History & Culture

Indigenous people have played a key role in the ecology of what is now the Gifford Pinchot National Forest since time immemorial. 

Our National Heritage

Huckleberry PickerFor over 6,000 years, people have played a part in the ecology of what is now the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The earliest Native Americans hunted in meadows below receding alpine glaciers. As the climate warmed, descendants of these early hunters gathered an abundance of food and other necessities. Familiarity with the forest's resources allowed larger, more settled populations, and the natives began to manage the landscape for game and other food. One method the natives used was burning areas to increase huckleberry production. Archaeological investigations within Gifford Pinchot National Forest continue to discover new and exciting information about the lives of the first Americans. Learn more about Tribal Relations with Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The first Europeans to earn their living from the forest were the trappers of the British Hudson's Bay Company who came for the beaver and other fur-bearing animals that abounded on rivers and streams. The first permanent European settlement near what is now the Gifford Pinchot National Forest was Fort Vancouver, founded in 1824. By the 1890's miners and loggers were tapping the forest's wealth. Homesteaders and ranchers moved into the forest to farm the river valleys and graze cattle and sheep in the meadows and prairies. In 1897, the area became part of the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve. The area was reorganized and its name changed several times before 1908, when the Columbia National Forest was established.

Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, played a key role in developing the early principles of environmental awareness. Pinchot's philosophy is made clear in his farsighted statement that the forests should be managed for "..the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run." In honor of his leadership, the Columbia National Forest was renamed for Gifford Pinchot in 1949.

Events on the Forest in the twentieth century have been strongly influenced by nationwide developments. Between 1933 and 1942, Civilian Conservation Corps projects were undertaken throughout the region as part of the Federal response to the Great Depression. Young men from around the nation were summoned to build trails, roads, and buildings. Many of the facilities we enjoy today are the result of their handiwork. The demands of two World Wars resulted in major efforts to plant, harvest, and protect from fire the abundant timber resource. Population growth and new perspectives have placed further demands on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, not only for timber, but for other values as well, including wildlife, recreation, fisheries, and wilderness.

Forest History

Fishing, Columbia National Forest, 1937The origins of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest are firmly rooted in the great national conservation movement that swept this country at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1907 President Roosevelt established the vast Rainier National Forest along the Cascade Range in Washington. To better administer these lands, the southern portion of the Rainier became a Columbia National Forest in 1908 when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 820.

Encompassing 941,000 acres, the boundaries extended along the crest of the Cascade Range from Mt. Adams to the Columbia River, and west to Mount St. Helens. Find highlights & documents related to the history of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Cilvilian Conservation Corps 

The African-American Tree Troopers

African-American enrollee, Co. 604, Peterson Prairie, August 1933._USDA photo_279986Between 1933 and 1942, in the midst of the Great Depression, more than three million young men throughout the United States enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Approximately 250,000 of these young enrollees were African Americans. Most CCC enrollees served in work camps far from home, in remote locations where conditions were quite unlike anything they had known. Urban youth – black and white - found themselves learning new skills working side-by-side as "tree troopers" in the great forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Learn more about African American history with the CCC on the Columbia National Forest

Oral Histories of CCC members in the Columbia National Forest

Hsitoric photo: Black and white group shot of young workers.The oral histories collected in this volume are those of young men grown older who once worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and were stationed at the Columbia National Forest 1933-1942. The Columbia National Forest was renamed for Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, in 1949.

The CCC began seventy years ago as the Emergency Conservation Work Program, among the first of Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s many national relief measures. The CCC, was initiated during the height of the Great Depression. The organization would simultaneously address the nation‘s conservation needs, put the country‘s youth to work, assist poverty-stricken families, and stimulate local economies. In addition, it would instill morality, and provide a sense of purpose and national identity to enrollees.

In its active decade the Civilian Conservation Corps put 3 million men to work, planted over 3 billion trees and restored public lands but it's important to note that black enrollment in the CCC was capped at ten percent of total recruits.

Read the Oral Histories of CCC members at Columbia National Forest, 1933-1942. (.pdf)

Early Female 'Fire Lookouts'

Black and white photo of an old fire lookout with a person standing on its deckDuring World War II, women were recruited to serve as fire lookouts throughout the west, and several women from Trout Lake and White Salmon served as lookouts during the war years.

Ella Clark, a college professor who spent the summers of 1942 and 1943 as a lookout on Flattop mountain, wrote in the Jan. 1, 1946 issue of National Geographic Magazine about her experiences there. Ms. Clark described how she was trained at “Guard School”, taught how to use a firefinder and how to put out fires. She had many duties besides watching for fires – the never-ending job of keeping the windows clean, repairing the phone line, keeping the woodshed full and the tools in order.

The 1946 lookout remained standing on Flattop Mountain for many years. The upper portion of it was ultimately removed by volunteers from the Forest Fire Lookout Association and rebuilt at the Columbia Breaks Fire Interpretive Center, where it remains today.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest Heritage Program

Peeled cedar trees in the upper Lewis River drainageHeritage resources are locations of past human activity, occupation or use identifiable through field survey, historical documentation, or oral tradition. The purpose of the Heritage Program is to protect significant heritage resources, to share the values of these resources with the American people, and to contribute relevant information and perspectives to forest management.

To date, 1,596 heritage resource sites have been documented on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest! Examples include: prehistoric archaeological sites such as Layser Cave, historic Native American sites such as the Big Tire Peeled Cedars, and historic structures such as the House Rock Shelter.

A routine part of program activities includes resource surveys in areas slated for projects such as: timber sales, stream bank stabilization, or roadside viewpoint construction. Other aspects of the program include: historical research, collections curation, interpretation, and coordination with tribal groups with traditional ties to the land.

Protected by law: 

The forest's heritage is told in objects, sites, and buildings preserved and protected by law. When an artifact is removed or a site damaged, the forest's legacy becomes incomplete, much as a book would be incomplete if words were erased or pages torn out. If you discover a site or object of interest, leave it undisturbed and report your discovery to the nearest Forest Service office.

Help us pass on the history of our national forests to our children and grandchildren by respecting these resources and answer Gifford Pinchot's call to manage our forests for "the long run!" 


Video Feature: Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot Bridging Environmental and Labor in the Early 20th Century

View Feature