The Oregon Timber Worker’s Truth
Surviving through the spotted owl era, evolving logging processes and now climate change, timber communities continually face the sense that their livelihood and way of life is dubious.
The Oregon timberman stares back from sepia photographs into a future built by the trees he felled.
The saw in his hands is taller than he is. The tree he’s climbed dwarfs him in its old-growth splendor. He drives a timber-laden steam donkey. He floats his logs downriver. He stands on a man-high springboard to hack into ancient Douglas fir.
In his time, he was a pioneer and an environmentalist. He cut down hundreds-year-old trees and planted new forests on hillsides he left barren. He was a union member and a slave to Midwest timber barons. He was both true-to-life icon and invented cartoon character.
His empire — once spanning all the great acreage of Oregon’s forests, alive in mill towns and cities — is today much diminished. The timberman built himself into a Pacific Northwestern myth, but his legacy and current status remains controversial, opinions of his work and worth often split down Oregon’s urban-rural divide.
“Some people still can’t imagine themselves as being anything other than a logger or a mill worker. It’s still how they define themselves,” said Michael Hibbard, a co-author of the book “Toward One Oregon,” which examines how the state’s rural-urban divide shaped its history.
There are fewer timbermen in Oregon than there once were. Working in the forest still offers the same rugged appeal, but there are fewer opportunities. The industry’s decline and the hopes for its future are rooted in the same two concepts: economics and environmentalism.
In timber communities there is a sense their livelihood and way of life is on the ropes.
“The story of timber workers is very much a story that’s similar to the fate of the working class throughout the United States,” according to Steven Beda, an environmental historian at the University of Oregon focused on the timber economy. “Environmental politics plays a much larger role here than maybe it does in some other industries like the automotive industry. But, there are definitely similarities.”
On the ropes
In Yamhill, about 10 miles north of McMinnville, 29-year-old Isaiah Shaw takes the work he can get.
His wife is the owner of Shaw Bro’s Logging and Land Clearing. His brother and cousin do the timber cutting with him. They do their work on private timber patches and conduct stream clearing operations, sometimes for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It’s extremely competitive,” Shaw said. “A lot of the larger companies out there as far as loggers go that have 30 or 40 employees, they do stuff on a much bigger production scale. We’re kind of your mom and pop loggers. We’re competing against the corporate world.”
Shaw and his little brother are not the original “Shaw Bro’s.” In 2017, the Oregon native restarted the business that belonged to his grandparents between 1955 and 2000. Shaw never worked for that company, but after a term of military service, the forests called to him.
Now he’s a fourth generation family logger.
“Our walls at Grandma’s house are covered in pictures of my great grandparents and all my uncles and their kids being out here,” Shaw said. “It was always an option in the back of (my) mind to take that opportunity. I really looked up to them as hard-working Paul Bunyans.”
Today’s workforce in the forestry and logging industry industry is a shadow of its former glory.
Oregon’s total forest sector employed about 61,000 people in 2017, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. That included about 7,200 logging jobs; about 19,900 jobs in wood and paper manufacturing and sawmill labor; and about 6,900 jobs in forest management, but the sector as a whole is broad and includes occupations such as forest firefighting.
In the early 1970s, the forest sector was responsible for about 15% of the state’s gross domestic product, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. Since, other parts of the state economy have grown more economically important and reduced the forest sector’s share of the state GDP to about 2%, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.
Forest sector jobs in 2017 paid annual average wages of about $54,200, a bit more than the state annual average wage of $51,100, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Today, turnover is high in forest jobs, and talented young workers are not easy to find.
“A lot of the old dogs are going out of the system, and there’s a real challenge to find an experienced workforce,” said Rick Zenn, a senior fellow at the World Forestry Center in Portland. “Younger people are coming up faced with problems the old guard never had to face.”
Not because the timber industry is in decline, Zenn said. It’s more efficient than ever.
“A mill here outside of Portland, 30 years ago we used to do school tours there, and they were doing about 75 truckloads a day,” Zenn said. “The same mill today — with the same number of people — they’re doing 300.”
There never was a time that logging wasn’t dangerous and demanding work, but there always was labor to be found back when the work was plentiful and the pay was good. Not so today, said third-generation logger Bobby King, co-owner of Florence’s R&R King Logging.
“There are very few people getting into the logging business because, if you ask me, this generation’s gone soft,” King said.
King’s crews are part of the gyppo logging tradition, independent contractors hired by saw mills or private landowners to clear and collect timber. Every day, he said, those crews are slogging up and down Oregon’s forested hillsides under backbreaking conditions.
King’s loggers start at the bottom of a canyon, clear cutting a unit of timber before stringing cable from one side of the canyon to the other, King said. That cable is what allows a motorized sky car to usher fallen logs from the forest floor to the top of the canyon, where the log then is processed before transport, King said.
“It’s almost a dying industry because it’s so dangerous and it’s hard work,” King said. “It puts your life in danger almost every minute.”
But it’s not the danger that’s keeping his loggers on the ropes, King said. For that, he blames the government and environmentalists.
“As far as harvesting, today we’re probably about 35% to 40% of what we should be,” King said.
It’s the dramatic reduction in harvesting on federal woodlands that has most hampered the timber industry over recent decades, King said.
Logging operations, now largely restricted to private lands, today aren’t enough to sustain a thriving timber industry, King said.
“Florence used to have seven sawmills. We have none now,” King said.
A history in board feet
A significant portion of Oregon history can be told in board feet.
Oregon was not yet a state in 1849. It still was part of the expansive and booming territory that incorporated all of the future Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Pioneers swarming the territory, until then, were more interested in farms than forests — until they needed houses.
In 1849, Oregon produced 17 million board feet, the unit by which lumber is measured, 1 inch thick, 12 inches wide and 12 inches long.
Native tribes were the first to harvest Oregon timber for commerce and to build plank houses and canoes. Native Americans would make up a significant piece of the timber workforce throughout much of its history.
Industrial timber harvesting at the time was primarily operating in the Midwest. There, lumberjacks first told stories of Paul Bunyan.
Moving the industry to Oregon had two major problems, according to Beda.
“The trees are huge, and people have no real effective way to get the trees out of the forest,” Beda said. “Even if you can get it out of the forest, where are you going to send it? The closest market is in San Francisco.”
As the railroads reached the West, the federal government granted land to the railroad companies that could be sold to fund their construction. Midwestern lumber barons, such as Friedrich Weyerhäuser, bought up huge tracts of land in the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon lumber production passed 1 billion board feet by 1905 and 2 billion by 1910, according to state forestry department data.
“This is now the rise of industrial logging, cut out and get out logging,” Beda said. “They tried to transform the forest into a factory.”
These are the days of the sepia photographs, the two-man saw and the springboard, the log raft and the pioneering Oregon timberman.
Oregon lumber production reached 4.5 billion board feet in 1929. The stock market crashed and lumber production began to fall, hitting only 1.5 billion board feet in 1932. Statewide lumber production rebounded through the 1930s, reaching 5.4 billion board feet in 1940.
Timber workers and foresters first began during this time to try to rein in wanton harvesting, Beda said. Over the next 20 years, regulations were adopted to make tree harvests more selective, and timber cutters started moving their operations to public land.
“That’s going to be a huge issue in the upcoming conflicts, especially in the spotted owl era,” Beda said.
Timber cut on U.S. Forest Service land in Oregon grew from 495 million board feet in 1942 (compared to 6 billion board feet on state and private land) to 2.4 billion board feet in 1961 (compared to 4.9 billion board feet on state and private land).
In 1971, 3.2 billion board feet were harvested from Forest Service lands with 3.7 billion board feet harvested by private industry. Total harvesting that year reached 9 billion board feet.
Timber harvesting peaked in 1972 when the state timber harvest reached 9.7 billion board feet. It was the year the state Forest Practices Act took effect. The law largely was backed by the forest products industry and it changed how loggers and landowners did business.
It limited the scope of clear cutting. It required mandatory forest replanting. It set rules for when and how pesticides could be used.
“It reshaped the way the industry operated in Oregon,” Beda said. “It was one of the last pieces of environmental legislation that saw not cooperation but definitely compromise. The industry, the workers, environmentalists were all willing to sit around the table.”
Timber harvests ranged between 9.4 billion board feet in 1973 to 8.4 billion board feet in 1989.
The timber industry shed tens of thousands of jobs during the recession of the early ’80s and statewide production slumped down to just 5.7 billion board feet in 1981.
Then in 1990, the federal government declared the spotted owl a threatened species. Most logging on federal land was halted soon after.
In 1993, timber harvests on Forest Service lands reached 1.1 billion board feet. After federal action that year nearly halved Pacific Northwest harvesting on federal land, Oregon harvests on Forest Service Land only reached 596 million board feet and never again reached a number that high.
The ‘best environmentalists’
Gordon Culbertson will tell you 100 years of his forest’s history in a cluster of three stumps.
He and a crew came through two years ago with chainsaws and tractors to thin a young patch of his forest to promote its healthy growth. They left a stump and sent the timber to a local sawmill. Portland-based Willamette Industries left a stump in 1990 harvesting what was at the time a second-growth forest. The Penn Lumber Company in the 1920s left the last of the three stumps. It’s taller than Culbertson.
“You can see the old springboard notches,” Culbertson said, pointing out waist-high divots in the old growth stump. “The old time loggers were falling timber with a hand saw. Standing on a spring board, which served as a platform, allowed them to cut up higher to get out of the pitch and the tough wood down at the bottom of the tree. It allowed them to be more productive in their timber harvesting.”
Culbertson has been harvesting trees his whole life. He belongs to a diminished class of environmentalists, one of Oregon’s oldest.
He and his wife, Gail, have planted trees in their forest the couple will never see full grown or cut down. But they will be cut down.
Those trees now are a little taller than he is. They line each side of a road into his family-owned forest in Walton, half an hour west of Eugene and nestled in the hills where he got his start in the logging. The Culbertson’s grandchildren play in that forest, their inheritance.
Culbertson looks at his forest and sees a resource that will last forever so long as timber crews keep up the work they’ve always done.
“It is a wonderful state, and that’s not an accident,” Culbertson said. “We did a lot of good things. We’re still doing a lot of good things.”
There’s a sense among timber workers statewide they’re being punished and their contributions to environmentalism are unrecognized.
With farming and trucking allies, timber workers organized by the activist group Timber Unity recently descended on the Capitol to protest the second iteration of a statewide cap-and-trade bill. Because the rules in that bill would raise fuel prices in an effort to slice Oregon carbon emissions, those left in the timber industry foresee another body blow to their livelihoods struck in the name of environmentalism.
The first came about 30 years ago when efforts to save the spotted owl’s habitat effectively killed logging on federal land in Oregon.
Historians refer to this as the era of “crisis environmentalism,” Beda said.
“Environmentalists had this idea the earth was on the verge of an imminent collapse and that if they didn’t take radical action to preserve wilderness and forests and everything they held very dear, the whole global ecosystem would come crashing down,” Beda said.
Activists chained themselves to old-growth trees or climbed into their branches to assure the habitat of the endangered owl would not be felled by loggers. They drove metal rods into tree trunks, known as tree spiking, in a dangerous practice meant to damage loggers saws.
Oregon timber workers point to this conflict as the opening salvos in a still-churning war between their way of life and a form of environmentalism they view as backward and counterproductive. But Beda said the roots of that division are decades older.
“There’s a long history of timber workers fighting to preserve forests, sometimes trading jobs for more forest protections,” Beda said. “Sometimes they’re the best environmentalists because they balance the economic uses of the forests with the other values of the forest.”
Contested claims to stewardship
The modern environmental movement was born from looking out the windows of cars, Beda said. It is the start of the urban-rural divide.
The rise of automobile ownership allowed city dwellers new access to the wilderness, he said. To them, according to Beda, a clear cut was an affront to nature whereas timber communities always saw wilderness as dynamic spaces.
“When environmentalism starts becoming more of an urban movement, they have ways of seeing nature that put them into conflict with rural workers,” Beda said. “For environmentalists, the clear cut is an end. For a timber worker, a clear cut is a new beginning.”
The law allows King to cut down as much 120 acres in a single clear cut, but he’s not allowed — and wouldn’t — leave a barren hillside. King says his crews leave behind five trees for every one they harvest, a practice he says ensures Oregon forests never will disappear.
“Clear cut is not a dirty word. Clear cut is a necessity to grow more trees,” King said. “You cannot plant trees under a canopy.”
King and Culbertson view environmental stewardship in a way that’s common across their industry. They see themselves as forest managers, people willing to harvest trees as a commercial product but deeply invested in forest preservation as a means of protecting their livelihood and their favorite forms of recreation.
For King, “environmentalist” is the dirty word, appropriately applied to people he sees as radical and wrongheaded. He considers himself a “conservationist.”
The timber industry’s vision of itself as the true stewards of the land is, however, deeply contested.
“The way that forestry has been modeled after an agricultural approach to growing and harvesting trees and then spreading that across a huge fraction of Oregon’s landscape has left Oregon severely damaged,” said Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator for the wilderness conservation group Oregon Wild.
“The public enjoys old-growth forests like a cathedral, and they were just slaughtered left and right for decades. The timber industry, their legacy is actually one of harm to our state.”
Heiken blasted the idea that timber cutters have and are doing their part in keeping Oregon forests alive and thriving through their practices of clear cutting and replanting.
“They have this bizarre idea that they are the saviors of the forests and that if humans didn’t come along somehow forests couldn’t take care of themselves. That’s complete nonsense,” Heiken said. “Forests are self-organizing systems that have taken care of themselves for millennia and will continue to do so. They don’t need chainsaws and bulldozers to be made more healthy.”
At the Timber Unity protest in Salem, organizers handed out more than 1,000 seedlings to rally goers. It was a statement on environmentalism, their argument that trees trap carbon and proper forest management is one solution for the world’s climate crisis.
But it’s not enough. Drastically reducing carbon emissions is the only way to reverse dramatic global climate change, according to bevies of alarmed world scientists. That’s not something everyone in Timber Unity believes, and Beda said some won’t be convinced.
Blame the spotted owl and crisis environmentalism, he said.
“They lived through the spotted owl conflict of the ’80s and ’90s. When you look at that conflict, what you realize is policy was outpacing science,” Beda said. “The spotted owl conflict created a lot of distrust of science and a lot of distrust of crisis environmentalism.”
For King, Culbertson and Shaw, managing Oregon’s forests is their contribution to the environmental movement. They see cap-and-trade as another example of people who know less than they do about nature demanding they take another hit in a fight they’ve always fought.
“We grow more trees today than we ever did because we know how to manage our forests,” King said. “Somebody in Portland will come and tell us we’re not managing our forests right or not protecting our soil, which is exactly the opposite. We bend over backwards.”
The future is wood
Zenn can look around the World Forestry Center without fear for the timber industry’s future.
There never was a time timbermen weren’t pioneers, on the edge of civilization and industry. Forest workers always were innovators.
“It’s very easy to stereotype and lump individuals and organizations in a broad category, which they may have fit in the past. They have different people now. It’s not the same money. It’s not the same organization,” Zenn said. “There are warriors within any industry.”
The donkey puncher, the gyppo logger, the tree fallers wielding a two-man saw are not ideals to be emulated today, Zenn said.
“It’s a cartoon going back to the Paul Bunyan thing,” Zenn said. “You have people that have technical skills and training working in a mill, they’re electricians, they’re engineers. Those are different than the Paul Bunyan guys with axes out in the woods.”
Andy Mills is a modern day timber worker, and has been since he started sweeping floors at the Seneca Sawmill 35 years ago.
Today he is a controls programmer, responsible for maintaining and innovating the heavy machinery that keeps Eugene’s largest sawmill running. Each year, the machines under his auspices grow more complex, more precise, more efficient — and he hopes they always do.
“I really have little or no involvement in the timber part of it other than if we don’t process lumber, timber doesn’t matter,” Mills said.
Computers play a much larger part of Seneca’s sawmill operations than they did at the start of his career, Mills said.
“When something is wrong that people don’t understand, it’s typically thought to be a computer problem,” Mills said. “Whether it’s pneumatic or hydraulic or mechanical, if it’s not working right and they don’t see a problem, then they call us.”
His uncle worked in a sawmill in the ’40s and ’50s, and Mills said he remembers stories of personal danger. The job still has its risks, Mills said, but society, management and the sawmill machines all have changed with time to reduce the opportunity for injury in the mill.
Mills has been there for each change and each upgrade. As Seneca became a modern industry, Mills became a modern worker.
“I was a big part of the evolution,” he said.
Hibbard, the UO professor who co-authored “Toward One Oregon,” said automation and changes in technology will continue to drive down the need for an expansive timber workforce, leaving opportunity more abundant in an urban setting than in rural communities.
Long-term, rural areas and the jobs that support them will continue to decline, Hibbard said. But they won’t disappear.
“The ability to turn those raw materials and commodities into marketable products requires fewer and fewer workers. The scale of the businesses is getting larger and larger, but we’re still going to need timber,” he said. “The forests are not going to restore themselves.”
Wood is getting a fresh look in the U.S. as a building material called “mass timber,” a catch-all term for super-strong types of plywood being used as a replacement for concrete and steel. Oregon and Washington, especially, are studying and creating mass timber.
It’s the kind of innovation Zenn says will keep the industry relevant into the future.
“There’s a big conference in Portland next month, and it’s an amazing combination of folks who grow the wood, folks who want to sell it and folks who want to use it and build with it,” Zenn said.
“There’s a large operation that just opened in Spokane … and they have this huge plant to produce this stuff. Really amazing, all brand new, state of the art robots to create these cross-laminated timber patterns.”
King is holding out hope for the opening of federal land to logging operations like his in the near future.
“I think we have a pendulum that’s about to start swinging the other way where we’re going to start having timber sales from the federal government,” King said. “I have faith Donald Trump is going to turn the federal government around in his second four years.”
Meanwhile, he suggests Oregonians be grateful for people like himself.
“Instead of people being upset with logging, they should say ‘thank you’ every day when they get out the toilet paper,” King said.