Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Judge John B. Waldo: Oregon’s John Muir

An urgent need of the hour would seem to be, not more land to cultivate, but some change for the better in our ideas. There are educational uses in the mountains and the wilderness which might well justify a wise people in preserving and reserving them for such uses.

—Judge John B. Waldo (1896)

Republican legislator, lawyer, chief justice, granger, sportsman, conservationist, explorer, and scholar John B. Waldo read and quoted Thoreau, Shakespeare, Emerson, Aurelius, Goethe, and Wordsworth. He made twenty-seven summer sojourns in Oregon’s Cascades. From July through September and from Mount Hood to Mount Shasta, Waldo explored and was nourished and educated by Oregon’s mountain wildlands.

Born in 1844, Waldo graduated from Willamette University in 1866 and was admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 1870. In the 1889 Oregon Legislative Assembly, Representative Waldo introduced a measure requesting that Congress

set aside and forever preserve, for the uses herein specified, all that portion of the Cascade Range throughout the State extending twelve miles on each side, substantially, of the summit of the range.

The resolution further stated that

the altitude of said strip of land, its wildness, game, fish, water and other fowl, its scenery, the beauty of its flora, and the purity of its atmosphere, and healthfulness, and other attractions, render it most desirable that it be set aside and kept free and open forever as a public reserve, park, and resort for the people of Oregon and of the United States.

The resolution urged the proscription of many commercial uses, including grazing, hunting, and logging, except for railroads. Resorts would be limited to being spaced no fewer than five miles apart.

The Oregon House approved the measure, though it omitted the southernmost Cascades to appease local livestock interests. (Some things have yet to change.)

Unfortunately, the Oregon Senate, at the behest of sheepmen, killed the measure by bottling it up in committee.

Waldo fought on. From Odell Lake on September 4, 1890, he wrote:

The policy of the government in establishing reserves cannot be too highly commended. How splendid for this age to leave to posterity a resort and pleasure ground for the people forever.

Why the need of a resort and pleasure ground? Because the happiness, comfort and development are thereby served. Provision for the recreation of the people is now one of the established principles of municipal and civil government.

In 1893, President Grover Cleveland established the Cascade Forest Reserve, which today would be most or all of the Mount Hood, Willamette, Deschutes, Umpqua, Rogue River, and Winema National Forests. Waldo later wrote the president thanking him and defending his bold action:

A wise government will know that to raise men is much more important than to raise sheep, or men the nature of sheep; and that this is a question which, ultimately, immeasurably concerns even the purely material interest of men. . . .

Why should not all Americans, with a continent in their hands to fashion as they would, have provided broadly for all the needs of men which can be supplied?. . . Not only fields to toil in, but mountains and wilderness to camp in, to hunt and fish in, and where, in communion with untrammeled nature and the free air, the narrowing tendencies of an artificial and petty existence might be perceived and corrected, and the spirit enlarged and strengthened.

Waldo never stopped advocating for Oregon’s forest wildlands. At Pamelia Lake on August 15 and 17, 1905, a few years before his death, he wrote:

The still woods; surely they are not all made merely to cut down. Let wide stretches still grow for the spiritual welfare of men. How good they seem here today — the untrammeled . . . wilderness, untouched by men, and that never has been touched. Cannot wide expanses still be preserved?

The commercial view of the forest is not the whole view, nor the correct view, any more than it is of most things. We do not live by bread alone. A wise compromise is probably the end to be attained. The most useful things are those which have no utility.

His front-page obituary in the Salem Capital Journal on September 5, 1907, concluded:

To him the mountains . . . were a book to which there was no end. The beauty of the hills was a sermon. . . . The forest was his temple, and there he worshipped.

[I am indebted to journalists Brian Meehan and Eric Mortenson and historian Jeff LaLande for their publications pertaining to Judge Waldo. Full citations of these sources can be found at the end of the chapter entitled “A Brief Political Historyof Oregon’s Wilderness Protections” in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Oregon Natural Resources Council and Timber Press, 2004), where this vignette first appeared. That chapter, as well as the rest of the book, is available for free download at]