History of Three Arch Rocks

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Three Arch Rocks was established as a National Wildlife Refuge largely due to the efforts of two young conservationists: William L. Finley and Herman Bohlman.

In its pioneer days, the natural abundance of a young United States seemed boundless, and so were the appetites of its people. By the early 20th century, Americans had hunted bison and elk to near extinction, silenced generations of nesting birds to use their showy feathers for high fashion, and drained countless marshes for conversion to farmland. But the exploitation of the continent’s natural resource bounty did not go wholly unnoticed.

There is no clear documentation of when, exactly, the concept of protecting wildlife through habitat preservation was born. From as far back as the mid 1800’s, diaries of early western explorers, pictorial records and reports from journalists, and speakers familiar with the West brought about a public realization that the unrestricted slaughter of wildlife for food, fashion and commerce was systematically destroying an irreplaceable national heritage. Public support increased for more vigorous governmental action to reverse this downward slide.

Far-sighted citizens and leaders including President Theodore Roosevelt and Oregon’s William L. Finley nurtured the seeds of conservation, acting on the belief that America’s wildlife heritage should be protected. In 1903, Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, Florida, and by October 1907 he had designated the first Pacific Coast refuge at Three Arch Rocks on the Oregon coast.

The need to designate Three Arch Rocks as a protected wildlife area was first brought to Roosevelt’s attention by a young naturalist and conservationist from southern California named William L. Finley. Finley and his childhood friend, Herman Bohlman, visited the wind- and sea-swept rocks in June of 1901 and 1903 to photograph its unique wildlife, a feat never attempted before that point. During the first expedition they witnessed a tugboat—the Vosbergfilled with gunners and target shooters, circling the rocks and shooting Steller Sea Lions for their skins and oil, and blasting seabirds for sheer sport.   

In his journal Finley wrote, “The beaches at Oceanside were littered with dead birds following the Sunday carnage,” and his disdain of this sorrowful act is apparent. Finley and Bohlman knew they had to put a stop to this slaughter; the seabird and pinniped colonies could not endure such an assault for long. Bad weather conditions prevented them from getting good photographs of the wildlife on the first trip, but a second trip in 1903 proved successful.  

After waiting out 19 days of storms, heavy fog and tumultuous seas on the desolate Oceanside beach, a fair weather morning dawned at last. They loaded up a dory with food, a tent, water, clothing and photographic equipment and rowed toward the rocks. Shag Rock was the only island featuring anything approaching a landing spot, and it was here that the men unloaded their equipment. Exhausted and no doubt soaked, they spent a sleepless first night at a campsite high on a small rocky bluff, cramped and slick with gauno. Waves blasted through the rocks’ arches like cannon fire; the cries of tens of thousands of seabirds rang without surcease.  

Of this experience, Finley wrote, “We awoke the next morning feeling as if we had spent the night on top of a broken picket fence.”  They lived on Shag Rock for the next two weeks straight. During this sojourn they took some of the first photographs of nesting seabirds, collected eggs and specimens for study, and documented some of the life history of the birds.  

Finley had already heard about President Theodore Roosevelt’s desire to protect habitat for species conservation, and a few months after the Three Arch Rocks visit he traveled across the country to Washington, D.C., for a personal audience with the President. Finley spread the photographs of the wild animals of the Pacific Coast on a table in front of Roosevelt. "Bully, bully!" Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed, “we'll make a sanctuary out of Three Arch Rocks.” But Finley’s job was not over. For the next four years he lobbied tirelessly for the refuge; finally, on October 14, 1907, the President designated Three Arch Rocks as the first National Wildlife Refuge west of the Mississippi River. During that time Finley and Bohlman, along with the Oregon Audubon Society (now Audubon Society of Portland), worked to establish the State Model Bird Law that outlawed the sport hunting of all seabirds. Armed with the new law, Tillamook County's Game Warden confronted the owner of the tugboat Vosberg and mercifully put an end to the shooting parties. 

Today the refuge is one of the smallest designated Wilderness Areas in the country (three large and six smaller rocks totaling 15 acres). The three largest rocksFinley, Middle, and Shagprovide habitat for thousands of nesting seabirds. Seal Rock, on the east side of the refuge, is the only pupping site on Oregon's north coast for the federally threatened Steller Sea Lion. Measuring 10 feet in length and weighing up to 2,000 pounds, the Steller Sea Lion is the larger of the two sea lions found on the Oregon coast.

A full century after formal protection, the rocks continue to provide breeding habitat for Common Murre, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, Leach’s Storm-petrel, Brandt's Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Rhinoceros Auklet, Cassin’s Auklet, Pigeon Guillemot, Western Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull and Black Oystercatcher.