the National Park Service, although the critical area targeted by Kennecott remained under Forest Service jurisdiction.

Fifty years ago this week, Congress was able to compromise enough to create two national parks, develop a national trails system and add wild rivers to the National Wilderness Preservation System, all after long gestation and despite much contention and ample disagreement. Not only did conservation groups at times disagree with each other over aims and strategies, they faced powerful economic opponents. Even more, federal and state agencies protected a divergent array of interests, adding layers of complications. Meanwhile, the House and Senate Democrats who led their respective Interior committees — Aspinall and Jackson — did not share especially warm feelings toward one another. Add to this the partisanship present in any Congress. And yet, despite the obstacles, these laws were created by overwhelming majorities — unanimous in some cases.

In recent years, Congress has created very little, save havoc and vitriol. But just as we should not expect consensus in a democracy, we do not need unanimity to legislate. This was clearly demonstrated 50 years ago. Whether the foreign country of the past — the United States in 1968 — can teach today’s legislators or judges anything remains to be seen.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor, and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington.

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