Silver Falls State Park and the Early Environmental Movement

By Larson, Zeb | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Silver Falls State Park and the Early Environmental Movement


Larson, Zeb, Oregon Historical Quarterly


AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM has its roots in two nineteenth-century movements, conservation and preservation. Conservationists were committed to the sustainable use of resources, while preservationists sought to prevent the development and exploitation of wilderness areas. In the early twentieth century, it seemed unlikely that these two disparate movements would ever reconcile; conservationists accused preservationists of slowing growth, while preservationists accused their opponents of being linked too closely with corporate interests. Nevertheless, ideas from both of these groups were expressed by later generations of environmentalists, particularly park builders, who sought to preserve natural areas while making them accessible to the greatest possible number of visitors. One place where principles of conservation and preservation are visible is at Silver Falls State Park, the largest state park in Oregon. The relationship of the park to environmental movements was also connected to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

Looking to put people back to work and stimulate the economy during the Great Depression, Roosevelt's administration created work relief agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Projects resulting from Roosevelt's Depression-era policies, collectively known as the New Deal, involved building roads and dams, improving sewage systems in cities, constructing parks, and restoring land damaged by logging or erosion. In 1935, one section of land near Silverton, Oregon, became the site of a CCC and WPA effort to improve a state park while restoring the logged-over land to a forested state; this land became today's Silver Falls State Park. The CCC and WPA's Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) in the new state park was constructed with three goals in mind: to alleviate the economic situation in Oregon through a "make work" project, to repair the damaged landscape around Silver Falls State Park, and to construct a popular recreational area that drew on the aesthetic tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ultimately, the agencies' work at Silver Falls represented early-twentieth-century attitudes toward nature and recreation. Nature was meant to provide relaxation and rest for city-dwellers through scenic parks; if necessary, this environment could be constructed or rehabilitated.

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Silver Falls State Park is located near Silverton, Oregon, in Marion County and today is under the control of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. It is the largest state park in Oregon, with just over nine thousand acres of land. The park is notable for the small waterway that runs through it, Silver Creek, which bisects into northern and southern tributaries called North and South Silver Creek. Several smaller tributaries also exist in the area. Canyons of several hundred feet surround the creeks and run throughout the park. The primeval forest of the area is largely gone, owing to logging, farming, and fires in the region, but a secondary growth of Douglas fir now exists in the area. (1) The forest canopy is extensive, with new growth of timber having filled in previously empty areas.

Silver Falls is also notable for its ten waterfalls, which vary widely in height and in water flow. Five waterfalls are located on North Silver Creek, two on South Silver Creek, and two more on smaller tributaries. (2) The height of the falls varies widely, from Drake Falls' drop of 27 feet to Double Falls' height of 178 feet. (3) The site had been a local attraction for sightseers decades before it was adopted as a state park, with a hotel once in operation there. (4)

Silver Falls has been written about in histories of park builders in the Pacific Northwest, mentioned in public history documents evaluating the historical integrity of the site, and discussed in works by former superintendents. …

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