Trouble in Timber Town

A way of life is being torn up by the roots, while the rest of the nation vilifies logging practices.

By Sandra Hines

Photo by Sandra Hines.

"I hate 'em. The whole damn logging industry should come down with a rare form of cancer. ... They're murdering. They've got a plan. They're not even wasting their time with the second growth. They've got that. They want to have all the old growth cut before anybody can stop 'em. They're ignorant, and they've got to learn a different way of life," declared wilderness photographer Art Wolfe in the August Backpacker magazine.

A recent illustration in Defenders magazine shows a Forest Service ranger battling with his conscience--a cartoon angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. Only this point-tailed devil is wearing a plaid shirt and calk boots. Clutched in one hand, a pitch fork--in the other, a chain saw.

Vilification of loggers is widespread. Protests range from radical "tree spiking" by groups such as Earth First! to editorial cartoons and commentaries found in the mainstream media.

"Loggers are characterized as primitive, overweight, beer-drinking, not-so-intelligent laborers with little regard for the future," notes Robert Lee, professor with the UW College of Forest Resources. "Such stereotyping is a classic form of blaming the victim. It dehumanizes people and justifies actions to remove them from their jobs and the land.

"After all, they are considered 'bad people' who deserve to suffer."

These feelings are turning white-hot as the debate about preserving old-growth forests heats up. Earlier this year, an interagency scientific committee appointed by the federal government issued what is known as the Jack Ward Thomas report. That report said millions of acres now open to logging in Washington, Oregon and northern California--much of it old growth--must be preserved if the spotted owl is to survive. The owl was listed as a threatened species June 22, requiring the government to take steps to protect it.

A government report estimated that 28,000 jobs could be lost in the region. Timber industry estimates have ranged from 102,000 to 150,000. Whatever the actual totals, the disruption in human lives and the social and political costs of softening the blow can be substantially reduced--if there is a greater sensitivity to how people are affected, Lee says. Unfortunately, just the opposite appears to be happening.

Contrast this to the outpouring of feeling for family farmers when an economic buzz saw hit them in the early '80s. No rock bands are planning concerts to raise money to help timber workers through their rough times. But there was Farm Aid for the family farmers. Jessica Lange and Sam Shepherd haven't signed a movie deal to portray a hard-pressed logging family, reprising roles similar to the farm family in Country.

Bill Heffernan, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says he was struck by similarities between what he's studied in the Midwest and what Lee showed him last year on the Olympic Peninsula. "Cases of individual depression can lead to a collective feeling of hopelessness. Whole towns give up."

One difference he saw is in the level of public support. Surveys showed a majority of Americans--both rural and urban--would pay a little more for food in order to save family farms. "Even the hardest-nosed economists, the ones who said we had too many farms and some would have to go out of business, thought we should help them through the transition," Heffernan said. "That doesn't seem to be true for loggers."

He speculates feelings are stronger for family farms because many American have grandparents, other relatives or friends who are still connected to farming. Few have ties to logging towns.

If they did, they'd find logging is distinguished by an unusual commitment to individualism, hard work, inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit, Professor Lee has found in 10 years of research. Trained as a sociologist, Lee is one of only three North American researchers to conduct in-depth studies of the people who live in timber communities. His work goes beyond typical opinion polls. Instead, selected individuals are carefully questioned about their views.

In his studies, Lee has found that most logging firms are owned by independent entrepreneurs. They were started by loggers who slowly accumulated enough equipment to open their own businesses. Employees of these firms share in the commitment to hard work and independence, and many aspire to eventually have a "show" of their own.

Loggers acquire job security by developing a personal reputation as a "good logger," Lee says. A good logger is versatile, and can set chokers, trim logs and operate and repair heavy equipment. In the past, jobs could come and go, but loggers could always count on their reputations to find work. Identification as a logger is generally so firmly embedded that people cannot imagine doing anything else, he says.

These people see themselves as tough, resilient and proud--and compare themselves to those who built America. That's why they are particularly threatened by the wave of public sentiment washing over them. It goes beyond differences of opinion about how much old growth is left and how much should be cut. The threat is against loggers themselves, as if they violate some natural law every time they fire up their chain saws.

Although lacking the mystique of logging, owners and workers in small sawmills also share the values of hard work, independence and risk taking. These are the mills which will be hard hit by sudden reductions in planned harvests on public lands.

Somewhat a breed apart are workers at medium and large-sized sawmills owned by large companies and corporations, says Lee. These workers experience little control over the work environment. As a result there is a long history of unionization among sawmill workers and much more conflict between management and labor than is found in logging. Because of these differences and others, Lee cautions against assuming loggers would be eager to take sawmill jobs if they became available.

"By nature loggers are among the most adaptable and independent people," according to Bill Hermann of Hermann Brothers Logging & Construction in Port Angeles. "My machine operators could go to any construction site in Seattle or some other big city and do the job better than most of the guys there. The mechanics would be welcome in any welding shop. I just ran into a guy out here who said a Seattle container shipping firm was willing to pay him a $100 finders fee for every trucker he could convince to take a job with them in Seattle.

"But they don't want to leave."

Suggesting that timber workers relocate to urban areas where jobs are more plentiful ignores the fact that residents have businesses they don't want to close, homes which are likely to plummet in value, friends and relatives they don't want to leave and strong attachments to rural living, Lee warns.

Hermann grew up on the family farm between Sequim and Port Angeles and the land remains his home and the headquarters for the business he started 25 years ago with his two brothers. Over those 25 years, the firm has had only two logging crews in old growth for three years. The balance of the time, all four of the crews have been in various second-growth stands, logging trees that were planted or regrew naturally after being harvested in the last 100 years.

Hermann, who just got back from visiting lawmakers in Washington, D.C., said people in other parts of the country think Pacific Northwest loggers harvest only old growth. They've heard that all the old growth will be gone in 10 years so they assume the industry will die, he said. There is the perception that the last tree is about to fall.

Lee has heard this too. People equate loggers with buffalo hunters who wiped out their own livelihood by decimating the resource. The analogy is incorrect and springs from the myth that the Pacific Northwest is being deforested. Actually there are lots of trees, across all age classes, on private and public lands, says Lee. There are no serious shortages except for the segments of the industry which depend heavily on timber from the public lands.

Lee cautions people against losing sight of the causes behind this current crisis: differing opinions about cutting old growth and hatred of the "industrial landscape."

Clearcuts bother the general public, whether the trees harvested are 60 years old or 200. Those living on the Olympic Peninsula talk of seeing carloads of tourists pulling over to snap photos of clearcuts--indignation plain on the visitors' faces. What the public doesn't realize is that state laws require clearcuts be replanted within three years. In addition, Lee explains, clearcutting is the fastest way to grow a forest of Douglas fir and the only way to harvest without building more roads. "Roads damage the environment more than a clearcut does," he adds.

"Environmentally sensitive consumers from urban areas often view logging as a destructive occupation," Lee said. "Many find a sense of justice in thinking the occupation is on the decline. It's seen as a positive sign that the world is evolving toward a higher level of environmental sensitivity.

"The conflict between these two cultures has rigidified to a point where a severe political schism is growing between a class of rural producers and a class of urban consumers." This clash is not new but we're seeing it full force for the first time, Lee says.

The conflict is a result of the transition from a manufacturing society to an information-based, technological society. Urban consumers have little awareness of where wood-based products come from or how and why they are produced. Only two percent of the population remains in what Lee calls the "extractive" occupations such as mining, agriculture and logging.

"What I hate is that urbanites refuse to recognize their role in this," according to Ann Goos of Forks, owner of an education consulting business and wife of a logger. "Why would these loggers work so hard and put their lives on the line to harvest trees if no one wanted them? There's a timber industry because there's a demand for the products."

Goos describes campaigning for the state legislature in a Sequim neighborhood of $350,000 homes. At one house, a new arrival to the peninsula told Goos he'd never vote for her because she favored logging and that would forfeit his son's right to a decent environment.

"I couldn't help noticing that his home was built on a clear-cut and the fine-grained wood of his house--although it probably didn't come from old growth--was still from ... trees that were harvested by men like my husband."

Lee says urban consumers don't want to think about how we get our meat, potatoes and wood. "We have created a separate class of people in our minds--a moral caste of individuals who are less than we are because of what they do."

Further clouding the issue is a growing number of preservationists who interpret trees as icons of biological continuity, almost symbols of immortality, Lee says. They are meeting with success in a nation where citizens are frightened about global warming, depletion of the ozone layer and other environmental problems.

It's comforting to think these problems are solvable if only we save trees, Lee says. Never mind how forest ecosystems actually work or that it would be most effective to tackle the sources of pollution head on--such as driving our cars less. Some find it far easier to point the environmental finger of shame at loggers.

Timber workers are feeling even more alienated from their government. They lost trust in government when sudden timber harvest reductions were imposed, Lee said.

"The federal government deliberately encouraged the development of local wood product industries throughout the West, guaranteed continuous wood supplies and stimulated the formation of timber communities to provide a permanent home for these industries," Lee says. "People bought homes, invested capital and formed attachments to communities because of the government's promise of sustained yield wood production."

Bert Paul, owner of the Thrifty Mart in Forks, was raised on the Olympic Peninsula until college and his retailing career took him from the area. He was working for Sears when he decided to return to his home town.

"I would never have bought the business or taken a lease on the building without first asking about harvest schedules for the next 10 years on federal and state forests," Paul says. What he saw looked promising so he bought the business.

He became involved in the chamber of commerce, other civic groups and eventually served on the state's Commission on Old Growth Alternatives for Washington Forest Trust Lands. The 33-member panel was created to advise the state on managing old-growth resources on state-owned lands on the Olympic Peninsula.

Among other things, the commission recommended deferring the harvest on 15,000 acres of especially critical spotted owl habitat for 15 years while information is gathered on how best to manage those areas. It also urged establishing an experimental forest and research center to explore new ways to produce timber harvests, analyze ecological values, and help communities with economic development.

There is little community input concerning federal spotted owl measures. Decisions from Washington, D.C., have negated agreements reached by the old-growth commission and other local bodies.

"All these factors are causing timber workers to feel frustrated and abandoned," Lee said. "Policy makers and interest groups are overestimating these people's capability and willingness to adapt. Because of this, not enough money is being allocated for social services and thinking has been too limited as far as job and social assistance."

Washington state's early estimates for the costs of social services are far too conservative, according to Lee. Last fall, Olympia was estimating 18,000 jobs would be lost by 1991 and saying extra social service costs will peak at $16 million a year. Lee points out that the 1991 total translates to just $888 per laid-off worker. Most of those workers have families who will need medical, mental health and emergency income assistance.

The toll on individuals and families in these communities is already causing increased depression, family violence, substance abuse and even suicide, according to what social workers and individuals have told Lee. Lee estimates the extra social service demands could cost $150 million annually for affected areas in Washington, Oregon and northern California.

The price tag for social services does not include unemployment benefits or job assistance. Lawmakers may be making decisions based on simplistic data, the forestry professor warns. "It's doubtful that adjustment assistance in the form of extended unemployment benefits, retraining, education, temporary mortgage supplements and relocation assistance will be enough," Lee has said in testimony to Congress and state legislatures. This situation is not like a typical business downturn which these communities have faced in the past. Nor are the changes being phased in over a number of years--this is an abrupt and permanent reduction in timber harvests, he explains.

A bigger public commitment is required--perhaps for as long as a decade--and more innovation is needed to foster new industries that will generate tax revenues in timber towns, not unemployment and welfare demands.

Without help, pockets of rural poverty will develop, Lee says. People who choose to remain may adapt by using local resources for subsistence such as poaching fish and game, may exchange services, rely on intermittent wage labor, or engage in illegal enterprises. He points to the rural culture of southwest Oregon and northwest California, with its reliance on growing marijuana, as an example of what can happen to some locations when wood products economies decline.

Such rural poverty does not provide a setting conducive to tourism or alternative industries, and it makes it difficult to launch government conservation programs.

Lee takes care in his testimony before lawmakers to say that he is not arguing for or against protecting old-growth forests. He is disgruntled by those who use his work as a reason to forestall any and all conservation measures. Instead, he talks about the costs of national decisions being borne by all citizens and says empathy for timber workers would greatly ease the transition.

Many of these workers see themselves as the kind of people who founded this country and represent its values. To them, politicians and environmentalists appear intent on tearing up their version of America by its roots.

Sandra Hines is a writer for the UW Office of Information Services who specializes in fisheries, forestry and oceanography. She is a 1976 graduate of the WSU School of Communications.

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