John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Chapter Two:

Park planning and development near Sheep Rock

Long standing recognition of this park's significance did not prove sufficient to propel it upward among the state's priorities for developing visitor facilities. Several planning efforts appeared to promise better interpretation and public access to park features during the 1940s and 1950s, but demands on state parks in other parts of Oregon allowed for very little funding in the upper John Day Basin. Consequently, most of the state's modest investment in this park remained in land acquisition rather than development.

Boardman's emphasis on acquiring land furnished one reason why planning and development in the Oregon state parks generally stayed at minimal levels from 1929 to 1950. His pantheistic convictions also played a role, in that Boardman worried about overdevelopment leading to desecration of the parks. [45] In that vein, he saw federal relief programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a potential problem if not given the proper guidance. [46]

Despite this concern, Boardman wanted to establish a CCC camp near Sheep Rock in October 1934 so that roads, trails, and parking places could be constructed in the park. He conferred with Merriam first, concerning how best to approach such development. [47] From a meeting in the field that summer came recommendations for acquiring a viewpoint along the highway across from Sheep Rock which could be furnished with a telescopic finder. Merriam also suggested obtaining an overlook on a bluff near the Mascall ranch house, and one atop a mesa located on the south side of Picture Gorge. [48] He agreed with his protege Chester Stock that there seemed to be little need for further development downstream, aside from where the highway approached Blue Basin and the Davis Dike. [49] Merriam did, however, propose that a simple building housing a few fossil specimens be erected at "some favorable place" to illustrate the story told in an interpretive booklet of not more than five pages in length. [50]

Boardman appeared to agree with the recommendations, but later claimed that Merriam's concern for protecting the fossils from public access prevented him from developing the park with CCC labor. [51] In fact, Merriam suggested that a survey of the park's roads and trails be made before using state highway equipment to make improvements. Boardman, however, limited work to the two areas that he acquired in 1935. [52] State crews completed a road from what subsequently became US 26 to the Mascall Overlook by 1938. [53] Also during this period they constructed a parking area just south of the Cant Ranch and adjacent to State Highway 19. Called the Sheep Rock Overlook, this site soon received a wooden signboard containing a short description of the area's geology. [54]

World War II virtually halted development in Oregon's state parks mainly because the CCC program ceased to exist after June 30, 1942. Planning efforts continued to some extent, and for Picture Gorge State Park in particular they took a relatively unusual direction. Merriam acted as a catalyst in 1941 by convincing the chancellor of the state's system of higher education to charter an advisory committee on educational problems in parks. Merriam served as a member of this group, as he had for a similar body sanctioned by the Secretary of the Interior to formulate guidelines for educational work in the national parks twelve years earlier. [55]

This allowed Merriam a quasi-official toehold in the state parks organization, one which he thought he strengthened by including Boardman on the committee. Academicians made up most of this group, which Merriam named the Committee on Educational Problems in Oregon Parks (CEPOP), though two National Park Service officials stationed at Crater Lake also served as members. [56] While CEPOP's scope encompassed the whole state, it emphasized the Columbia Gorge, Oregon Coast, and John Day region in carrying out a somewhat self-appointed mission. This included developing interpretive material for visitors, establishing exhibits and stopping places in or near parks, and taking measures to protect park areas. [57]

Merriam approached Boardman about sponsoring a booklet aimed at visitors to the upper John Day Basin as early as 1938, but did not begin writing in earnest until CEPOP passed a resolution endorsing publication of a guidebook in June 1942. [58] The committee believed this book to represent a first step in planning for a larger reservation and, if exceptionally well-written, might stimulate visitors to protect fossils and other park resources. As editor, Merriam titled the manuscript The Earth Shall Teach Thee and sent it to Boardman and OSHC members for review in August 1943. Upon receiving the OSHC's approval, however, he wanted to revise the material rather than take steps to find a publisher. [59] Merriam's failing health made him recommend that CEPOP take responsibility for the book, but nothing further happened and it remained unpublished. [60]

John C. Merriam
John C. Merriam about 1935.
(NPS files)

Some discussion of exhibits for the park took place at the committee's June 1942 meeting, but nothing further resulted from a suggestion for a small display near the junction of what is now US 26 and State Highway 19. [61] This idea, however, developed by 1946 into a somewhat open-ended proposal for a museum. CEPOP member Luther Cressman from the University of Oregon intended the museum as a memorial to Merriam (who died in November 1945) and recommended that it be located near the highway junction, with responsibility for upkeep assigned to the state highway department. No further action could be taken until construction funds had been secured and a decision made as to what form this wayside museum might take. One concept involved installing open-air cases for the fossils, though other committee members favored erection of a building that permitted employment of a curator. [62]

Scotty's Station, Dayville
The gas station and store owned by the Cants at the junction of US 26 and State Highway 19.
One of the ideas discussed by the Committee on Educational Problems in Oregon Parks
involved building a fossil exhibit nearby so that the station attendent could keep watch over it.
(photo courtesy of Gwen Valade)

Other than acquisition of acreage around the Davis Dike in 1945, little resulted from CEPOP's desire to secure stopping places in the upper John Day Basin. They wanted road markers to be placed throughout Grant and Wheeler counties to inform visitors about important geological features. Cressman intended to recruit Boardman or a highway department representative so that a marker could be designed and locations determined, but he did not make any further progress on this proposal. [63]

Discussion of how to protect the Sheep Rock area focused on how Picture Gorge State Park could be expanded into a parkway. When Boardman asked for the project's boundaries, the committee targeted a 22 mile section of the John Day Highway between Kimberly and the Mascall Ranch, the latter located one mile east of Picture Gorge. [64] This strip extended back from both sides of the river a width of one quarter mile beyond bluffs which border the John Day Valley. The committee recognized how diverse land ownership could be in such a large area and proposed management on a cooperative basis between public agencies (such as the state parks organization) and private owners. Specifically, they had no wish to disturb ownership of the cultivated bottomlands but suggested that easements might be obtained on other private tracts which could not be purchased in fee. [65]

Boardman, however, expressed his view that the state should own the land to protect it and asked committee members for advice on priorities for acquisition. Although Buwalda wanted an area from Mascall Ranch to Spray protected, he advised Boardman to buy land between the Humphrey Ranch near Goose Rock and the Foree Ranch. This is because the danger of desecration seemed to him to be the most serious in those two places. [66]

Merriam suggested buying parcels within the proposed parkway anytime one became available. This is perhaps because of his experience as president of the Save-the-Redwoods League in California, a post which he held from 1921 to 1944. As one of its founders, Merriam became a cornerstone behind an effort to buy redwood tracts on a willing seller basis with funds donated to the League. Once purchased, these parcels became part of the California State Park System. These efforts had resulted in four sizable state parks and the beginnings of others along US Highway 101. Merriam proposed a redwood parkway to protect and unify what had been acquired at a meeting of the California State Park Commission in 1933, but that body did not take action. [67]

Nevertheless, Merriam wanted to apply the parkway concept in Oregon. After CEPOP's June 15 meeting in Portland, Boardman arranged a luncheon for Merriam to present his ideas on it to OSHC chairman, Henry F. Cabell, and Boardman's boss, state highway engineer R.H. Baldock. [68] After Merriam presented the parkway project as a cooperative one, Cabell asked for a parallel case so that procedures could be studied for applicability to Oregon. Merriam cited what had been accomplished in the Lake District of northwest England through its National Trust, a private charity somewhat like the Save-the-Redwoods League. [69]

Even though Cabell expressed his enthusiasm for the parkway to Merriam, Boardman had his doubts. In October 1942 he wrote to Cabell and advised a slower approach, one which concentrated on the area between Blue Basin and Picture Gorge. Without directly criticizing Merriam, Boardman expressed concern that the parkway's size made it impractical even if an entity like the Carnegie Institution made matching funds for land acquisition available to the OSHC. Furthermore, Boardman recommended that no major development be made in this park until a revived CCC or similar work program came into being after the end of World War II. [70]

John Day Fossil Beds State Park
John Day Fossil Beds State Park just north of Picture Gorge, about 1941.
(Oregon State Highway Division photo #3485)

By November 1942 CEPOP's John Day project took precedence over their interests in the Columbia Gorge and Oregon Coast. [71] This is because wartime made travel difficult and committee members thought it best to focus their energy on only one area. [72] Merriam began organizing what he called the John Day Associates as an extension of the project in April 1943, just as Governor Earl Snell appointed a new highway commission [.73] Once again Merriam's presentation about the John Day project seemed to make a favorable impression on the OSHC, enough to where CEPOP recommended that the John Day Associates be formally sponsored by the state's board of higher education. [74] Aimed primarily at better planning for individual studies and at facilitating cooperative research projects in the upper basin, Merriam also advocated the idea that investigators could function as semi-official park custodians responsible to Boardman. [75] Its membership overlapped somewhat with CEPOP, except that new members of the John Day Associates could be added from time to time. [76]

One of the few projects directly under the auspices of the John Day Associates involved one of their members, Eustace Furlong, who began compiling a master catalog of the upper basin's vertebrate fossils. He came close to completing the project, but a car accident in 1945 left him permanently incapacitated. [77] Less than a year later, the John Day Associates became publicly associated with protecting and expanding the existing park even though Merriam previously assigned this function to a CEPOP subcommittee composed of himself, Boardman, Sawyer, Cressman, CEPOP chairman Ralph Leighton, and Crater Lake National Park superintendent Ernest Leavitt. [78]

As a precursor to protection and expansion efforts, Merriam identified the educational features meriting preservation after his visit to the park in June 1943. Surprisingly enough, the list of what he considered most important fit within Boardman's scheme to fill out an area from Picture Gorge to just south of Goose Rock. Peripheral locales such as Blue Basin and Cathedral Rock had already been acquired, and Boardman later purchased the area around Davis Dike. Merriam, however, wrote to Boardman in July 1943 and wanted more of the Columbia lavas in the park and the Mascall formation's type locality southwest of Picture Gorge. [79] In a separate letter, Merriam also made a case for preservation of some neontological features. One unit included the flora of Rock Creek for a distance of ten miles upstream to a width of 100 feet on either side, while the other unit encompassed a belt of wild roses and associated plants which stretched a mile or more from Picture Gorge to the Mascall Ranch. [80]

Once land acquisition efforts could begin again in 1945, Boardman adopted some of Merriam's and the committee's suggestions with modifications and crafted his own recommendations for the park. Instead of acquiring ten miles along Rock Creek, Boardman supported having five miles. He reiterated CEPOP's support for a small museum at the highway junction, but redirected their focus on a guidebook and roadmarkers to a pamphlet keyed to highway mileposts. [81] Boardman also wanted a footbridge across the John Day River for access to Sheep Rock, something which represented a break from anything suggested previously. Another new recommendation involved building a catchment pond along the highway for runoff flowing from Blue Basin, in an effort to display the vivid green and red coloring evident after a rain. [82]

Boardman's plans for developing the park went unrealized as had those formulated by Merriam and CEPOP. Even so, another attempt to develop visitor facilities followed placement of a plaque by the Geological Society of the Oregon Country (GSOC) to commemorate Thomas Condon at the Sheep Rock Overlook on May 29, 1954. [83] At that time GSOC favored renaming the park for Condon, but Luther Cressman prevailed upon state parks superintendent Chester Armstrong to retain "John Day" in the name because of its established association with the area's formations. [84] Cressman also pressed Armstrong to construct an observation building at the overlook, a project which he envisioned to include a display of features relating to the fossil beds and a panorama depicting changes in the upper basin through geologic time.

Sheep Rock Overlook planning map
Plan showing proposed development at Sheep Rock Overlook, 1954.
(courtesy of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department)

Planning for a museum and interpretive displays went to the conceptual stage with assistance rendered by J. Arnold Shotwell from the University of Oregon. As a result, Armstrong's draftsman prepared a drawing in December 1954 showing a small museum with an outdoor display, viewpoint, parking area, and picnic grounds within the tract purchased from James Cant in 1935. [85] A proposed footbridge for access to Sheep Rock and an area for geological displays bordered this proposed development on land not yet acquired by the state. The OSHC, however, elected not to fund implementation of the plan and it went no further. [86]

In 1957, the first formal administrative policy statement for Oregon state parks directed that they be developed to meet public recreational needs. Concern among prominent Grant County residents that the upper John Day Basin lacked recreational facilities, especially those for overnight camping, drove several investigations by state park planners from 1958 to 1961. Some land acquisition and small-scale developments in Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park followed, but the planners made little progress toward better facilities or interpretation.

State park planner Richard C. Dunlap visited the park in June 1958 and noted the lack of signage and facilities. He suggested a directional sign for the junction of US 26 and State Highway 19, in addition to one indicating "fossil beds" at Blue Basin. As for visitor facilities, only the rest area at Johnny Kirk Spring had a few picnic tables, pit toilets, and drinking water. He considered this site too small for overnight camping and thought that perhaps Blue Basin could be developed, though state property there had to be reached by a private road east of the highway. Dunlap found the Foree site, though not in state ownership, to be more advantageous. This locale might allow for developing a water supply, so that shade trees, restroom facilities, and picnic tables could be provided. [87]

More intensive study of camping followed in 1959 because visitors experienced difficulty in finding a public campsite within 50 miles of the park. Since anticipated use did not appear to support a very extensive development, planners saw the need for what they termed "minimum basic facilities." [88] Their report noted that a site near Blue Basin seemed to be the best choice, providing the additional land be acquired from the Munro Ranch. Despite some concern about the possibility of flash floods (or to use the local term, waterspouts), the state acquired a 22 acre parcel which allowed construction of a new entrance road, parking area, and "limited camping facilities" (pit toilets) by 1963. The state also obtained trail access through the Munro property by permit. [89]

The Foree locality became the venue for another minimum development because of its day use potential. In conjunction with acquiring 69 acres there in 1960, the state also obtained a permit granting public access on an entrance road extending from State Highway 19 to a prospective picnic area. Subsequent improvements at this site included a parking area, picnic tables, and pit toilets. [90]

Planners considered the scope of this development to be similar to Blue Basin, with the only difference being the availability of water at Foree. [91]

A more aggressive approach to planning for use in state parks culminated in 1962 with publication of Oregon Outdoor Recreation, a statewide study of nonurban parks and recreation. [92] The Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park drew some attention from planners who sought ways to facilitate interpretation of the area's natural features. A field inspection by Phillip W. Kearney in the spring of 1961 suggested that the Cant Ranch be acquired as park headquarters. He thought this might allow for a display area to be provided, in addition to a large picnic and camping area between the ranch house and the Sheep Rock Overlook. [93]

That summer a more definitive report by a landscape architect associated with the state parks, Walter S. Horchler, identified the park's greatest deficiency as visitors receiving little indication that they had entered an area of outstanding scientific significance. To remedy this in part, he suggested gateway signs on US 26 where Picture Gorge is entered from the east and west, as well as definition of a northern boundary on Highway 19. [94]

As for development, Horchler discouraged the notion of large facilities because he thought the park could not attract a great number of visitors to picnic nor camp for long periods. Horchler did, however, believe that an interpretive center containing "extensive exhibits and pictures of the archeological finds" might be situated at Sheep Rock Overlook. He thought this location to be preferable to the Cant Ranch because of costs and the existence of plans drawn in 1954. His only modification to these plans involved more landscaping with indigenous plants to soften the overlook's barren appearance. Rather than attempt to obtain an area around the ranch structures for a picnic area, Horchler suggested incorporation of picnic facilities into the interpretive center by means of "extended lanais" which could substitute for missing shade until planted locust trees obtained sufficient height. [95] He thought negotiations with the Cants might result in acquisition of several easements for one or more foot bridges to span the John Day River. From a parking area at each of these locations, visitors might then follow trails to view wayside exhibits. [96]

For a northern boundary of what Horchler called a "seemingly contiguous park unit," he recommended a privately-owned area near Goose Rock. Lying between the Munro and Humphrey ranches, this location left him with an impression of a sheltered cove with its shade trees and rock formations. After noting that the highway bend around Goose Rock opens to a full view of the valley ahead, Horchler endorsed acquisition of this parcel for a future picnic area. He also endorsed development of a very limited overnight camp there and made mention that its proximity to the river allowed for swimming below Goose Rock. [97]

Virtually nothing came of these recommendations for several reasons, with the first being visitation. Although this park's visitor numbers continued to grow at a significant rate from 1955 onward, Oregon's state park system experienced a tremendous surge in attendance during the 1950s and 1960s. [98] Visitation statewide numbered only two million in 1948, but grew to nine million in 1955, 16 million in 1965, and 19 million by 1967. [99]

This recreational demand centered on the Oregon Coast, which had to be center stage when the state parks organization used funds made available by the legislature for park development and land acquisition throughout the 1960s. Meanwhile, the responsibilities of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Division (OPRD) grew with passage of the federal Land and Water Conservation Act in 1964. As coordinator of matching grants to local governments, the division also assumed a lead role in statewide comprehensive recreation planning. This reinforced a preexisting recreational emphasis in state park planning, especially when David G. Talbot (who had joined OPRD in 1962 as state recreation director) became state parks superintendent in late 1964. [100]

Like his predecessors, Talbot desired to keep operation and maintenance costs low. In 1966 Oregon had the lowest park costs per visitor in the country at ten cents, as compared to a national average of 25 cents. [101] Given this ratio, it is not hard to understand why operation and maintenance costs at Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park that year did not exceed $1,200. Expenditures at a park where visitation never exceeded 20,000 in the 1960s reached a high point of $2,100 in 1967-68, but fell to 1966 levels the following year. [102]

Horchler identified education, which had to be inspired through interpretation, as the main focus for this park. [103] Initial efforts to provide interpretation in state parks began during the early 1960s at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, but this program limited itself to nature hikes and talks by seasonal employees. [104] Interpretation at Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park, as envisioned by Horchler and ethers, also involved construction of a visitor center containing valuable collections. In a state where these types of facilities existed only at Crater Lake National Park during the 1960s, such a proposal seemed out of the question.

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Sheep Rock | Painted Hills | Clarno

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002