All Over The Map: ‘Ghost names’ of National Forests in Washington state

A portion of a vintage map (rotated for readability) shows Mount St. Helens within the Columbia National Forest in the early 20th century; the name was changed to Gifford Pinchot National Forest by President Truman in 1949. (USGS Archives)

It was just over 71 years ago when President Truman ordered a National Forest in Washington state to change the name it had been known by for more than 40 years.

On June 15, 1949, this nation’s 33rd Commander-in-Chief signed a Presidential Proclamation changing the name of what had been known as the Columbia National Forest since 1908. The “Columbia” name came from the river, and the river name came from a ship — and the ship name was inspired by Christopher Columbus.

The land comprising the Columbia National Forest had been set aside by President Benjamin Harrison way back in 1893. It was first known as the Pacific Forest Reserve, and later the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve.

The formal re-naming took place in October 1949, to coincide with conclusion of the annual convention of the Society of American Foresters held that year in Seattle. The dedication ceremony took place at La Wis Wis Campground, not far from the community of Packwood.

And what did the Columbia National Forest become known as?

The new name was Gifford Pinchot National Forest as a memorial to a man known as the “Christopher Columbus of forestry,” demonstrating that the Columbus name has a certain way of popping up in United States history when you least expect it.

Pinchot was in charge of forestry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in 1898 during the McKinley administration, and was then appointed first head of the U.S. Forest Service when that agency was created in 1905 by President Teddy Roosevelt.

In this capacity, Pinchot oversaw designation of numerous National Forests around the United States and here in Washington – including the Columbia National Forest, which was later named in his honor. Unlike National Parks, which were off limits to logging and other resource extraction, National Forests were viewed as “Lands of Many Uses,” with recreational use and resource extraction, ideally, co-existing.

Teddy Roosevelt was a great champion of Gifford Pinchot. After President William Howard Taft was inaugurated in 1909, Pinchot only lasted about a year until he was fired. Pinchot had tangled with Secretary of the Interior (and former Seattle Mayor) Richard Achilles Ballinger (who named Lake Ballinger for his father Richard Henry Ballinger).

Pinchot later served two non-consecutive terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. He died in October 1946 at age 81. For the formal dedication of the forest in October 1949, his widow Cornelia Bryce Pinchot was there at La Wis Wis, along with Washington Governor Arthur Langlie, and other dignitaries.

Other ghost names of National Forests in Washington

The old Columbia National Forest isn’t the only “ghost name” in Washington. Other National Forests here also underwent name changes over the years, but mainly for administrative reasons rather than to memorialize or pay tribute to a specific individual.

Washington National Forest
What’s now the Mount Baker National Forest was previously known as Washington National Forest.

The original “Washington Forest Reserve” that dated to the 1890s was split into northern and southern halves in 1908, with the southern portion becoming the Snoqualmie National Forest. The two halves were rejoined, administratively, in 1973, to officially become part of the jointly-operated Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The original name of the northern portion was changed in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge at the same time that what had been the Oregon National Forest became Mount Hood National Forest.

A brief newspaper article in February 1924 detailed the reasons for the change:

“Changing of the names of these two forests was deemed advisable by forestry officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of the confusion resulting from the fact that there are other national forests in each of these states and that the states have established, or expect to establish, state forests. These different groups and kinds of forest areas caused the Secretary of Agriculture to recommend names which set out the principal physical features of each of the national forests. Both Mount Hood and Mount Baker are well known to citizens of Washington and Oregon and to Americans generally.”

It’s probably a good thing the name was changed in the 1920s for at least one more reason: Around the same time, the George Washington National Forest was created in Virginia. In the 1960s, there was public pressure to include Mount Baker in what eventually became North Cascades National Park, but the land remains under Forest Service management.

It’s probably a good thing the name was changed in the 1920s for at least one more reason: Around the same time, the George Washington National Forest was created in Virginia, and it would’ve been confusing to have two forests sharing a namesake. Later, in the 1960s, there was public pressure to include Mount Baker in what eventually became North Cascades National Park, but the land remains under Forest Service management.

Rainier National Forest
A portion of the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve became Rainier National Forest in 1908. In the early 1930s, portions of what had been the Rainier National Forest were added to the Snoqualmie National Forest, with other portions becoming part of an expanded Mount Rainier National Park.

Chelan National Forest
What was once the Chelan National Forest is now the Okanogan National Forest (which is jointly administered as the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest).

In the first half of the 20th century, the land went through a series of administrative changes along with a series of whiplash-inducing name changes that require a timeline to properly describe:

1908-1911
Chelan National Forest was created by the U.S. Forest Service.

1911
Chelan National Forest was divided into northern and southern portions; the northern portion was called Okanogan National Forest, the southern portion retained the “Chelan” name.

1921
The Okanogan National Forest and the Chelan National Forest were combined once again and called, big surprise, Chelan National Forest. The “Okanogan National Forest” name went away.

1954-1955
This time, the Chelan National Forest name went away, and the name, once again, became Okanogan National Forest. The name remains to this day. This will not be on the midterm.

Apparently, boundary changes were such that Lake Chelan was no longer the main attraction of the forest, unlike Mount Baker in the Mount Baker National Forest, for instance.

A newspaper story in the Spokesman-Review on Christmas Day 1954 said, “This change [to Okanogan National Forest] is felt to be more descriptive of the forest and is in keeping with the forest service policy of naming administrative units after the principal natural and geographical features.”

Whatever your favorite National Forest in Washington is called, National Forest Week begins on Monday, July 13. Because of COVID-19, not all campgrounds are open, but many are. For the latest info, check online via the dedicated websites maintained by the U.S. Forest Service for each of the forests they manage in Washington.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.