Placing the "Jesus statue in Montana" controversy in a forest history context

By James Lewis on February 2, 2012

Over the past several months, U.S. Forest Service officials have become ensnared in controversy over an unusual topic—a mountaintop statue of Jesus Christ on the Flathead National Forest. After some initial hesitation, the Forest Service announced on Tuesday that the nearly 60-year-old statue would remain for another ten years. This was met by an immediate lawsuit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argues that the statue is unconstitutional. For most observers, the issue centers around the connection between the federal government and religion.

But the statue has been there for more than half a century because of a special-use permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service. Special-use permits are granted for the use of various forest resources, and are given to scores of individuals, businesses, and organizations throughout the country. Permits are granted for roads, residences, resorts, power lines, windmills, churches, religious camps, and many other reasons.

The original purpose for installing the Jesus statue is somewhat muddled, but what we do know is that it was first erected after the Kalispell’s Knights of Columbus Council No. 1238 was granted a special-use permit in 1953. According to a recently installed plaque, seen on this website, the statue may have been a nod to the area’s troops who served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Whatever the reason, the statue was finished in 1955 and has remained in the same 25′-by-25′ spot since. And—at least for the time being—that’s where it’ll stay for another decade.

Below you will find additional information about the history of special-use permits. To see the citations, please visit the pages by clicking on the links.

From chapter 2 of John Fedkiw, Managing Multiple Uses on National Forests, 1905-1995: A 90-year Learning Experience and It Isn’t Finished Yet:

Management of Special Uses

Special uses include all resource uses other than commercial timber sales, forage grazing, occupancy established by the Federal Power Commission, and the U.S. homestead laws. Special-use permits could be issued for the following uses: residences, farms, pastures, corrals, apiaries, dairies, schools, churches, roads, trails, telephone and telegraph lines, stores, sawmills, factories, hotels, stage stations, sanatoriums, camps, wharves, miners’ and prospectors’ cabins, windmills, dipping vats, reservoirs, water conduits, powerhouses and transmission lines, aerial tramways, railroads, and the purchase of sand, stone, clay, gravel, hay, and other products except timber (USDA Forest Service 1907). The list broadened over time.

Special-use permits were seen as promoting the welfare of individual users and the larger community living in and near the national forests. The permits provided a means whereby any forest resource, no matter how minor, could be turned to individual account if its use did not conflict with a larger community interest and it was compatible with national forest purposes (USDA Forest Service 1913). A special-use permit required a formal application for the use or occupancy of national forest lands and resources and specified use conditions such as area, time, and management requirements and standards. Special-use permits numbered about 4,000 in 1905. They increased to 19,000 in 1915. By 1941, they numbered 44,000. Between 1905 and 1945, permitted uses involved only a negligible percentage of the national forest area, but served large numbers of users. Use permits involving the payment of annual fees ranged from 40 to 60 percent of the total permits issued. The balance were free-use permits. Pay permits were issued where uses were commercial, served industrial purposes, or involved exclusive private use such as summer recreation residences.

Free permits were issued for uses of a public nature, such as cemeteries, Girl and Boy Scout organizational camps, and access roads to private homes or in-holdings, and uses such as rights-of-way that were needed to carry out other national forest land uses. Free-use permits were granted to settlers, farmers, prospectors, or similar persons who might not reasonably be required to pay a fee and who did not have a usable supply of timber or stone on lands they owned or controlled.

During the early 1930’s, the Forest Service repeatedly sought authority to raise the occupancy permit acreage limit from 5 to 80 acres. National forest managers felt that in many cases the 5-acre minimum was too low to provide for the best development of occupied areas and service to the public. Where additional area was needed, national forest managers could issue only a separate, terminable permit. This option was considered insufficient and lacked secure tenure for longer term occupancy uses such as airplane landing fields, educational institutions’ scientific stations, or high-quality resorts. Congress, however, did not choose to extend the 5-acre maximum permit limit.

The statue is on the Flathead National Forest. Trails of the Past: Historical Overview of the Flathead National Forest, Montana, 1800-1960, by Kathryn L. McKay, has a passage about special-use permits on the forest.

Special-use permits were issued on the Flathead National Forest for such diverse activities as cutting wild hay, growing a garden and flowers along the Middle Fork, building hunting cabins, establishing logging camps, running a commercial packing business, and building summer homes on various lakes (Holland Lake, Lake McDonald, Swan Lake, and others). Dude ranches were also operated under special-use permits. For example, the Diamond R Ranch at Spotted Bear was started in 1927 by Guy Clatterbuck, who had been located the previous year at Spotted Bear Lake. Private hotels were also under special-use permit, such as the Belton Chalet in West Glacier (the Glacier Park Hotel Company was issued a permit for this hotel in 1914) (Opalka 1983; FNF “General Report” 1918)

One spectacular summer home was the Rock House, built in 1930 through a special-use permit on the west shore of Swan Lake for the L. O. Evans family (Evans was president of the board of ACM for a time). In 1937, a forest inspector commented that the management situation at Swan Lake was different from many places because most of the land around the lake was privately owned. He added that wealthy people had moved in over 25 years ago seeking privacy and had “pretty much dominated Swan Lake for 25 years.” The ranger tried to protect the public’s interest in recreation in the area and at the same time avoid appearing “bureaucratic or spiteful and so retain the good will and cooperation of private owners” (“Rock House” 1984; 18 December 1937 memo, Inspection Reports, Region One, 1937-, RG 95, FRC).

In 1930 the Flathead National Forest maintained 13 residential permits in Essex, which had a population of 200 at the time, of which 90% were railroad employees. In Belton and Essex many of the homes, and the school, were built on federal land under permit (W. I. White, 1/28/30 “Report on Municipal Watershed,” 2510 Surveys, Watershed Analyses, 1927-29, RO; Shaw 1967:28).

Here is a recent photo of the statue.

Montana Jesus statue

Big Mountain Jesus statue (via Flickr)