John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Chapter Two:

Establishment of a park near Sheep Rock

Both Sawyer and Boardman played significant roles in building a state park in the area of what is now the monument's Sheep Rock Unit, but John C. Merriam initiated this effort once Congress passed the Recreation and Public Purposes Act on June 14, 1926. This legislation allowed unreserved federal lands to be sold to public agencies for recreational purposes at a price fixed by the Secretary of the Interior. [10] Merriam began working on a petition to the Secretary roughly two years later, making a request that public domain land around Picture Gorge be withdrawn for a state park. [11]

Merriam's fascination with the John Day Fossil Beds found new expression once he left the University of California to assume the Carnegie Institution of Washington's presidency in 1921. As a sort of gatekeeper until his retirement in 1938, Merriam headed one of the few funding sources available to investigators during a time before government grants pervaded scientific research. He capitalized on this position by coordinating a cooperative research program in the John Day Basin through making funds available to a small group of his proteges for studies in physical geology, paleobotany, and vertebrate paleontology. [12]

Visit by John C. Merriam

Visit by John C. Merriam
As president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Merriam orchestrated a number of studies in the John Day Basin. He often combined business with pleasure during visits with colleagues whose research was supported by the foundation. Merriam brought his sons and sometimes met fellow scientists in the fossil beds, as shown by these photographs taken in 1923. From left to right in the top photo are Malcolm Merriam, Chester Stock, Eustace Furlong, Ralph Chaney, and John C. Merriam. The bottom photo shows him pointing to features in the field.
(both courtesy of Lawrence C. Merriam, Jr.)

To assist these investigations further, Merriam approached the U. S. Geological Survey to partially fund topographic mapping of the Mitchell and Picture Gorge quadrangles beginning in 1923. [13] One of his former graduate students, John P. Buwalda, directed the mapping which took place over the next several years. [14] In August 1927, Merriam alerted Buwalda that Sawyer wanted a recommendation concerning "areas in the John Day region most suitable for preservation as state or public property." [15] With Merriam's concurrence, Buwalda proposed that the focus be on an area encompassing Sheep Rock and Picture Gorge. Buwalda developed this further by recommending in a subsequent proposal that two or three sheltered "instruction stations" be built at suitable places along what is now US 26 and State Highway 19. [16]

Once Buwalda completed the Picture Gorge sheet a year later, Merriam outlined potential parkland for Sawyer and other OSHC members. In writing to Van Duzer, Merriam drew two boundary lines on an accompanying map. The outer boundary extended from rimrock to rimrock because it included the area which he thought should ultimately be preserved. An inner boundary represented what Merriam considered essential to the park, and focused on public domain land in two townships between Picture Gorge and Sheep Rock. [17]

By September 1928, the map had been sent to Sawyer in order for the highway department to ascertain ownership. A month later Sawyer drew up a petition requesting temporary withdrawal of all unreserved public land in the two townships Merriam identified. He then contacted former Oregon congressman Nicholas J. Sinnott, who relayed the petition to Secretary of the Interior Roy West. [18] Pending classification of the lands as recreational, the secretary agreed to recommend this withdrawal to President Calvin Coolidge.

The state's application for permanent withdrawal of four parcels totaling 1600 acres (see Fig. 1), allowed the secretary to rescind his temporary withdrawal of other public domain lands in the two townships. [19] Upon the petition's receipt in Washington, Interior officials denied the state's application on part of one parcel, because a tract in Picture Gorge had previously been withdrawn as a potential power site. [20] Sawyer remained hopeful of acquiring the land around Sheep Rock and, in April 1930, sent a short note to Van Duzer suggesting that the park be named for Merriam. [21] His optimism, however, seems to have been dealt a blow upon learning what Interior's General Land Office (GLO) had classified as being chiefly valuable for recreation. GLO eliminated almost half of the remaining 1600 acres in the petition as being "rough and precipitous." Consequently, Sawyer asked Merriam to discuss this finding with GLO officials in Washington and reiterated the OSHC's interest in securing full title to all lands identified in the state's petition. [22]

Merriam wrote to the new secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, about the proposed park's importance even before receiving Sawyer's letter. [23] Two weeks later, on May 31, Merriam sent another letter to the secretary. It questioned the GLO findings and asked for clarification about GLO's definition of recreation.

He defended the scenic and educational values of lands that had been classified as nonrecreational, characterizing these areas to be among the proposed park's most valuable parts. Merriam also relayed the OSHC request for an extension of the temporary withdrawal for the lands in question, so that the state could make another application for them. [24]

Wilbur's reply of June 6 granted the request for an extension. Sawyer's dismissal from the OSHC by incoming governor Walter Norblad less than a week later, however, dampered the good news. Although this constituted a blow to state park acquisition efforts, Merriam consoled Sawyer by writing that a good program prevails in the long run. [25] This optimism seemed at least partly justified several months later when Sawyer contacted Merriam with news that GLO had reversed its earlier decision and now classified the lands in question as recreational. Sawyer thanked Merriam for being the impetus in this process and assured him that the state could now proceed to secure all 1600 acres. [26]

When the OSHC attempted to purchase land under its petition, the GLO transferred only 1361.68 acres at first. [27] Another tract of 240 acres in Wheeler County constituted a separate entry on GLO's deed to the State of Oregon dated May 20, 1931, making a total of 1601.68 acres. [28] In this transaction the state paid $2002.10 ($1702.10 for parcels totaling 1361.68 acres plus $300.00 for the remaining 240 acres) and thus established Picture Gorge State Park. [29]

map of Picture Gorge
Figure 1. The state petitioned for a total of 1,760 acres of public domain around Picture Gorge. Lands affected by the petition are shown by solid lines, forming squares in the sections indicated with numbers. The General Land Office eventually granted just over 1,600 acres of the petition, deleting 160 acres in Section 20 (shown by diagonal lines) previously withdrawn for its potential as a hydroelectric power site.

Next> Subsequent land acquisition near Sheep Rock

Sheep Rock | Painted Hills | Clarno

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002