If you and your ancestors have cut down more trees in more places than anyone in U.S. history, what do you think about conservation? George Weyerhaeuser thinks a lot about it. He is the president of the Weyerhaeuser Company, which owns 3.8 million acres of beautiful forests, or 1/640 of the land area of the U.S.
The Weyerhaeuser Company owns so many big trees that if they were all transplanted along the Atlantic Coast they would make a forest belt 20 miles wide extending from New York City to Richmond. The company's woodlands in the Pacific Northwest reach from the coast to the summit range of the Cascade Mountains. The company also owns more than 600,000 acres of pine in scattered stands that run 200-odd miles south from tidewater Virginia to the Southern marshes that have never been much visited since Blackbeard the Pirate lived there.
When you drive to Mount Rainier, you pass through Weyerhaeuser forests. Each year in Oregon, when college students take their spring float trip down the Mackenzie River, they float past miles of well-kept Weyerhaeuser trees. The company also owns mountains, like 4,018-foot Jay Peak in Vermont, which it is now developing as a ski resort. A great many steelhead fishermen who take some 350,000 fish each year from Washington rivers fish in Weyerhaeuser woods. Last year hunters shot 14,020 deer and 3,145 elk in the company's forests in Oregon and Washington alone. When George Weyerhaeuser looks over the company's lands from his vantage point he sees an enormously varied terrain in all parts of the U.S. but alike in one respect: its increased use for recreation and some tangible opportunities that presents.
Big as the Weyerhaeuser lands are, they are getting bigger. In May it was announced that agreement in principle had been reached with Dierks Forests, Inc. to buy its properties. These reach from near Hot Springs, Ark. into Oklahoma, about 120 miles west. When this purchase is completed it will add 1.8 million acres, at a cost of $325 million, to the company's holdings. The new forest takes in one of the prime outdoor recreation areas of Arkansas, spread over seven counties in hilly, scenic, largely uninhabited country. If you head a company that buys land like that you have to think about conservation and, along with it, outdoor recreation.
There is, however, another question. What do conservationists think about Weyerhaeuser? Not so long ago the answer was easy. All timber companies were damned as looters of the public domain, despoilers of the wilderness, polluters of the rivers, destroyers of wildlife and conscienceless exploiters who ravaged the country. Nothing in American history so spoiled the looks of the country: the worst modern blighted area of highway junkyards and slums is a sylvan park compared to the ruin left by the loggers. Back in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt laid aside his prepared speech at a forestry congress to let fly with some spontaneous remarks about people who cut down the forests—"Who skin the country and go somewhere else!" he said. He denounced "that man whose idea of developing the country is to cut every stick of timber off of it and leave it a barren desert.... That man," he concluded, "is a curse!"
He was talking about Frederick Weyerhaeuser (among others), the founder of the company, George Weyerhaeuser's great-grandfather. As a full-time, dues-paying curse, however, old Frederick Weyerhaeuser had his limitations. He did not look like a villain, being round, gray, quiet and painfully shy because of his German accent. His hobby was beekeeping. He went to his small office in St. Paul every morning at 7:15. But he did acquire an enormous fortune, and his love of seclusion led to legends. The Mysterious Octopus was one expos� written about him and in Weyerhaeuser—Richer than Rockefeller a muckraker claimed to have discovered that he was the richest man in the world.
He reached the U.S. from Germany in 1852, when he was 18, prospered as a sawmill operator in Illinois and made industrial history when he combined a number of small operators like himself into an organization that could buy logs in quantities large enough to secure a steady supply and good prices. Two years after he moved to St. Paul in 1891 he bought a house on fashionable Summit Avenue, not knowing that his neighbor was James J. Hill, the railroad builder. They became friends and in 1899, when Hill wanted to sell some of the land awarded to the Northern Pacific as a land grant, he offered it to Weyerhaeuser for $7 an acre. Weyerhaeuser offered $5. They compromised at $6 for 900,000 acres, one of the largest private land sales in American history. It aroused no comment aside from mutterings from Weyerhaeuser's board of directors that he could have gotten it for less. The Weyerhaeusers never made sensational news. The sons of the family went to Yale, trained in the small family-owned lumber companies, supported charities, endowed schools of forestry and lived quietly, even by the standards of St. Paul, which were pretty quiet. Then they moved to Tacoma, Wash., which was even quieter. Their forests were as little-known as they were. Hunting and fishing were prohibited. Camping in their woods was unheard of. And the family ruled them from a seclusion as deep as the forest.
It was George Weyerhaeuser who unintentionally jolted them from obscurity. At 11:45 on Friday morning. May 24, 1935, Miss Berg of Lowell Grammar School dismissed her fifth-grade class for lunch, and George, age 9, ran down the hill into the headlines. When last seen as he went out of sight he was wearing a sweater, brown corduroy trousers and tennis shoes. He was described as follows: "Smiling, handsome face, with no distinguishing marks, average height, dark, curly hair, brown eyes." His teacher added: "An alert, obedient and brilliant pupil."
It was reported that George was supposed to stop at Annie Wright Seminary to ride home with his sister Ann, but that was not true: he had decided to walk. On the way he practiced broad jumping. He wanted to be a track star. He ran through the grounds of the Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club and up a flight of steps to the next street. There a tan Buick was parked at the curb, a man standing beside it. The man grabbed him, put his hand over his mouth, dragged him to the car, dumped him on the floor of the back seat, put an old blanket over him and told him not to move or make any noise.
The car rolled down the hill, out of the quiet residential neighborhood. It passed through Tacoma and disappeared into back roads before George was missed at home.