Timber & Land Ownership

Timber and land ownership are important elements of valley history and are closely woven together. Historically, they have had a large impact on water quality in the Swan watershed and are critical to the future.

The Swan Valley, except for higher elevations, had heavy forest cover from the time of its first use by Native Americans until relatively recently. Areas within the valley were periodically burned by lightning-caused fires or natives and attacked by wind and insects, but Euro-American visitors in the mid-1800s usually reported dense stands of timber. These forests of pine, fir, larch, and cedar grew well in the moist valley soils. Heavy timber, deep snow, and short growing seasons discouraged most settlement by homesteaders of the 1800s except at the north end of the valley near the present Bigfork. Homesteading required the clearing of land, but timber beyond that necessary for homesteader building needs involving much work without reward as there was no market for logs until almost 1900.


Primary markets for timber in Montana came in the form of railroads and mining. The Great Northern track was laid through the Flathead Valley in the 1890s and completed in 1893. Construction and maintenance of the railroad created a huge demand for ties and other timber, and the Great Northern connected this area to the mines in Butte that needed large quantities of wood and to growing lumber markets in the east. In the early 1900s railroads consumed fully 20 percent of the total US timber harvest. Building a railroad required 2500 ties per mile of track plus lumber for bridges, pilings, tunnels, buildings and telegraph poles. In 1910, 100,000 ties were hand hewed in the Swan Valley and “driven” down the Swan River to Flathead Lake. The Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM), based in Butte, used 300,000 cords of wood annually in smelters and at least 4,000 board feet of lumber each day in mines by the late 1800s.[1] (A “board foot” of lumber is a piece of wood one foot square by one inch thick.)

The railroads and ACM became the dominant private landowners in Montana during this period. Although the Great Northern was not given extensive land grants in Montana by the federal government, in 1864 the Northern Pacific (completed across Montana Territory in 1883) was given the largest land grant in US history, including 13.3 million acres or 14 percent of Montana Territory land. For every mile of main line track built the Northern Pacific (NP) received 40 square miles of land to use, sell or develop – twice the amount of land given to any previous railroad.[2] By 1889, when Montana became a state, the NP was easily its largest private landowner.

The intent of land grants was to provide railroads with timber needed for construction and track maintenance and help pay for construction, as well as stimulate settlement by allowing the sale of grant land to settlers or developers. For settlers, purchasing grant land was a “short cut” to the homesteading process. However, the railroads often logged the grant land, sold the timber, and used the profits to buy other timberland. Some “temporary settlers” abused the homesteading process and profited by selling their land to the railroads. The railroads also gained new timberlands by swapping sections of grant land with the federal government. In addition, the NP was awarded land grants in areas where they had only proposed and surveyed for a railroad, but never built a mile of track. Records of these processes are understandably murky, but they resulted in the NP owning about half of the heavily timbered Swan Valley – far from any NP tracks. The NP’s extensive ownership of the valley even factored in the creation of the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area which today straddles the Mission Mountains and covers 75,500 acres on the Swan side. At the time of its classification as a primitive area in 1931, the NP owned 20,100 of these acres, which were traded for national forest land elsewhere in the Swan Valley.

In 1907 the NP sold nearly a million acres of their Montana timberlands to the Anaconda Company at 50 cents per acre plus 50 cents per board foot. Some of this land was in the Swan Valley, which resulted in the ACM becoming a major landowner here. In 1972 the ACM sold 670,000 acres of the NP land to Champion International.

Consolidation in US railroads brought the NP together with the Great Northern and several other railroads in 1970 to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. Plum Creek Timber Company was spun off of Burlington Northern in 1989 to own and manage the two million acres of timberland, much in Northwest forests and still held as a legacy of the land grants.[3] Plum Creek greatly expanded their Montana timber holdings in 1993 through the purchase of the Champion acreage mentioned above.

This somewhat convoluted process resulted in Plum Creek becoming the largest private landowner in the US, Montana (their largest landholding by state), and the Swan Valley – and having a major influence on logging and development in the valley.

With the arrival of the Great Northern and a market for timber products, a number of mills came to the Flathead Valley – the dominant one being the Somers Lumber Co. (1901-1948), which located on the shore of Flathead Lake. Perhaps half of the men in this area in the early 1900s made at least part of their living from logging. They commonly farmed in summer and worked in the woods in winter starting about October, using horse drawn sleds to move logs to the water’s edge. Logs were “driven” down the Swan River in the spring floods and then rafted to the Somers mill, whose main product was broad axe-hewn railroad ties. After the Bigfork powerhouse dam was built in the early 1900s, logs were floated over the dam. A number of logs sunk in Swan Lake and the deeper holes of the Swan River and some are visible today. Prior to 1913, timber cut in the Swan Valley came from private land – ACM, NP, or homesteads – or it was taken illegally from the national forest, as there were no Forest Service timber sales.


Although there were Forest Rangers in the Flathead as early as 1898, the US Forest Service really became active here in 1908 with district headquarters in Missoula. The Forestry Act of 1906 had directed the Forest Service to “survey and make available for settlement those lands which would be suitable for agricultural purposes.” Their 1910 survey of the Swan Valley, together with the market for timber, greatly increased homesteading in the area.

Timber sales by the Forest Service in the Flathead area were infrequent and small-scale until after World War II with one major exception: the 1913 – 1919 sale of 85 million board feet in the Swan Valley to the Somers Lumber Company. This still-largest sale of timber by the Flathead National Forest, covering land at the head of Swan Lake east of the river, was intended to create land for settlement. This timber harvest is an interesting part of valley history as it involves the “Swan Lake Railroad.” From 1914 to 1918 the community of Swan Lake was the terminus of an 18-mile railroad built by the Somers Lumber Company to haul logs from the sale area of 9,280 acres (14.5 square miles). A 42-ton steam locomotive, steam skidder, 16 flat cars, and track were hauled overland from Flathead Lake to the north end of Swan Lake and then floated by steamship and barge to the head of the lake. After use in this logging operation the Shay locomotive went on to others and is now on display in Columbia Falls.[4]

In 1940 national forests still provided only 3.2 percent of the nation’s timber, as the rest came from private forest lands which were being harvested beyond their sustainable yield capacity. The Flathead National Forest’s timber harvest increased dramatically during and after World War II, from about 3-4 million board feet annually in the mid-1930s to 31 million in 1944. In 1955 the Forest sold 102 million board feet – just over half the timber harvested in the Flathead.

It is interesting to note that from 1910 to 1944 Montana lost 26 percent more forest due to insects, fire, disease, and windstorm than to harvesting. In the early 1910s the Forest Service did insect control work on the west side of Swan Lake. The infestation covered about 3,000 acres and the cost was shared by the Forest Service, the state, and the ACM. In 1949 a severe windstorm blew down timber on about 1,000 acres on the east slope of the Mission Mountains, resulting in a joint salvage logging operation by the Forest Service and the Northern Pacific. These logging operations, conducted largely to control an insect epidemic, required additional roads in the Swan Valley. The completion of Highway 209 through the valley in 1959 and the development of a cost-share road construction agreement between the Forest Service and the NP led to increased timber harvesting and road development throughout the Swan.

Timber harvests and roads in the Swan provided employment for local people and access to areas for recreation that we enjoy today. However, they also led to water quality problems. Largely due to environmental concerns, 1984 marked the end of Flathead National Forest commercial timber sales in the valley. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Swan Lake and two streams feeding the Swan River are now classified as “impaired or threatened” for cold-water fish and aquatic life. The streams, Goat Creek and Jim Creek, are impaired by “elevated sediment,” while Swan Lake is threatened. Major pollutant sources are listed in the 2004 DEQ report to be “timber harvest” including forest roads and “private development” including private roads, disturbances, stream encroachment, septic systems and livestock.[5] These pollutant factors were particularly concerning in view of the large parcels of yet undeveloped private land in the valley.


In view of water quality concerns and others involving endangered and threatened species such as Grizzly Bears, Lynx and Bull Trout, discussions about public acquisition of land were held with Plumb Creek Timber Company starting in the mid 1990s.[6] Early discussions were not fruitful and the rising value of valley land for development purposes caused Plum Creek to view selling as more profitable than timber harvesting. In 2005, Plum Creek put 10,000 acres of Swan Valley land up for public sale. The Flathead National Forest was successful in obtaining 7,000 of those acres, but it was clear that a more comprehensive approach to public acquisition of additional timberland was needed. The Montana Legacy Project, a partnership between public and private entities, became this vehicle. The Nature Conservancy in Montana and Trust for Public Lands purchased the bulk of the “checkerboard” lands owned by Plum Creek and then transferred most of them to the Flathead National Forest in April 2010. In total, the Montana Legacy Project has purchased more than 310,000 acres of Plum Creek’s Western Montana timberlands.[7] This unique project is seen as key to the long-term conservation of the Swan Valley.


Andrews, Ralph W., Skid Trails: Glory Days of Logging, Bonanza Books, New York, 1956

Cunningham, R. N. and Fullaway, S. V., Montana Forest and Timber Handbook, State University of Montana, Missoula, MT, 1926

Draffan, George, Plumb Real Estate, www.endgame.org

Shaw, Charlie, The Flathead Story, USDA Forest Service, Flathead National Forest, Kalispell, MT 1967

Toole, John H., The Baron, The Logger, The Miner and Me, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, MT, 1984

Toole, K. Ross, Twentieth Century Montana A State of Extremes, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, 1972

Wilkinson, Charles F. and Anderson, H. Michael, Land and Resource Planning in The National Forests, Island Press, Washington, DC, 1987

[1] Flanagan, Darris, Skid Trails: Glory Days of Montana Logging, Stonydale Press, Stevensville, MT, 2003

[2] Draffan, George, A history of Land Grant Reform, www.landgrant.org Nov. 1998

[3] ———- Plum Creek Timber, www.wikipedia.org

[4] Mc Kay, Kathy, Trails of the Past: Historical Overview of the Flathead National Forest, USDA, Kalispell, MT 1994

[5] —-Water Quality Protection Plan and TMDLs for the Swan Lake Watershed, deqlmt.gov June 9, 2004[6] —–Swan Valley and Condon Community Profile, www.co.missoula.mt, Sept 21, 2010[7] ———Conservation, The Montana Legacy Project, www.swanecosystemcenter.org