Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

 Growing Up In Timber Country

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 9 October 1992. Growing Up in Timber Country. Speeach given to the City Club of Eugene and  broadcast on KLCC Radio.

I was born in the mill town of Creswell, Oregon, 12 miles south of Eugene, the county seat of Lane County, which used to bill itself as the "lumber capital of the world."  Sixty miles south of Creswell is Roseburg, the county seat of Douglas County.  It billed itself as the "timber capital of the world."  Basically, Douglas County cut more board feet of trees and Lane County produced more board feet of lumber. 

Creswell is no longer a mill town.  It made the change.  One sawmill still remains, but the town has diversified.  There is a golf course and resort.  There's a company in town that makes metal detectors for airports.  There is the processing plant where 60,000 chickens lose their lives each day.  (But that's a whole 'nother story.)  Creswell is now a bedroom community to Eugene.

The British Broadcasting Corporation and Oregon Public Broadcasting did a documentary on Mill City in the North Santiam Canyon east of Salem.  (I had a great uncle whom we used to visit in Mill City.  Great Uncle Art was the first guy I ever knew to wear his pants above his nipples, but again, that's a whole 'nother story.)

The BBC and OPB could have used Forks, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula, or a dozen other Oregon towns, or they could have used Creswell 20 years ago.

I went to the same school system for 12 years.  There were about 100 of us when I entered the first grade.  There were about 100 of us when I entered high school.  66 of us graduated in 1973.  I think about three of us went off to a four-year college and another three of us, I think, have died in the woods.

There is only one occupation in this nation that is more deadly than logging.  Not policing, not coal mining, not ocean fishing.  The only occupation more dangerous than logging is being an astro­naut.

Death was common in the woods when I was growing up.  Safety standards have improved.  Helicopters can now get the injured to hospitals that have better lifesaving and life-restoring techniques.  The mortality rate has decreased.  But as we log the last of the big forests on progressively steeper slopes, dangers will increase.

I also remember the maimed.  Loggers who had a log roll over them and lived to tell about it.  Those walking wounded as they hobbled around town with their distorted bodies, reduced to drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at the cafe.

It was and is an ugly way to make a living.  Getting up at 3 AM, starting work at dawn.  If you died in the summer, your fellows would put you in the shade until quitting time.  (You were dead anyway.)

It was safer and drier if you worked in a mill.  It was possibly even a union wage.  The best union was the Shingle Weavers Union.  Shingle Weavers were highly skilled and highly paid.  But none of them had all their fingers.  "Less to get caught in the machines" they'd joke.

In high school, I had a choice.  I could have dropped out and gone to work in the woods or the mill.  I could have made good money, bought a new truck, a little house and settled in.

I could have been lower middle class, working half the year, weather and market permitting; collecting unemployment the other six months.

When I was in the sixth-grade, we were loaded on the school bus for a forest field trip.  In 1967 this was as close as it came to "environmental education."

We headed up Moseby Creek outside of Cottage Grove to see some forest "management" by the Georgia-Pacific Corporation.  We boys in the back pretended that the school bus was a logging crummy and we were headed for a day of work in the woods, like so many of our fathers. 

24 years later, I remember three things from that trip.  The first was how to tell a hemlock by its tilted top.  The second was that clearcutting was good for wildlife.  The third was what the G-P forester with the big orange pickup told me: that they'd cut and grow trees forever to keep the mills going to provide lumber for homes all over America.  (I still believe what he told me about hemlocks.)

In that same era, I helped my father, the homebuilder, get lumber for his jobs.  We'd go down to Mr. Dugan's mill near Drain.  While Vernon was casing the stacks for the best lumber, I'd look around the mill. 

The thing I remember most was that the mill was old.  All the equipment was '50s vintage or earlier.  The mill ran only when the market was up.  Even a 13-year old could see that mill wouldn't last forever.  If you know where to look, you can still see Mr. Dugan's mill rusting in the weeds.

My friends and I used to sneak down by the wigwam burner of one of the Creswell mills and toss wood scraps, bottles of Coke and other debris into the fiery inferno.  You could feel the heat for quite a distance and we'd soon retreat after heaving our offering into what we were convinced was the closest thing to Hell on Earth.  I remember hearing some grown-ups say that if the government was successful in shutting down the wigwams to reduce air pollution, the mills would have to go out of business, because they couldn't get rid of their wastes.

They did shut the wigwams down, but the mills stayed in business and the dirty black smoke that used to cover the town gave way to the invisible but more irritating stench from Weyerhaeuser's Springfield paper mill that I could smell on foggy cold mornings while walking to school. 

Weyerhaeuser's yellow trucks seemed to be everywhere back then.  My family used to hunt deer in Klamath and Lake counties.  I remember driving through Camp 9 and Camp 15—closed now, no longer needed, like the mill in Bly a few years back and the Klamath Falls mill last year—and thinking that logging camp life wouldn't be too bad.  I also remember what was essentially a 12-mile square clearcut of about 100,000 acres.  Even to a teenager worried mostly about getting a car, getting laid and getting rid of zits, it seemed they were cutting an awful lot awfully fast.

Weyerhaeuser, by its massive presence, seemed so reassuring.  They'd taken over the Woodard sawmill in Cottage Grove and had built a veneer mill there too.  Their sawmill and papermill domi­nated Springfield.  They had big mills in North Bend and Klamath Falls, and that was just in Ore­gon!

In the 8th grade, we students got to see a Weyerhaeuser film extolling the virtues of sustained yield.  Since the film was out-of-date even then, we giggled at the cinematic style and the funny old clothes the actors wore.  The film portrayed Dad working at the sustained yield mill, while Mom stayed home.  Young Bobby would have a job at the mill, just like Dad.  Suzie would of course marry a millworker and live down the street.

In high school, I read an article in the Cottage Grove Sentinel about Bohemia's Stub Stewart holding forth on logging and the environment.  He assured us that forests were just a crop and one could start cutting at one end of a forest and by the time they were done at the other end, start over and cut again.  It was then that I realized their plan wasn't to replace the forest, but rather to eliminate it and have plantations instead.  It was to be more similar to a cornfield than a forest.  (Stub's role as a guiding force in my life should not be underestimated.)

About the time I went off to Oregon State University, Weyerhaeuser built a second growth mill in Cottage Grove.  It was a marvel!  Why it would take a log down to a 4" top!  They used to leave crap like that in the woods!  They weren't worth the gas to take them to the mill. 

A couple of years before I moved to Portland, Georgia-Pacific moved its headquarters back to At­lanta.  Orange trucks are now more prevalent in the Deep South than in the Pacific Northwest.  They took the G-P sign off the building now called the Standard Insurance Center.  Mercifully, they also hauled Perpetuity, a work of "art" depicting a young seedling growing in the center of a huge and hollowed old growth log, to the Western (er, now it's the World) Forestry Center, up by the Zoo. 

A few years ago, Weyerhaeuser brought the last raft of logs down the Millicoma and closed its North Bend mill.  That mill once employed 1,500 people, but it closed with 250 workers.  Their new second growth "mill for the '90s" employs about 75.

The year before that, Weyerhaeuser brought the last train of logs out of the Mohawk Valley.  They didn't close their Springfield sawmill then, choosing instead to enter the federal timber market for the first time—to out-compete smaller mills (now out of business) which had traditionally cut only federal logs.

A few years before that, Georgia-Pacific had sold its Moseby Creek holdings to Weyerhaeuser.   That action proved that the yellow trucks planned to stay around, at least for awhile, even though the orange trucks formed a caravan back to the Georgia pines. 

The yellow trucks look different now.   I remember that when I was a kid most loads had three logs, many had just two and we'd often see one-log loads.  Weyerhaeuser, unlike most others, may plan to be here in the future, but their trucks, loaded with 30 or more little logs, might not stop at the mill at all but go straight on to the docks.

It's not just old growth that's being slicked off and floated to Japan.  40-year-old logs are being shipped out of the country; trees that were planted 40 years ago in expectation of being cut 40 years from now.  Not only is the timber industry exporting our heritage, they are doing the same with our future. 

When Weyerhaeuser closed their Springfield lumber mill, they blamed the spotted owl for the dwindling log supply.  Their timing could have been better since, in that same week, George Weyerhaeuser proudly announced in Tacoma that quarterly earnings were up 29%.  The company wasn't satisfied, though, and now plans to dump their less-profitable divisions.  Since their real estate, paper, log export and other divisions are doing fine, it can only be assumed that Frederick Weyerhaeuser's grandson is thinking of dropping the sawmilling side of the family business.  Don't expect the Big W to build a new second growth mill in Springfield; they've said their Cottage Grove operation is quite adequate for their future needs.

Also citing the spotted owl, Georgia-Pacific announced the closing of their Springfield second growth mill.  They said they couldn't get enough logs to keep it going.  Yet the orange trucks that are still here in Oregon are hauling logs from G-P lands directly to the docks.  The mill isn't closing permanently yet.  It's been bought by some sharp operators who won't bother with unions and union wages and will do more automation, so as to compete more effectively.  Apparently the new owners figure they can find enough logs.

While mill owners aren't suffering, timber workers are.  They think the spotted owl and those damned "environmeddlers" are the cause of all their troubles.

Environmentalists know that the cause is overcutting on both public and private lands, automation in both the mills and the woods, changing markets, and the export of unprocessed logs overseas.

The workers are afraid.  Most are uneducated; many are illiterate.

They figure since their granddaddies logged, why can't their grandchildren? 

The reason for such expectations is that the forests of the Pacific Northwest were so big and so vast that it took three generations of loggers to cut through them, unlike the forests of Maine, Mississippi or Michigan, which took only one generation.  Here, for the first time, loggers and millworkers put down roots. 

The boom is now over.  We've just about cut it all.  The timber industry isn't up against an owl, it's up against an ocean.

What can we do to help these workers, victims of changing economic factors, changing industrial demands and changing environmental priorities?  There are no easy answers for several reasons. 

First, most of these victims are in denial that their world has changed.  They are facing the death of the world as they have known it and they are scared.  Psychologists have defined distinct stages of dealing with the death of a loved one or loved thing:

DENIAL:  "Spotted owls don't need old growth forests."

ANGER:  "Spotted owl tastes a lot like chicken."  (Actually, I hear it tastes a lot more like bald eagle.)

BARGAINING:  "We can have the spotted owl and log the old growth forest too." 

GRIEVING:  "Environmentalists are practicing cultural genocide."

ACCEPTANCE:  "There is life after old growth logging."

Second, there are macro-economic factors at work beyond their or our control.  While we may want these small resource extraction based towns in the Pacific Northwest, they may be as unsavable as the small Iowa farm towns.

Timber is the last sector of American agriculture to automate.  It is shrinking in both absolute and relative terms.  Between 1980 and 1990, the timber cut increased 17% while timber jobs decreased 26%.  5000 new Oregonians are arriving each month, but the timber industry in Oregon has about 50,000 total jobs and is declining.

Third, these victims deeply resent, even hate, environmentalists.  (I've been called "the most hated man in Oregon" and "Oregon's version of the Anti-Christ.")  My life is often threatened. 

These victims speak of the "two Oregons."  One is urban, growing and dominant.  The other is rural, declining and dominated.

Fourth, they are afraid.  Afraid, like most of us, of change we can't control.

Environmentalists and timber workers have the same long term interest: sustainable forests.  But most workers don't see it that way right now.  They identify more with industry owners and management than with environmentalists.

Fifth,  many of these workers are ignorant.  Many are illiterate, with many more educated to less than high school level.  I've heard several boast with a perverse kind of pride: "I'm too dumb to learn computers.  All I can do is log."

Sixth, these workers are powerless.

They've always been jacked around by the owners and management.  Now they are being jacked around by the politicians and the environmentalists.

In a twisted and cruel sense, management has, in a token way, empowered its workers for the first time.  Management basically said to its workers, "If you throw a tantrum about the spotted owl, it will go away."  (Making it clear, at the same time, that no such tantrums were allowed for log exports.)  But the spotted owl didn't go away.  It's been joined by the marbled murrelet and will be joined by Pacific salmon and scores of other species dependent on ancient forest. 

What can we, and especially what can environmentalists, do to help timber workers?  Unfortunately, environmentalists can't do much until these workers want to help themselves.

The Ancient Forest Protection Act,  written by environmentalists and sponsored by Congressman Jim Jontz, didn't have any economic transition package.  We knew it was necessary at the time but wanted to wait for solutions to come from affected communities, so as not to come across as patronizing.

Because the decline of the Pacific Northwest timber industry is perceived to be an environmental problem, the Northwest timber worker will likely get a better deal than the Midwest autoworker. 

Both the Northwest Timber Industry and the Midwest Auto Industry cite foreign competition and environmental regulations as reasons for their decline.  Both have excessive workforces for the '90s and many managers who are behind the times.  The auto industry is unfortunate in that it has no spotted owl upon which to place the blame.

If ancient forest protection legislation passes into law during the next Congress, I'm convinced it will have an economic transition package for the workers.

Environmentalists can be supportive of, but cannot be the driving force for, such a package.  It is not enough that environmentalists want it for the workers.  Politically, the workers must want it themselves.  Congressman Peter DeFazio is in an excellent position to lead that effort.

Environmentalists will continue our course.  The faster we stop logging the last of the ancient for­est, the better for all concerned (except the mill owners, for which I have no sympathy).  Stopping ancient forest logging now means that some old growth mills will close a little sooner than planned; mills that are obsolete anyway and to which no profits are returned except for the grease to keep them running.  Shutting these mills down early means a few million dollars less profit to an elite set of timber barons—barons who knew all along that their logging was unsustainable. 

You've all heard of the Pacific Yew.  Long considered a "trash" tree by arrogant and/or ignorant forest managers, the Pacific Yew contains taxol, found to be very effective in treating ovarian cancer.  It's now been approved for treatment of breast cancer.  The Pacific Yew is intimately associated with old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.  ONRC is now engaged in a battle with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management who are wasting Pacific Yew, and thereby wasting women's lives, in their zeal to cut Douglas-fir to prop up a declining industry. 

Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii noted at a Congressional hearing on the matter, that if taxol was useful in fighting prostate cancer we'd be out there picking up the needles with tweezers.  If foresters had come to the Pacific Northwest 100 years earlier, scientists might never have discovered taxol.  Ancient forests may hold the answers to questions we don't yet know enough to ask.

Before the court injunctions and when the market was up, we were clearcutting over two square miles each week on the public lands of Oregon.

The Bush Administration sought to exempt 44 timber sales, totaling 225 million board feet and comprising seven square miles of forest, from the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.  The debate before the so-called "God Squad" was made over 1000 jobs for 1 year.  If we reduced log exports by just 7% from last year’s level, we could compensate for that foregone timber.

(One of those 44 sales is about a mile west of where my Grandmother was born and about two miles west of where she is buried.)

I do have sympathy for timber workers, but the answer to their troubles is not to keep cutting.  Any job that is dependent upon the extinction of species will soon be extinct itself.

Oregon timber workers, be they victims of corporate greed, bureaucratic bungling, changing technologies and markets, or changing governmental policies toward the environment need and deserve our help.  They are victims no less than the victims of a hurricane.

Oregon is not Amazonia.  We aren't so poor that we have to drive species into extinction, nor so rich that we can afford to.

The cohort of most concern is the 35+ year old male. (Hmmmm.  I'm 37.)

If any middle-aged male (or female) loses their career in this country, especially in these times, they are likely in trouble; most especially if they are uneducated.  During this economic transition, we can lessen the pain by having these workers pull out roads and perform other forest restoration activities to repair our watersheds and bring back the salmon.  There is plenty of ecological restoration work to last until they retire.

Some communities have made the change.  I have seen successes and failures.  The difference, I think, is primarily a result of community attitude.  Some communities have leaders that look toward the future while other have leaders that harken to the past.  But the toughest cases haven't changed yet.

As Oregonians, we must not leave those behind who are caught at the end of a boom and have little political power.  Government must give the small timber-addicted towns hope.  Real hope for a future, not false hope for a return to the past.

Just about every milk carton I've ever seen reminds me that Weyerhaeuser is "the tree-growing company."  For every tree they cut, they plant five.  No argument there.  Our problem is not that we are running out of trees, but that we are running out of forests.  Of every five seedlings planted to replace an ancient giant, one dies naturally, one dies from herbicides or is eaten by an animal that has nothing else to munch on, one is slain as a tot to thin the stand, and one is logged prematurely and sent overseas in the name of greed.  The last, if it makes it to 80 feet high, 80 years of age and a foot-and-one-half in diameter before being clearcut, doesn't replace the 250-foot high, 650-year old, 8-foot thick tree that was there. 

The future of the Oregon timber industry is in second growth, not old growth.  The industry's transition to a second growth timber economy is more than halfway completed.  Conservationists are ready to support actions which accelerate and smooth that transition. 

There are one million acres of cut-over forestland in western Oregon lying fallow.  "Cut and run" has been replaced with "rape and walk."  The ancient forest that remains is more valuable intact for the benefit of all, than run through the mill for the profit of a few.  It's time for the industry to live off the 90% of the forestlands they have already cut.  If they can't do that, they won't be able to survive by finishing off the little old growth that remains anyway.  We have enough trees for our needs, but even in Oregon we'll never have enough trees to satisfy the industry's greed.

Creswell-born and raised, Andy Kerr is the Director of Conservation for the Oregon Natural Resources Council.