John Muir – The Sierra Club and Oregon


John Muir and the Sierra Club have a longstanding relationship with Oregon.  Beginning in the 1870’s, Muir was interested in the forests and glaciers of the Cascades and in 1880 presented three impromptu lectures in Portland after his first visit to Alaska.  Speaking to standing room only crowds, he “talked of the youth of the world, the present morning of creation and the beginning of the work of the infinite.”

Muir hiked and camped throughout the Pacific Northwest in 1888 visiting the Columbia Gorge, Multnomah Falls, the Cascades and Crater Lake.  His essays about this trip can be found in his book “Steep Trails.”  Here he described Mount Hood as the “ruling spirit of the landscape,” noted with concern the “fierce storm of steel that is devouring the forests” and recommended that “a park of moderate extent might be set apart and protected for public use forever” in the Cascades.

The Sierra Club entered Oregon’s historic forest wars in 1896, when the Oregon Congressional delegation tried to reduce the size of the Cascade Forest Reserve.  The Cascade Reserve was four million acres along the crest of the Cascades from the Columbia River to Crater Lake established in 1893 based on the efforts of Judge John B. Waldo (Oregon’s John Muir).  In its defense, the Sierra Club issued a strong resolution “unalterably” opposing the reduction of the Cascade or “any forest reservation.”  This successful campaign protected what today remains the core of the national forest and wilderness areas in the Cascades.

Wilderness protection in the PNW continued to be the Club’s central priority since this defense of the Cascade Forest Reserve in 1896 and its forested wilderness areas from then on.  The center of conservation concern and efforts in Oregon was at the University of Oregon in Eugene and was led by Karl and Ruth Onthank.  Karl was a longtime administrator and then Dean at the University and they initiated many campaigns especially the founding of the Friends of the Three Sisters Wilderness in 1954. 

As the Sierra Club began to grow in the Pacific Northwest after WWII, 20 of the 87 members in Oregon and Washington met at Patrick Goldsworthy’s Seattle home in 1953 to discuss the possibility of establishing a NW chapter and by September of 1954 the original PNW Chapter was established covering Oregon and Washington.  Soon it was expanded to cover Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia and Alberta Canada.

They were finally joined by what Brock Evans called the “nest” of Club leaders who came to Eugene:  Sandy and Bert Tepfer in 1955, Dick and Wynn Noyes in 1959 and Holly and Doreen Jones in 1963.  These dedicated families were at the center of all the major conservation battles especially to protect the Three Sisters Primitive/Wilderness Area from then on.  Richard and Maradel Gale came to the group in 1968 adding new energy to fight for French Pete and Oregon’s beaches.

The Club’s first NW office was opened in Eugene in 1961 staffed by Michael McCloskey (a recent graduate of the UO law school and Oregon native).  Mike later went onto be the Club’s conservation and executive director at its national office in San Francisco.  The NW office stayed in Eugene until 1964 when it moved to Seattle.  The Eugene Group (now Many Rivers) was organized in 1962 and was the first such group in either Oregon or Washington.  By 1970 it had grown to 250 members.  The Columbia Group in Portland was started by Larry Williams in 1968.  Shortly thereafter, Larry helped found the Oregon Environmental Council as well.

The PNW Chapter continued to grow and by 1974 had about 4000 members.  At that time, it authorized Oregon and Washington Councils to oversee activities in each state and to prepare for the establishment of separate statewide Chapters.  These were finally established in 1978.  The Oregon Chapter has grown considerably since then with 5 groups and been a leader in a variety of local, state and national environmental issues.  Since the mid 70’s, the key issues were securing protection for Hell’s Canyon from damming, the “Dump Watt” petition campaign (25,000 signatures from Oregon), passage of the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act, protection for the Columbia Gorge, establishing a Chapter Political Action Committee (PAC) to endorse candidates for federal, state and local offices, establishing a regular and steady lobbying presence in Salem courtesy of Liz Frenkel and no doubt countless other campaigns that still need to be chronicled.  But wilderness and forestlands have always been the Chapter’s prime concern.

On the 20th anniversary of the Oregon Chapter in 1992, Sandy Tepfer (a founder of the Eugene Group) told me what he believed were the PNW/Oregon Chapter’s most “important accomplishment and missed opportunity.”  The accomplishment was the 25 year campaign to restore the French Pete region to the Three Sisters Wilderness between 1953 and 1978.  The most serious missed opportunity was the failure to prevent the Forest Service from building the paved road to Waldo Lake which prevented its designation as Wilderness. 

However, the Chapter’s successful campaign for SB 602 to ban motorized boats and seaplanes from the lake in part makes up for that “missed opportunity” in the late 60’s when the Club only had a few hundred members in Oregon.  Further, the new campaign to “Keep Waldo Wild” is an additional opportunity to rectify that missed opportunity from long ago. 

The early members of the Club in Oregon and the founders of the Chapter would be and are proud of the Chapter’s continuing efforts to keep up the fight.  It is just one more example of what our founder John Muir said in 1895 that “the battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is part of the eternal battle between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”  He went on to say prophetically – “I trust, however, that our Club will not weary in this forest well-doing.”

The Sierra Club in Oregon and Eugene has never wearied in this fight and it is great to see the enthusiasm and strength that they continue to bring to the conservation “battle.”  The Chapter’s history is to be found in books or newsletters but rather in the wilderness that remains.

Ron Eber

Historian – Oregon Chapter




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