pages about
today's forests


The Basic Bookshelf

50-year Harvest Statistics

Backlot Logging Equipment

Vulnerable Soils

Productivity Maps



     This webpage cites historical evidence pertaining to the condition of forests and other landscape features in the San Juans as they appeared prior to and at the dawn of Euro-American settlement. Consideration of the forests of the past can help us to understand our forests today and to project potential forest conditions in the future.

Contents (linked):

1. Pre-settlement landscape and forests (1792-1860)

2. Narratives at the beginning of settlement (1874)

3. Quantitative forest comparisons (1874 and 1990)


pages about
forest history

Yellow Island Change

Lost & Found Prairie

Impact of the Lime Industry

Late 19th-Century Landcover

Bigfoot's Forest (in prep)

Early Forest Composition


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     TODAY'S LANDSCAPE IN San Juan County, as most everywhere in the world, is a product of both natural and human activities. Millennia of aboriginal occupancy in the islands (which was seasonal) must have affected the landcover, but the nature and extent of those influences remains unknown. Later, it was Euro-American year-round settlement with its accompanying ranching, farming and logging that initiated the principal alterations in land use and land cover that are with us today. This process started gradually in the 1870s, accelerated through the peak in homesteading (around 1885-1890), and advanced with varying amounts of serious logging (from 1890 to1930), the expansion of agriculture (1890 to 1950), and residential in-filling (commencing in the late 20th century). Even though tthe islands' underlying topography has changed little, the land-covering vegetation has been altered considerably.

     The covering vegetation prior to settlement can be partially deciphered from historical accounts, although these descriptive accounts are limited. The early Spanish explorers and first traders left no descriptions whatsoever; it was the British expeditions of discovery that recorded the first really insightful observations. The very first descritions were made during Capt. George Vancouver's brief visit to the archipelago in 1792.

     EARLY IN THE evening of June 8, 1792 Vancouver's naturalist Archibald Menzies joined Lt. Broughton in a small sailboat that probed westward from the anchorage at Cypress Island toward Blakely and Orcas Islands. These men had already formed preconceptions about the landscapes of the broader region because they had recently sailed across the top of the Olympic Peninsula, looped into Puget Sound, and then cruised along Whidbey Island and recorded those shorescapes for the first time. So, when they arrived in the San Juan Islands, however, Menzies immediately recognized that the archipelago was novel in terms of geomorphology and vegetation, relative to what they had recently encountered:

"We could not help noticing the great difference between these Islands & that fine Country we had so lately examined [Whidbey Island and low-lying lands south of Admiralty Inlet]. Here [the San Juans] the land rose rugged & hilly to a moderate height & was composd of massy solid Rocks coverd with a thin layer of blackish mould which afforded nourishment to a straddling forest of small stinted pines but I was not displeasd at the change & general ruggedness of the surface of the Country." (8, p. 51).

Vancouver seconded these observations a few days later in his own journal:

"This country presented a very different aspect from which we had been accustomed to behold further south. Steep Rugged rocks little more than barren rock, which in some places produced a little herbage of a dull colour, with a few dull trees. (12, p. 294). In proportion as we advanced to the northward, the forest growth was less luxuriant." (12, p. 315).

     On June 18, 1892 Menzies re-entered the San Juans, this time to approach Matia Island from the mainland coast near present day Bellingham, and he again noted the conspicuous difference in landscapes:

"Here the Shores were rocky rugged & cliffy rising into hills of a moderate height composing a numerous group of Islands thinly coverd with stinted Pines, while the side we left in the Morning was fine sandy pebbly beaches backed by an extensive tract of fine flat level country coverd with a dense forest." (8, p. 57).

     "Straddling forest," "a little herbage," and "thinly coverd with stinted pines" are the earliest characterizations of the forests of the San Juans. Not exactly superlative remarks about our pre-settlement forests! Nearly two centuries would pass before the distinctive forest growth in the San Juans would begin to be understood as the combined result of thin soil underlain with impervious hardpan or bedrock, of uncommonly diminished rainfall especially in summer (when soil moisture is most needed for plant growth), of exposure to turbulent windstorms, and of centuries of occasional wildfires.

     AFTER VANCOUVER AND Menzies visited in 1792, a half century would pass without further Euro-American contact. Then in 1853, soon after moving its trading headquartes to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, the British-licensed Hudson's Bay Company introduced commercial flocks of sheep onto San Juan Island. The company's objectives were three-fold: to exploit "prairie" forage that was easily visible from Victoria, to suppress civilian settlement, and also to stake a British land claim in the face of increasing territorial pressure from U.S. pioneers. Wherever they injected their commercial activities, Hudson's Bay Company agents diligently recorded descriptions of the local landscape into their trading journals.

     Regarding trading operations on San Juan Island, Hudson's Bay journal narratives stressed their half dozen sheep stations and the daily doings of the handful of employed ranch hands. The sheep stations were all established on pre-existing open forage areas (variously described as meadows, prairies, and grasslands), thereby confirming that the islands were not thoroughly forested even in the mid-18th Century, contrary to common misconceptions that the islands were totally forested prior to settlement. (Other popular misconceptions today are that the early forests were "uniform," "magnificent" and "pristine.")

     The largest sheep station on San Juan was Bellevue or Home Prairie overlooking present day Grandma's and Eagle Coves. It was described as "about two miles long by half a mile wide." (11, p. 137). Not far away, in the "basin" of the island now called San Juan Valley, Oak Prairie extended over 1 1/2 square miles (1000 acres); it was characterized by "groves of oak scattered over it" (Garry oaks still occur on the bordering rocky ridges). Oak Prairie was described as drained by a semi-permanent stream (San Juan Creek flowing into False Bay), and in low-lying places it collected standing water in wet winters. (3, pp. 35-38; 5, p. 137). Within a few decades settlers ditched this bottomland in order to reduce flooding, to advance spring planting, and thus to facilitate summer grain crops.

     Farther north, an open valley of significant size and "covered with a luxuriant growth of grass" lay opposite Henry Island where Mitchell Bay Road is today. (11, p. 137). On the other side of the island, a few hundred acres of open land near a protected bay was also used for grazing sheep; that bay would soon be called Friday's Harbor, after the Hawaiian shepherd and pioneer, Joe "Friday" Poalie, who was employed to manage the station and who later settled on his own. (7). The exact boundaries of Friday's open land are unknown today, but judging by the pattern of early construction and in-town orchards, the major part of modern Friday Harbor town, at least from First Street inland, probably corresponds to his nearly-treeless grassland (for an extended account of lanscape changes in that area see "Lost & Found Prarie" in this website).

     After tensions erupted over the international boundary (the "Pig War"), Great Britain and the U.S. established Boundary Commissions with technicians assigned to reconnoiter the islands and to file professional landscape decriptions of maritime, coastal and inland features. Because civilian settlement was a low priority for the British, its commission and the Royal Navy focussed on navigational features. The Americans paid more attention to the land and hired local guides to undertake overland expeditions from 1855 to 1860. The U.S. findings (3, 5, 6) eventually appeared in federal publications (4, 11).

     Boundary Commission specialists readily noted that the San Juan Islands formed a unified archipelago with natural resources that were distinctive and diverse, although ultimately limited in their "usefulness" (minerals, building rock, surface water, exploitable wildlife, agricultural potential, and timber). The 172 square miles of land area in the San Juans were judged to comprise about 35% arable land (some of which was timbered), 45% pasturage (also somewhat timbered), and 20% forestland that was deemed unsuitable for either farming or herding. The principal land cover was "forests consisting of fir, pine, and cedar, which on some portion [note that only "some"] of the islands attain great size and beauty. The portion of open country is small patches of prairie slopes, and mountain sides covered with luxuriant grass." (11, p. 132). The area of untimbered open country is unstated but probably amounted to about 5% or 5000 acres.

     Several early observers took note of the unusual combination of open areas and forest cover and also detected that the latter itself was somehow odd, at least relative to more spectacular timberlands elsewhere in Washington Territory. One wrote, "the density of the timber is much less than on the main land and open patches are seen." (3, p. 38).

     TIMBER IN THE San Juans around 1860 was frequently described as damaged and substandard compared to mainland timber, and these conditions were customarily attributed to fire, although with little specific justification. For example, in reference to San Juan Island, "the lumber of the adjacent shores of Puget Sound is superior to that of the island, the latter having all more or less suffered from frequent conflagrations." (11, p. 137). As will be discussed presently, blaming the compromised condition of the pre-settlement forests solely on fires may not be justified. But first let us explore how forests of individual islands were described in those early years, remembering that the era was marked by a strongly utilitarian viewpoint.

     Lopez Island was "generally timbered but none of the timber here is large or dense enough to offer much of an obstacle to clearing." (5, p. 30). The timber was said to be "much injured by fire. There are scarcely any trees of large size upon the island except in a few low and swampy places." (11, p. 142). The island's low topography was immediately appreciated for its agricultural potential. "One-third of the area of this island, perhaps, might be subjected to cultivation, but the greater part is still covered with trees. Near the northern end tangled bushes and fallen timber render it a difficult matter [for traveling]. Near its center is a prairie of nearly a square mile in extent also a small one near its northerly extremity." (11, p. 142).

     Orcas Island was also largely forested, but at least in some places "the timber is not the best quality as the Indians and white men too, in search of deer have, from time to time, fired the forest, thus greatly injuring the growth of trees. Doubtless, hereafter, when the more desirable lumber of other localities, especially on the adjacent shores of Puget Sound, has been somewhat exhausted, mills will be erected on these beautiful shores." (11, p. 140). The dream of water-powered sawmills never materialized, with the negligible exception of Newhall's small, late-19th C operation. (N.B. The remark about white men setting fires requires some comment, if only because Euro-Americans were so few at the time. Who were the supposed perpetrators of these fires? The original hand-written field notes that were later sanitized for publication refers to "Indians and sometimes barbarians of lighter hue." (6, p. 52). The well-connected American author would have known that a deer-hunting party, including Orcas trapper, fisherman, and patriarch Louis Cayou, had been sent to Deer Harbor by Hudson's Bay Company a year earlier and was still active seasonally. (9). The author's florid mode of expression appears to reflect a specific chauvinistic animosity toward the British as well as an alarmist cultural bias against fires in forestland.)

     On other parts of Orcas Island, open or partially open land suitable for pasturage was evident even though fire was not pointedly mentioned as the causal agent. There were mountain slopes where "green grass is found during every month of the year, and even almost to the very summit of Mt. Constitution." (6 p. 52). In addition, open lowlands were noted at the head of East Sound, where, "particularly toward its northern end, are several beautiful spots of [potential] agricultural land." Elsewhere, a "stream of water, after traversing for several miles a beautiful valley containing some very good meadow land, empties into Guerriere Bay [i.e., West Sound] near its head." (11, p. 139). North-central Orcas was "all low land, heavily timbered and in some places swampy." (6, p. 14).

     In a boosterist newspaper account of that early era (1869), the landcover on Orcas was again described derisively: "The timber is of a scrubby growth with little or no underbrush, and is well adapted for sheep grazing. It is well supplied with water, there being a lake and small ponds on the highest part." (10).

     The Boundary Commission reports described the forests of Shaw Island as young and inferior, although fire was not specifically mentioned as a causal factor. "The timber, consisting of fir and cedar, is small and scattered. Valleys are small and generally very swampy, and are rendered almost impassable by thorny bushes everywhere heaped up in tangled masses." (11, p. 150). Many such remarks about inundated wetlands and streams derived from reconnaissances conducted in late winter months when the ground water level was of course high, soils were saturated, and temporary streams were running. Significant seasonal variations were not yet much appreciated. In earlier times small-diameter trees were dismissed as young trees, whereas it is now appreciated (at least among discerning observers) that small-diameter trees are a hallmark of poor growing conditions in our forests.

     Waldron Island in the 1860s was recognized as having a low-lying western half covered in forest except for a "small grassy prairie containing about 100 acres" and a hilly eastern half that contained "much good grass." (11, p. 138). The forests of Blakely Island were described as "much injured by frequent fires, and for this reason there are no inducements for lumbermen." (11, p. 141); grass flourished on the mountain slopes. On Decatur Island "there is much good cedar timber, which growing in the low and moist lands, has escaped the repeated fires which have swept through the forest." (11, p. 141).

     REPEATED REFERENCES TO fires in descriptions of local forests from the mid-1800s are compelling, but they require modern scrutiny. Early observers unthinkingly attributed "reduced" forests to destruction by fires, but they were insensitive to other, probable causal explanations. It is now known by forest scientists that a wide assortment of stressful environmental factors also reduce forest growth. In the San Juans, for instance, the anomalous lack of rainfall and the glacier-derived clayey soils conspire to produce destructive extremes of soil moisture, that is too much in winter and too little in summer for healthy forest growth.

     One hundred forty years ago (and persisting today in many circles) the determining roles of geology and local climate for forest growth were not well understood. However, in a moment of prescient insight, George Davidson, who was later a celebrated coastal surveyor and scientist, and who in 1855 visited the San Juans, observed: "The soil is scarce and poor, and very dry during the summer. The islands generally are covered with a thick growth of Oregon pine [meaning the drought-resistant Douglas-fir], other kinds of wood being exceptional." (4, p. 177). His comments along this vein reveal that he connected reduced forest growth with stressful environmental conditions.

     TO CONCLUDE THIS overview, the pre-settlement forests of San Juan County were contemporaneosly described as stunted, sparse, and damaged by fire. A few decades later at the dawn of settlement the forests were described as highly varied and over-crowded (see Section II). These early reports are historically invaluable, yet they contain cultural biases and suppositions that are sometimes hard to reconcile with modern views. For example, in historical accounts fire is always portrayed as a regretable agent of unmitigated forest destruction; the implied assumption was that, without a long history of fires, local forests would have been much more majestic than they actually were. Furthermore, early observers occasionally expressed confidence that, once settlers arrived to prevent fires, bountiful forests comparable to those of the mainland would spring back and that a vibrant timber-cutting industry would soon follow.

     Such optimistic expectations were (and remain) unrealistic, because forest growth in the San Juans is intrinsically much reduced and retaded compared to mainland forests. It is more appropriate to realize that slow forest growth in the San Juans is governed by inherent and unremitting ecological constraints. Furthermore, in the absence of enlightened forest management and truly judicious tree cutting, frequent and low-intensity underburning could have actually benefited forest health and stocking density. Sometimes such fires in pre-settlement times were aided by local native people, but even then the practice was likely very limited in scope and timing. Over millennia, however, wildfires surely occurred and influenced our forests.

     Despite many presumptions, direct evidence of extensive prehistoric landscape fires in the San Juan Islands is lacking. The early reports offer little or no concrete evidence of forest-destroying fires, such as extensive stands of severely blackened or fire-killed trees. In retrospect, it seems possible that early Euro-American observers in many cases confused evidence of intentional, low-intensity underburning (i.e., not forest-destroying fires) by native people with the specter of destructive, out-of-control, and high-intensity wildfires. Even today many old stumps and trunks are somewhat charred by fire, but these do not necessarily signify that forest fires in times past were particularly intense or destructive; furthermore, logged sites were formerly burned to reduce slash, so such remnant signs of fire are more likely post- rather than pre-settlement.

     On the other hand, it would be inaccurate the deny that fires occurred. Recent study has detected highly localized evidence of stand-replacing fires in a few places. Severe but restricted fires did occur in parts of British Camp on San Juan Island in 1715-1725 and around 1775 (9, p. 4). Major fires also occurred on Yellow Island every several decades or so (8), probably when more frequent and intentional low-intensity burns associated with camas harvesting by native people escaped control. The larger point here is that, inevitably, the actual fire-return regime on any given site will remain uncertain and imprecise without additional data, and until then early assertions about fires in San Juan County should be interpreted with great care.

     Although early reporters noticed "deficiencies" in the forests of the San Juans, they probably missed the main contributing factors because they lacked sophisticated ecological knowledge. They could not have known that forest productivity in the archipelago is inherently low, regardless of the fire regime, due to negatively reinforcing limitations of soil fertility, poor winter drainage, severe summer drought, shallow rooting depth, destructive winds, and even aerosol sea-salt. Modern insights into the ecology of forest growth and the consequences of various disturbance regimes allow us to reconsider with somewhat greater clarity the conclusions and perspectives of earlier commentators. Their unedited comments, however, invite the imagination to dip backward into local environmental history and to develop an open-minded quest for factual information before leaping to unsubstantiated presumptions.


1. Agee, James K. (1984). Historic landscapes of San Juan Island National Historical Park. CPSU/UW 84-2. On file in San Juan Island National Historical Park, American Camp Visitor's Center.

2. Agee, James K. and Peter Dunwiddie (1984). Recent forest development on Yellow Island, San Juan County, WA. Can. J. Bot. 62, 2074-2080.

3. Custer, Henry (1859). "Report [to the U.S. Boundary Commission] of Henry Custer, Assistant, of a reconnaissance of San Juan Island, and the Saturna Group. April 11, 1859. On file in San Juan National Historical Park, American Camp Visitor's Center.

4. Davidson, George (1855). Report to the Superintendent, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Appendix No. 26.

5. Gibbs, George (1859). "Report of George Gibbs, Geologist, of a Geological Reconnaissance of Islands of the Haro Archipelago." Transcription of original in National Archives in San Juan Island National Historical Park, American Camp Visitor's Center.

6. Kennerly, C.B.R. (1860). "Report [to the U.S. Boundary Commission] of Dr. C.B.R. Kennerly, Surgeon and Naturalist, of a reconnaissance of San Juan Island, and the Saturna Group. April 11, 1859." On file in San Juan Island National Historical Park, American Camp Visitor's Center.

7. Koppel, T. (1995) Kanaka: The Untold Story of the Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.Whitecap Books, Vancouver, B.C.

8. Menzies, Archibald (1792). Menzies' Journal of Vancouver's Voyage. Edited by C.F. Newcombe. Provincial Archives of British Columbia. 5 (1923).

9. Richardson, David (1971). Pig War Islands: The San Juans of Northwest Washington. Orcas Publishing Co., Eastsound, WA

10. Territorial Republican, May 17, 1869, p. 1.

11. U.S. Congress (1867). "The Island of San Juan." Executive Document No. 29. Senate, 40th Congress, 2nd Session. Report of the Secretary of State. Washington, DC.

12. Vancouver, George (1798). Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World (1790-1796). Reprinted 1967, Da Capo Press, NY. Vol. 1.


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     The first thorough survey in San Juan County was conducted by the federal General Land Office (today's Bureau of Land Management) in the autumn of 1874, which was a mere two years after the international boundary was resolved and before any significant settlement. Though by no means free from surveying errors, the 1874 GLO survey identified all townships and sections (36 and 1 square miles, respectively). The GLO surveyed section and township lines (1 and 6 miles apart, respectively), monumented section corners, measured and recorded witness trees, and commented upon the character and "useful" potential of the land and its vegetation cover.

     T.M. Reed, J.T. Sheets and J.M. Whitworth were the contract surveyors who produced the 1874 GLO survey of the San Juans. After surveying a township, these professional s described its landscape in brief narrative form. Conforming to the utilitarian directives underlying the rectangular survey, the surveyors summarized each township in terms of agricultural and pastoral potential, and exploitable timber and mineral resources. Upland forestland in the San Juans is most often described as range land suitable for pasturing sheep and goats, which indicates a certain openness, as compared to dense forest.

     References to the islands' forests are brief and rarely complimentary. The most frequently repeated terms are "young fir thicket" and "thicket of young pine and fir." "Open timber" is rarely mentioned, and hardly ever did the surveyors gush with enthusiasm. The descriptive narratives were necessarily quite superficial but they do reveal an attempt at accuracy and objectivity. The surveyors measured, pinpointed and identified more than 2000 witness trees in the GLO survey, and those data are presented, in part, in Section 3 of this chapter.

     The GLO field notes of 1874 confirm the existence of numerous lowland open areas within a generally forested matrix. By that date pre-existing openings were already largely claimed by settling farmers and were fenced; the settlers did not create such clearings by actively cutting away the forest, they were already in existence. Many of the openings were identified as "swamps" or other wetlands but others were cited as prairies, pastures or fields. Some of these areas coincided with low areas and others were on bench lands and hillsides. Between the 1860s and 1874 limited settlement was becoming evident, but time of occupancy was brief and the population was still very small (there were only 93 men in the entire county in 1870). So few Euro-Americans would not have produced profound changes upon the forested landscape by 1874, when the GLO survey wrote their desciptions, especially since the settlers were primarily preoccupied with farming and ranching the pre-existing openings, rather than logging (an arduous activity that had not yet acquired any commercial reward). Although small-scale tree cutting had begun in order to produce such items as locally used fuel wood, fence rails, shakes, and poles, no appreciable logging had yet begun.The GLO survey of 1874 thus predates logging in the San Juans by about 20 years, and therefore the following passages are impressions of the pre-settlement land-cover conditions in the San Juans before much had been changed as a result of settlement.


Township 37 North, Range 1 West (NE Orcas Island)

     "This township may be said to be chiefly the top, sides and base of Mt. Constitution, which is 2400 ft. in height. There are many settlers living along the beach and good gardens and nurseries, the fruit being very fine.
     The whole township affords excellent pasture for sheep, of which there are many.
     There is a limestone quarry on the island just west of this Township which has been in operation many years, and affords excellent lime. There are also doubtless other quarries of the same kind in this Township, not lying on the water."
J.T. Sheets, Sept. 30, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 218.

Township 37 North, Range 1 East (Pt. Lawrence, Orcas Island)

     "This small fractional Township on the extreme Eastern end of Orcas Island is rocky & fit only for sheep pasture, for which it is used." J.T. Sheets, Sept. 30, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 218.

9th Standard Parallel through Ranges 2 & 3 West

     "Orcas Island, through which this standard runs, is high & mountainous, but has many good claims & settlers. The hills afford excellent pasture for sheep, of which there are many on the Island." J.T. Sheets, Aug. 31, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 240.

Township 36 North, Range 1 West (Olga and Doebay, Orcas Island)

     "This township is hilly & mountainous but contains some pieces of first rate land & Six or Seven settlers. The hill land is good for sheep of which there are many on the island." J.T. Sheets, Sept. 5, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 257.

Township 36 North, Range 2 West (Orcas and Deer Harbor, Orcas Island)

     "This township, like the west of the Island, is hilly & rocky but there are many good claims and the Island is especially adapted for sheep." J.T. Sheets, Sept. 15, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 271.

Township 37 North, Range 2 West (NW Orcas Island)

     "This Township is less mountainous and contains more settlers than any other [of the] island. West of what is known as Buck Bay [East Sound] are several fine farms and on the East side of Buck Bay is a lime stone quarry which affords excellent lime." J.T. Sheets, Oct. 10, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 321.

Township 36 North, Range 3 West (SW Orcas Island)

     "This fractional Township is a high tongue of land affording a pasture for stock but with little arable land. There are many sheep on it & this is its only value." J.T. Sheets, Oct., 12, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 327.


Township 34 North, Range 3 West (S. San Juan Island)

     "The larger part of this Township is prairie land of which the soil is sandy & of very good quality.
     Scattered over the prairie are small groves of alder, willow and pine.
The northern part of the township is timbered with fir, pine, alder & willow. The land is all claimed by settlers & the U.S. Garrison, which is situated in Sec. 2 & 11.
     San Juan Village is situated in Sec. 1 on the shores of Griffin Bay. It is composed of about a dozen houses among which is a large store, also a hotel. In the southern part of sec. 12 there is a large spring of fine fresh water affording a full supply, during all seasons of the year."
J.M. Whitworth, Aug. 28, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 48.

Township 35 North, Range 3 West (Central San Juan Island)

     "A fair proportion of this Tp. is good agricultural land situated principally in a bed or valley running N. & S. through the Township.
     The land is for the most part claimed & already occupied, having been converted into valuable & thrifty appearing farms. The Western & Northwestern part of the Tp. is high, broken & mountainous, the balance is rolling & more or less hilly.
     The timber is chiefly fir & in the low lands alder of moderate size growth. The fir is pretty equally distributed excepting of course on the parts noted as prairie.
     The settlers besides farming to a moderate extent are engaged in sheep raising for which the high lands are admirably adapted.
     The coast lines lying in this Township are usually rocky & rough."
T.M. Reed, Oct. 20, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 80.

Township 35 North, Range 4 West (W-central San Juan Island)

[The summary for this township is missing from the record. However, the GLO field notes contain more localized summaries for each mile-long section boundary. These substitute summaries are reproduced below; "E of 14" signifies the eastern boundary of section 14 in T35NR3W (which is also W of 13, of course). Due to the shoreline, portions of only 10 sections are included in this township.]

N of 1: Land fair in quality, good for farming purposes. Soil 1st rate. Timber fir & alder.
E of 2: Land passes through open timber & heavy growth of fern most of the way. Soil good in bottom1st rate.
N of 2: Soil 2nd rate, land rolling, densely covered with small firs & pines.
E of 3: Shoreline bold & rocky. Land broken & rough. Soil 2nd rate, thick brush fir and alder.
N of 3: [No summary.]
E of 11: This line passes over fine body of alder land much better than average. Soil 1st rate. Timber mostly alder & fir.
N of 11: Land generally of fair quality some 1st rate but covered with dense growth of small fir, alder, willow & briar.
E of 12: Land very broken. Some scattering large fir timber, underbrush small fir, tasselwood & generally very dense. Soil 2nd rate.
N of 12: Land generally good on West half of line. Bottom land 1st rate. Timber alder & fir.
E of 13: Land mountainous rough and rugged in places bare & rocky. Soil 3rd rate. Except in alder bottom, which is first class. Timber fir & alder. Underbrush same.
N of 13: Land broken. Soil variable in swale & bottom 1st rate, balance 3rd rate. Timber fir & alder. Underbrush same & very dense.
E of 14: Land rough & rocky. Soil 2nd rate. Timber fir, cedar, alder & pine. Underbrush, same with gooseberry & rosebriars.
N of 14: Soil 3rd rate. Land very broken. Timber fir & alder. Underbrush the same.
E of 23: Land rough & rocky over beds or ledges of limestone. 3rd rate soil. Timber principally fir scattering underbrush same.
N of 23: [No summary.]
N of 24: Land very broken & mountainous. Soil light, second rate. Timber mostly fir, some willow & alder.
E of 24: Land hilly & generally rocky. Soil 2nd rate, good grazing for sheep.
E of 24: This line passes over little land for cultivation: a small tract around Trout lake being the only soil cultivable. The remainder is rocky & mountainous also brushy. Numerous herds of sheep & goats roam & inhabit these mountain wilds.
E of 25: Land steep mountainside descending from Mt. Dallas, mostly rough & rocky. Soil 2nd rate. The shore line bold and rocky.
N of 25: Line runs over southern slope of Mt. Dallas. Land rocky. Soil 2nd rate.
T.M. Reed, Sept. 24-26, 1874, GLO Field Notes, pp.148-154.

Township 36 North, Range 3 West (NE San Juan Island)

     "Relating principally to that part of the Township situated on San Juan Island as the other small islands have been described in order. The quality of the land in this township is considerable below the common average. There is a small portion of good rich agricultural land situated in small detached swamps and alder bottoms of moderate extent. The uplands are generally rolling and quite rocky and in the southern part of the township very much broken. They are well adapted for ranges for sheep and goats.
     The shorelines of San Juan and Spieden channels and of Rocky Bay are very rocky and rough. The rock is chiefly of a metamorphic nature. The lime stone ledges that that have been noted are small and rather impure.
     Timber is chiefly fir and near the north end of San Juan Island cedar of fine quality."
J.M. Whitlock, Sep. 28, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 130.

Township 36 North, Range 4 West (San Juan, Henry and Pearl Islands)

     "The quality of the land over which the foregoing surveys have extended will average about 2nd rate, much of it is very broken and rocky, the cultivatable land being confined to the valleys which are small and narrow. Timber principally fir and alder." T.M. Reed, Oct. 15, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 174.


Township 35 North, Range 2 West (N. Lopez Island and Pear Pt./Turn Pt., San Juan Island)

     "The quality of the land in this Township, particularly on Lopez island, is considerably above the common average. There is upon that Island a large proportion of rich bottom land covered with fern & alder. A large portion of this land still remains unclaimed. The choicest parts, however, are already occupied by settlers & in some instances, have been converted into valuable & thriving farms. The uplands are generally rolling 2nd & 3rd rate land, chiefly adapted for stock range.
     Timber chiefly fir, cedar, alder & willow. The cedar occurs principally near the northern part of the island, the other varieties are pretty equally distributed."
J.M. Whitworth, Nov. 20, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 118.

Township 34 North, Range 2 West (SW Lopez Island)

     "A fair proportion of the land in this Tp. is fern & alder bottom & is of a good rich nature, well adapted for agricultural purposes. The greater part of this land is already claimed. The uplands are generally rocky & rolling, valuable only for grazing purposes. The timber is chiefly fir with some alder, cedar, spruce & laurel which is equally distributed. The coast of that part of the island embraced in this Tp. is generally rocky & broken." J.M. Whitworth, Nov. 2, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 97.


Township 35 North, Range 2 West (S. Shaw Island)

     "The land in this Township is generally second rate soil with small pieces of good land. It is best fitted for sheep pasture." J.T. Sheets, Nov. 1, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 223.

Township 36 North, Range 2 West (Shaw Island)

     "This Township comprises the greater portion of Shaws Island. There are some twelve settlers on the Island which contains sufficient land for small farms, but the larger portion is only fit for sheep pasture." J.T. Sheets, Oct. 30, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 307.


Township 37North, Ranges 2/3 West

     "The quality of land in fractional Secs. 11, 14, 15 and West 1/2 of 12 is 1st rate, and all the settlers are located on the above named sections.

     The balance of the Island is broken, hilly and covered with a dense growth of timber, and undergrowth and is unfit for cultivation." J.T. Sheets, April 18, 1878. GLO Field Notes, p. 232.


Townships 35/36 North, Range 1 West (Blakely Island)

     "This island is high, rough & mountainous and contains but a small proportion of land suitable for farming. There are two settlers on the island making considerable improvements and other pretensions toward farming. Two fine small lakes occur in the central portion of the Island around which are small tracts of good arable lands. Some fine bodies of good timber are found in various portions of the Island. The island is generally thickly overgrown with young fir and cedar. Deer & quail abound." T.M. Reed, Oct. 2, 1875. GLO Field Notes, p. 282.


Township 35 North, Range 1 West (Decatur Island)

     "Decatur Island contains a very considerable portion of good agricultural land at least two thirds being very productive, although then northern part is somewhat mountainous & broken. Several fine claims have been made, particular mention of which might be made of John Read's claim. Secs. 21 & 28 - an old settler who now has a farm in good state of cultivation. The timber on this island is quite valuable, especially the cedar which is particularly adapted to making of shingles. Deer abound on this Island." T.M. Reed, Oct. 11, 1875. GLO Field Notes, p. 290.


Township 35 North, Range 1 West (James Island)

     "James Island is very high for its size and quite open, covered with good grass but so rocky as to be unfit for cultivation. Mr. Ed Heland has upwards of 200 sheep on the island." T.M. Reed, Oct. 13, 1875. GLO Field Notes, p. 292.

Township 35 North, Range 1 West (Center &Trump Island)

     "Trump Island is quite high and bluffy, unfit for cultivation but very good for sheep grazing.
     Center Island is low, contains a considerable quantity of good agricultural land. Timber 1st quality."
T.M. Reed, Oct. 7, 1875. GLO Field Notes, p. 294.

Township 35 North, Range 1 West (Frost Island)

     "This Island has a rocky & rough shore but in the interior quite level. It is unfit for cultivation although it is covered with a very fine growth of grass affording an excellent sheep range. Several deer was [sic] seen on this Island." T.M. Reed, Oct. 9, 1875. GLO Field Notes, p. 296.

Township 36North, Range 4 West (Guss Island)

     "The quality of land on this island is of first rate, the underbrush and timber has all been cleared off and the island is cultivated for garden purposes, on which large quantities of vegetables are raised." J.T. Sheets, June 12, 1878. GLO Field Notes, p. 324.

Township 36 North, Range 3 West (Cliff aka Brush Island)

     "Cliff Island, containing 13.8 acres, is an island with rocky shores, and rises to a height of about 70' above the water. There are seven or eight acres of good land, and the island is mostly covered with brush and scrub timber. There are fir, willow, cedar, pine, madrona, red cedar, yew, white fir, maple & juniper trees. The undergrowth consists of snow-drop bush, soap berry, salal, hardhack, rose, wild pea, wild currant, spotted brown lily, Indian paint brush, moss and fern." H.L. Coffin, March 29, 1928. GLO Field Notes, p. 332.

Township 36 North, Range 2 West (Bell Island)

     "Bell Island, containing 3.5 acres, is a rocky island about 60' high. The shore line is a rocky bluff which drops down about 6' above water at the southeastern end. It is covered with scattering, scrubby timber of fir, pine, red cedar, madrona, small juniper and scrub oak. The undergrowth is hardhack, snowdrop bush, wild honeysuckle, Indian Paint Brush, blue gentian, licorice fern, buttercup, wild pea, gooseberry, wild currant and some grass. The soil is good, but scant." H.L. Coffin, April 8, 1928. GLO Field Notes, p. 334.

Township 36 North, Range 2 West (Sheep aka Picnic Island)

     "Sheep Island is a small, low island in West Sound Bay lying only a short distance from West Sound dock, in a southeasterly direction. It is about 15' above the water. It has some fairly good soil, and has about three dozen scrubby trees. They are fir, cedar, maple and small juniper. There is very little underbrush, of rose, snowdrop bush; and some grass." H.L. Coffin, March 30, 1928. GLO Field Notes, p. 335.

Township 36 North, Range 2 West (Double Island)

     "Double Island is situated in the West side of West Sound Bay, Orcas Island, San Juan County, Washington, about 400' from the Orcas Island shore. It is really two islands separated by a narrow channel which goes nearly dry at extreme low water.
     The larger island which contain 16.86 acres, rises about 50' above high water, and has a bald, rocky shore line all around with the exception of two or three small, rocky beaches. There are about six acres of good land, the balance being rocky and very poor.
     It is fairly well covered with brush and scrubby timber, but there is no merchantable timber of any kind. The timber consists of fir, cedar, madrona, willow, red cedar, wild cherry and small, scrub oak. The undergrowth consists of wild honeysuckle, hardhack, wild rose, salal, snowdrop bush, wild currant, Indian Paint brush, common fern and some grass.
     There is a hut built of small poles, 8 x 16 in size, with walls about 5 feet high, dirt floor, erected within the last two years - about 150' from the south end of the island. There is also a small plank structure, comprising a bin, with a platform and small piece of roof, at the northwest side of the island where some person has been sorting or sacking broken clam shells. These two structures have absolutely no value as improvements.
     The smaller island, with an area of 4.24 acres, also rises to a height of about 50' above high water. It is a rocky island and has no agricultural land on it. The timber is much like that of the larger island, but no merchantable timber of any kind. Its only value lies in its wild and picturesque beauty."
H.L. Coffin, June 11, 1928. GLO Field Notes, p. 338.

Township 38 North, Range 2 West (Sucia Islands)

No summary. F.G. Betts, 1924-5. GLO Field Notes, p. 18.

Township 36 North, Range 3 West (Spieden Island)

     "The shore of this island, with slight exceptions noted are solid rock on the southern shore, the rock is slightly stratified sand stone dipping at an angle of about 400 to then south. The eastern and northern shore are composed chiefly of a coarse conglomerate rock.
     The Island itself is a high ridge with steeply sloping sides. Except the eastern extremity, which is comparatively low rolling prairie. The southern slope of the Island is bald through its entire length whilst the northern slope is thickly timbered with fir, cedar & laurel with dense undergrowth of fir, scotch plum and salal. The island is chiefly valuable for a sheep and goat range."
J.M. Whitworth, Sept. 26, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 129.

Township 36 North, Range 3 West (Flat Top Island)

     "This Island is composed of stratified sand stone underlain by a much harder rock having the appearance of metamorphic rock with here and there small showings of limestone rock. The sandstone strata dip south at a slight angle. The southern slope of this island is bald while the northern slope of this island is covered with fir timber with undergrowth of fir, scotch plum, salal and willow. A flock of rams were [sic] seen upon this Island." J.M. Whitworth, Sept. 28, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 130.

Township 34 North, Range 2 West (Long Island)

     "This island is chiefly prairie with a strip of fir timber along its northern shore. It is claimed by Jones. Its shores are rocky & rough." J.M. Whitworth, Nov. 2, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 95.

Township 35 North, Range 2 West (Turn Island)

     "The island is rough & rocky. Timber fir, cedar & juniper. Undergrowth fir, soap berry, scotch plum & salal." J.M. Whitworth, Nov 19, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 115.

Township 37 North, Range 4 West (Cemetery and George Islands)

     "These islands are rocky. The former contains a grove of fir, juniper & laurel trees; the latter is treeless, is used by Indians for burial grounds." J.M.Whitworth, Oct. 9, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 144.

Township 37 North, Range 4 West (Johns Island)

     "A large portion of this island is good agricultural land. The island is comparatively low with gently rolling surface. Timber fir, laurel, alder, cottonwood & juniper. Timber is generally open, its southern coast is beautiful gravelly beach; its northern & eastern & western shores are very rocky & rough. The rock is sandstone of hard quality." [This island is] at present ranged over by the sheep of Mr. John Todd. J.M. Whitworth, Sept. 30, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 147.

Township 37 North, Range 4 West (Stuart Island)

     "The surface of this island is very much broken & mountainous with the exception of a small alder & maple bottom in sections 20 and 21. The land is generally worthless except for stock range. Timber fir, cedar, alder, maple & laurel of moderate sized growth. The entire coast is very rocky & rough and is composed of sandstone some of which on western shore is of beautiful quality. [This island is] at present ranged over by the sheep of Mr. John Todd." J.M. Whitworth, Oct. 13, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 147.

Township 37 North, Range 4 West (James aka Satellite Island)

     "Is suitable only for sheep or stock ranges. The land is rocky & rolling and on Northern shore very high. [This island is] at present ranged over by the sheep of Mr. John Todd." J.M. Whitworth, Oct. 5, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 147.

Township 36 North, Range 4 West (Sentinel Island)

     "Sentinel Island is high & rocky, is covered with fir timber, with undergrowth of fir, pine, scotch plum and salal." T.M. Reed, Sept. 28, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 176.

Township 36 North, Range 4 West (Small and Cactus Islands

     "These Islands are low and rocky, are composed of a firm quality of stratified sandstone. Timber open. There are principally fir with few laurel. Undergrowth same & scotch plum." T.M. Reed, Sept. 28, 1874. GLO Field Notes, p. 177.

Township 36 North, Range 2 West (Crane Island)

    "The shores of the Island are very rocky & broken. Timber fir, cedar, alder, laurel, and underbrush. Some level land in center of island. Land second rate, fir scrubby. Island not enhanced in value by location near to any town or village, Friday Harbor being the nearest village of about 30 inhabitants about 6 miles distant. Walter Cadwell has a log house on the northeastern end of the Island with about 1/4 of an acre fenced in around the house and about 4 acres an 1/8 of a mile Southwest of the house in cultivation. Value of improvements about three hundred dollars." E. Vongohren, March 7, 1884. GLO Field Notes, p. 244.


General Land Office (1874). "Surveyor's Field Notes of San Juan County, Washington." Typed transcript (c. 1970), Dept. of Public Works, San Juan County. Friday Harbor, WA. Manuscript versions with different pagination are also available at Public Works and Bureau of Land Management offices in Portland, OR and Washington, DC.

Section 3. FOREST QUANTITATION - 1874 vs 1990
(3 screens of text with 3 charts)

     For a variety of reasons, forests ineluctably change with the passage of time. Some processes of change are natural: growth, crowding, windthrow, disease, succession. Other processes are more clearly caused by people: tree cutting, root excavation, soil compaction, species rearrangement. Still other agents of change, such as grazing of saplings and brush by livestock and burning initiated by people, lie somewhere between the purely natural and the purely anthropogenic because complex disturbances such as fire and grazers can be so unpredictable and the changes so unintended.

     A quantitative comparison of tree species, sizes, numbers, and density at two points in time offers a certain insight into forests, but it devalues (by ignoring) what may be more interesting, namely the causal factors of forest change. Nevertheless, superficial comparisons of two obscure data bases of trees in San Juan County allow a kind of "then and now" comparison spanning more than 100 years. The data bases themselves are different in character (and therefore of limited "scientific" merit, but they are the best that are available.

     The first data base, from 1874, includes over 2000 trees that were systematically sampled on a scientific grid covering the entire county. The data are in the form of witness trees in the first land survey of the San Juans, as conducted by the General Land Office (GLO, which is today's Bureau of Land Management). Because of the early date - only two years after resolution of the boundary dispute or so-called Pig War - these tree data are useful for characterizing the forests at the dawn of EuroAmerican settlement. They were collected prior to any appreciable logging - the total county population in 1870 was only 93 men and the dominant occupation was farming, not logging - and thus the data significantly reflect the late pre-settlement condition. (The earlier, prehistoric condition of the forests remains uncertain; the fairly heavy seasonal residence by native people must have had profound effects upon the local vegetation, but the details are poorly understood; the presence of these people and their effects upon the forests declined abruptly in the 1830s through 1850s as the societies were devastatingly depopulated and disrupted.)

     The second data base derives from a scientific inventory performed by the US Forest Service in 1990. It is based on a small sample of only 600 trees. Although too limited for formal statistics, it allows some objective grounds for comparison with the earlier GLO data.

     This brief report compares the 1874 vs 1990 data and addresses the following questions:

  • What is the proportional distribution of trees by species? This is called tree frequency.
  • How do average tree diameters compare?
  • Which species have more or less wood volume? This measure is simulated by the technical term relative dominance (or proportional basal area). This is the product of multiplying a species' average diameter by that species' frequency. In actuality, basal area is cross sectional area but it mimics tree volume fairly accurately.

     The present analysis omits actual numbers of trees and therefore also tree densities at the two dates. Such density analysis is possible but it has not yet been carried out in full detail; suffice it to say, the preliminary conclusion is that at maturity pre-settlement forests were stocked with fewer but larger trees than occur in today's forests. Even so, forest stands were very diverse in character. Broadly speaking, there may be as much wood in today's forests as in 1874, but the average trees today are about half the diameter and much closer together so that today there may be about three times as many trees as before settlement.


     The chart above shows tree frequency by species in 1874 and in 1990. Long ago, just as today, Douglas-fir stems were vastly more abundant than stems of other species. Comparison of the data shows that the pre-settlement forests had somewhat higher proportions of red alder and pine than now and somewhat lower proportions of grand fir, redcedar, and Douglas-fir.

     The chart below shows that conifers in the pre-settlement forests were somewhat larger in diameter in 1874 than they are now. The difference is most apparent in the commercially valuable species at the far right. Conversely, decidous or broadleaf trees are larger today. Bigleaf maples are notably wider now than they were 116 years ago.

     "Relative dominance" in San Juan County's forests is depicted below. This chart demonstrates that the Douglas-fir is - and was also in former times - the overwhelmingly dominant species. Douglas-fir accounts for three-fourths or more of the wood in our forests; this is because it is both quite large and clearly the most abundant tree. From 1874 to 1990 this important species declined in dominance from 86% to 69%, probably as a consequence of being high graded for its commercial value. Grand fir, redcedar and bigleaf maple have increased in dominance.

     In conclusion, these brief comparisons begin to illustrate some of the changes that have occurred in the composition of our forests over a period of 116 years. Growth, cutting, natural disturbances, clearing and forest grazing in the past have all impacted our forests and helped to create what they are today.


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Tom Schroeder