Checkerboard Map of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

CSNM map

I have a love-hate relationship with maps. Vibrant and varied, an uneasy mixture of organic and geometric forms, maps call to mind childhood exploits: imagined quests, pirates, stories, the buried treasure where X marks the spot. The compass rose and the legend are the stuff of adventure. With the scale, my index finger measures distance while my mind has already embarked on a journey.

In reality, I have always struggled to see how the simple abstractions of maps correspond to actual places. Give me directions in essay form, with landmarks, and I have half a chance of finding a place. But give me a map and I will drive off the edge. I’m one of those people who has to physically turn the whole map to determine whether to go left or right. Years ago, when I was in middle school, my mom gave me the job of navigator on a family trip from Iowa to western New York. We wound up near Toronto, Canada. In adult life, my navigating skills have improved only slightly. Last year my husband proved his love to me by buying me a GPS with a note that read, “I’d be lost without you, but now you won’t get lost without me”; I never leave home without the GPS.

A Checkerboard History

Today, I set my cartographic limitations aside and spend the morning studying the latest map of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, dated 8/3/12. A thick black line traces the monument’s outer boundary, but inside that administrative boundary is a surprising checkerboard pattern of public and private lands: the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument’s federally-owned lands shaded in beige, the Soda Mountain Wilderness (nested within the monument) shaded in burnt sienna, and other Bureau of Land Management lands in yellow, while the privately owned squares are left white (within the administrative boundary and yet apart from the monument).

While the federally-owned lands within the CSNM are protected from commercial logging, grazing, mining, and such, the privately-owned lands within the greater boundary have their own rules, the usual private property rights that North Americans expect. On the privately owned pieces, logging can and does occur, and cattle may graze. This can make life tricky for migrating or foraging fauna that base their travel plans on geographical features and habitat needs rather than on political boundaries on a map.

Looking at this checkerboard map, I think of chess, a game of strategy, and of the multi-leveled political strategizing required to create a place such as this.

Map of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Northern section of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument


The checkerboard pattern originated in the heyday of the railroads, when the federal government wanted to expedite the construction of a rail line from San Francisco to Portland. A checkerboard was drawn on the map, with the hoped-for railroad down the middle. In 1866, every alternating square of land was sold to homesteaders, while the remaining squares were ceded to the Oregon & California railroad with certain conditions: the timber was to be cut for the construction of the rail, and afterward, the cleared railroad land was also supposed to be sold to homesteaders for not more than $2.50 per acre. The railroads, however, did not sell most of the federally-donated lands as they were required, so Congress reclaimed 2,890,893 acres of the land in 1916 under the O&C Revestment Act. Eventually, the Bureau of Land Management was created to manage federally owned lands for cattle and sheep grazing, timbering, mining, and so forth.

When the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was created in 2000, the Presidential Proclamation applied to only the publicly-owned lands, so the checkerboard pattern of ownership remains. Some of the private land is arranged with lifetime leases, such that after the death of the current private owner, the land will be given to the Monument. But for now, and for a long time to come, the Monument boundary will contain a combination of both public and private lands in a checkerboard–and different management strategies will be applied to different squares.

Proposed logging area near Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Old growth groves in land adjacent to the monument are still open for timbering.


After the creation of the Monument in 2000, the new BLM land use plan shifted toward conservation, scientific study, and recreation. Cattle grazing was later eliminated from anywhere that is shaded on the map in beige or sienna, although there has been some difficulty explaining the map to the cows. Privately held lands within the greater boundary are still logged and grazed.

Little about the private lands can be inferred from this map. There is something unnerving about the naked white squares. Their rigid geometry is visually at odds with the blue sinuous lines that indicate creeks, and with the red, green, brown and gray lines indicating different types of roads (closed, open, non-inventoried, and former vehicle routes).

Proposed logging area near Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Signs indicate this old growth grove adjacent to the Monument could be logged.


But I live in one of these white spaces, in a map square numbered “07,” somewhere near the middle of the black-outlined CSNM lands. Someone has penciled in the words “LINCOLN,” the name of our tiny town, and drawn and labeled the “MILL POND.” Located within this box 07 is the former mill town of Lincoln Center, now run as a fall semester college program, with professors and students living in 1930s-era houses, cabins, and a bunkhouse, with classes and social gatherings taking place in the camp’s cookhouse and library. We heat our small cabin with wood that faculty and students chopped from the forest in this white square located within the Greater Monument boundary.

Other creatures share this land with us, without regard for which squares they are roaming through, whether public or private, whether Monument or Wilderness or “Other BLM lands.” A flock of wild turkeys, Steller’s jays, pileated and other woodpeckers, deer, bear, mountain lions, jackrabbits, lizards, and more, traipse across the map as they see fit, according to needs for food, shelter, mating, and exercise. The human-made divided map has little to do with geographical features, or actual animal use patterns, so most of the time the animals and I walk around outside not thinking about the lines–although I do take notice when a “Private property; No Trespassing” sign dangles across the path.

The Abstract Made Actual

Staring at this map, the thought occurs to me that the checkerboard territory with its black outline is an apt metaphor for the human psyche. We tend to think of ourselves as discrete beings, composed of a specific body with a boundary: this is me, that is not me. But within ourselves we are more complex than that, each of us holding little pockets of private land that we ourselves don’t know how to label. Within these pockets, the rules might be different than in the charted lands, the public lands, with their management plans and regulations. Might these private territories eventually become integrated with the rest? Sometimes I think of my life-work as a process of learning to know these hidden realms, of integrating the public and private versions of myself into a whole fabric. When a person falls apart psychologically, is it because of an inability to fully integrate the different parts of themselves into a meaningful whole?

I muse on this idea until Steven calls over to look at the Monument on Google Earth. “Hey, you can actually see the checkerboard!” I peer across his shoulder and look at the aerial and satellite images on his laptop screen. Sure enough, the photograph resembles a checkerboard about as much as the map does. Dark green squares of forest alternate with brown squares of cleared land. Comparing the screen images to the map, it is easy to see that the Monument’s publicly owned lands correspond to the dark green forests, while the privately owned lands correspond to the patchy brown grazing lands.

Google earth Screen Shot showing checkerboard pattern

Google earth Screen Shot showing checkerboard pattern


This might be the first time in my life that an image of the real corresponds so closely to its representation on a map. The reason for this resemblance, though, is not that someone drew a map to perfectly represent natural land features, but rather that the actual land has been fragmented and altered to resemble the map, an abstract grid that men around a table first drew up in 1866.

Over time, I imagine that this Google Earth satellite image will change, and the sharp edges of the checkerboard pattern will soften. As more of the private lands pass into the Monument’s protection, the green forest will fill in again. Already the monument’s landholdings have increased from 52,000 to 61,000 acres (the boundary encompasses 85,000 acres, about 30,000 of which are still privately owned) as willing private landholders have sold their properties to the Monument. Comparing the map from 2001 to this updated one, the difference is visible on paper. The checkerboard is less pronounced, the map more integrated in appearance. How long will it take for the real land to catch up to the new, less fragmented map?

This screenshot will preserve what the land looks like now, and maybe in ten years, twenty, thirty, forty, we will check GoogleEarth and see the checkerboard pattern gradually fade.

Anna Maria Johnson

Photography by Steven David Johnson

Selected Sources:

“Map of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.” U. S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, Medford District. Prepared by Kathy Minor, 8/3/12.

“Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.” Bureau of Land Management CSNM Website.

“Management Environment Analysis.” History, Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management Archives, circa 1971.

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