The Seeley Lake Timber Sale 1907-1910
August 27, 2020
If the early history of Seeley Lake is intertwined with the lumber industry, the rise of the United States Forest Service is incontrovertibly intertwined with Seeley Lake and in particular with the Big Blackfoot Timber Sale of 1907-1910. Historian and member of the Camp Paxson Preservation Board Gary Williams has been researching that sale. The Seeley Swan Pathfinder will be bringing some of the interesting bits of information he has discovered about logging in the Seeley Lake area and also about the fledgling U.S. Forest Service.
SEELEY LAKE – Though the Seeley Lake Timber Sale was not officially open for bidding until May 24, 1907, negotiations concerning the sale began almost a year earlier.
The Big Blackfoot Company in Bonner, Montana, initiated the issue. They informed the U.S. Forest Service they wished to purchase 125 million board feet of timber in the Seeley Lake area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Author of "The Baron, The Logger, The Miner, and Me" John H. Toole described the area: "The timber was mature pine and larch – huge trees. They were located in a high mountain valley, 60 miles northeast of Missoula. The great trees bordered a quiet, jewel-like lake named after the only resident, Jasper Seeley."
Without a single road into the area, the concern was how to get the downed trees to the mill in Bonner. Anaconda Lumber sent the company's general manager Kenneth Ross to solve the problem. Ross decided the small Clearwater stream flowing out of Seeley Lake would be suitable to drive the harvested logs to the Blackfoot River and from there down to the mill.
The company was persuaded to reduce the harvesting amount to 50 million with a minimum price of at least $2.25/board foot. Though the sale was neither finalized nor yet advertised for official bidding, in August of 1906 president of the Big Blackfoot Milling Company John R. Toole requested permission to begin advance cutting to build a logging camp. The goal was to have everything ready for the lumberjacks so cutting could begin as soon as possible once snow covered the ground. Toole stipulated the company would pay at the rate of the finalized bid for all timber cut to create the camp.
Before responding, U.S. Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot sent a telegraph and a letter asking Eugene S. Bruce, who at that time was in Wyoming, to go to the Seeley Lake area, examine the forest and report back as soon as possible.
Bruce was a lumberjack before he became a forester. Or as he put it, "Not many years ago, I was an active member of that great army, who for nearly 300 years, have been chopping away at our forests with an eye only to immediate profit, and perhaps I am none the worse forester for having been a lumberman."
Pinchot valued both Bruce's practical skills in the woods and his enlightened outlook. Just a month earlier, Bruce had published an article called, "Practical Forestry in New York." In it he expounded his belief, "Any system of forest management should have as its foundation the perpetual maintenance of the forest to conserve and regulate the streamflow. The conservative removal of the mature timber should be considered as of secondary importance, and be done only in such manner that no serious damage be caused to the remaining forest, nor should the natural beauty of the forest be marred more than absolutely necessary, nor its capability of natural reproduction injured."
After examining the proposed logging area, Bruce reported back to Pinchot. Larch was the dominant species. With an average diameter of 24 inches, an average height of 123 feet and approximately 12 such trees per acre, the larch alone would supply 5,400 board feet per acre. The next most abundant species was "red fir" now more commonly known as Douglas fir. With an average height of 100 feet and a diameter of 17 inches, it would supply 3,100 board feet. "Yellow pine" or 9onderosa with a height of 100 feet and a diameter of 22 inches would yield 3,000 board feet. Lodgepole's 85 foot, 11 inch diameter trees could be expected to yield approximately 2,550 board feet. Spruce tree density was only a little over four trees per acre and could only be expected to yield 750 board feet. Of lowland fir there was scarcely one tree per acre, so only 150 board feet yield could be expected from it. An additional 250,000 board feet of dead timber, defined as "both standing and down, sound enough for use," brought the expected total board feet to 76,500,000, well above the 50 million yield anticipated from the 5,440 acre area.
The National Museum of Forest Service History has in its archives the Toole letter seeking permission for advance cutting, the letter from Pinchot to Bruce and Bruce's Timber Estimate.
A follow-up letter sanctioning the advance cutting is not present in the archive, but consent apparently was given because "The Baron, The Logger, The Miner, and Me" states: "In the fall of 1906 Ross started great trains of wagons up the Blackfoot loaded with the accoutrements of a major logging camp. It was a three-day journey. Trees were hacked down to construct a cookhouse, bunkhouses, an office, and a shop."
Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson released an official bid notice for the timber sale on May 24, 1907. Copies of the notice ran in "The Daily Missoulian" and the "Anaconda Standard" stating the minimum bid was $3 per thousand board feet and bidding would close on July 9.
On July 9, a telegram from Bonner addressed to The Forester, Care of Forest Service, Washington, D.C. read: "We bid three dollars per thousand feet, on timber on East side of Seeley Lake." The telegram was signed Big Blackfoot Milling Co.
Big Blackfoot Milling Co. was awarded the contract.