Once A Great Notion -- Decline Of The Timber Industry Marks The Death Of The Old Northwest





It starts with a massive cracking sound, then the sky is taken over by this limbed, green massiveness, falling. It comes down cleanly, a giant blade slicing the air.

The moment it hits the ground, a huge cloud of everything on the forest floor - dirt and twigs and leaves and moss - rises sharply to the height of a man, then falls. The tree bounces slightly, then comes to rest, awaiting transformation.

The path of the timber industry is following the arc of a falling tree. It has come to rest, awaiting transformation.

In Eatonville, in the Pierce County foothills, assorted signs of its decline are abundant. The remnants of the lumber mill that fed the place for its first 60 years sit rusting on the banks of the Mashell River. No-trespassing signs are posted at its entrance.

The big old firs that fed the mill are long since gone and the hills above the river are covered, where they are covered by anything at all, with scraggly, serendipitous second-growth trees.

The decay, however, sits amidst what seems like prosperity. A strip mall, called - without a trace of irony - Mill Town Center, has sprung up next to the old mill. Nearby, a bed-and-breakfast has opened. Downtown, the Tall Timbers restaurant does just fine in the absence of anything taller than a telephone pole.

Eatonville has been boutiqued.

The most prominent businesses in town are automobile dealerships, which makes perfectly good sense when you consider that almost everybody who lives here works somewhere else. Eatonville's plight has nothing and everything to do with old-growth forests, spotted owls and the ongoing decline of the Northwest timber economy.

The Eatonville mill closed 35 years ago. The hundreds of jobs it provided were lost then, and the lives that depended upon them have long since been undone, some but not all eventually put back together.

The Eatonvilles of yesterday were the precursors of the Forks, Raymonds and Hoquiams of today, places whose primary reasons for being are disappearing. And the Eatonvilles were themselves preceded by a long, long string of towns stretching back to the European discovery of the continent.

The economic history of the U.S. has been characterized by an inexorable western migration accompanied by an equally inexorable clearing of the land, forests, rivers and oceans. We moved across the continent and its waters and mined them, extracting whatever resource they would yield,

whether codfish in Maine, topsoil in Kansas or copper in Montana.

The Northwest is little different in this regard. Only the timing is exceptional.

This was among the last places reached and so among the last places depleted, but it is being depleted nonetheless. As the natural resources are spent, the place is changed irrevocably. Most of that change has already occurred. The political battles centered on the northern spotted owl and old-growth forests are more than just the latest round of such battles. They are the last.

This is the end of the continent. And this is the end of the old Northwest.

Don Peterson drives a log truck out of Hoquiam. He wishes there were a solution to the spotted-owl debate that both sides found reasonable. But like everybody else in the woods, he thinks the balance has tipped too far in favor of the owl.

``Since the beginning of time, there's been species disappearing from the face of the Earth,'' says the white-haired Peterson as he waits at a landing for his truck to be loaded.

``What are you going to do? I don't want species to disappear. But I don't want to disappear.''

Here, in the words of Gardner Brown, a natural-resource economist at the University of Washington, is a very quick history of the United States:

``You move west. You come upon an unexploited plain. The question is whether you should mine it or not. The more interesting question is how much of it you should mine.''

The answer, typically (and, economists will tell you, rationally), has been all of it. Nobody, for example, tells gold miners to leave gold in the ground. Until recently, no one ever told oil drillers to leave a little oil. The natural resources of the United States have been treated like buried treasure. The job of the finder was to dig them up.

As the diggers dig and become enriched, population grows, at first slowly. Then it accelerates. The acceleration occurs when the local population is large enough to industrialize and produce locally that which it had been importing. This is called ``import substitution'' and is the basis for economic-growth strategies in virtually the entire developing world.

Urbanization follows industrialization. The urban areas develop their own reasons for being, reasons that eventually overwhelm the rural rationale. Not coincidentally, the urban economy and culture also overwhelm their rural counterparts.

``Imagine the (growth) line as a hockey stick laying on its side,'' says Ed Whitelaw, an Oregon economist. ``Up the blade are Seattle, Portland, Spokane. The timber-dependent communities are getting the shaft.

``As we turn the corner and we substitute, not only are we substituting goods, we're also producing things we never consumed before. The jobs to do this are going into the I-5 corridor. The jobs we're losing are out in the boonies.''

These are what economists call sectoral and geographic implications, essentially transfers of wealth in the form of jobs from one portion of the land and the economy - the woods - to another - for example, Microsoft.

As that happens, trees become more valuable as producers of scenery than producers of wood. ``Quality of life'' issues for city-dwellers supercede the handful of jobs lost in the woods.

This happens all the time, says Whitelaw. ``We used to call it progress.''

Renee Lynch is contemplating geographic implications. Her husband has moved to Alaska to log. She was going to join him but would have had to declare bankruptcy just to escape Hoquiam. Besides, she couldn't find a place in Alaska where her family could afford to live.

``This is something that's your worst nightmare,'' she says. ``My God, I'm losing everything. It's like you wake up one day and the whole world's turned against you and they just don't care . . . Nobody's helped us. We feel alienated.''

The treatment of the loggers is a far cry from the treatment accorded farmers during the farm crisis, she notes bitterly. Then, star entertainers led by country-music singer Willie Nelson staged a benefit concert, Farm Aid, and the nation joined in thanking the farmers for their labor.

Just the opposite has happened here, she says. Logging families are seen as villains, not victims.

``Where's Willie Nelson?'' she says.

By 1982, Jerry Rust, a radical tree-planter from Eugene, Ore., where there is such a thing, had become a county commissioner. From his base deep in timber and hippie country, he ran for governor.

A slogan, ``Rust Never Sleeps,'' was lifted from a paint product and a rock album. Recycleable campaign buttons were made from tiny rounds of wood. The campaign even had ideas - too many of them, it seemed at the time.

Rust delivered a nonstop rush of positions on renewable energy, reforestation, conservation and other staples of the environmentalist diet to the collective yawn of public opinion. The campaign had everything, except a chance. He organized coffees. He held news conferences. He wore ties. No one cared.

Rust is a mild-mannered man, almost to the point of seeming ineffectual. He was easy to ignore. But one of the things he advocated in his offhand way, and everyone ignored in theirs, was to restore native fish runs throughout the Northwest. This seemed one of his more innocent proposals. Who, after all, could object to fish? For a while, no one. Until it sunk in that what Rust actually meant when he said he wanted to restore the fish runs was that he wanted to blow up the dams.

This was too much. Planting trees was one thing, blowing up dams quite another. Even many of his own supporters considered this extreme. With or without the fish, Rust would have lost. With them, his campaign was buried in a watery grave.

Eight years later, Rust is still a county commissioner. He still advocates reforestation, renewable energy and conservation. And this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hardly a bastion of radical environmentalism, endorsed a proposal to restore the fish runs on the Elwha River in the heart of Washington's Olympic Mountains.

They would do this, they said, by blowing up dams.

``Maybe,'' Rust says now, ``I was too far out around the corner. There has been a watershed sometime in the last five years. We grew out of our logging boots into something else. What else we don't know. We're busy defining ourselves.''

Loggers once were viewed as the people who built the Northwest. More often now, they are portrayed as its destroyers. Cartoonists depict fat-bellied brutes intent on what one called ``the Washington Chainsaw Massacre.''

Yet some traces remain of the days when loggers were Paul Bunyan, mythic figures admired for their strength and derring-do, adulated the way firefighters are by city children.

``People wave at us a lot of times,'' says Mervyn Thomas of Aberdeen, ``and tourists point.''

Bill Tometich, another Aberdeen logger, recalls coming across two young women who had stopped their bicycles at the Kalaloch Lodge on the Washington coast. They approached Tometich shyly and one, awe in her voice, asked, ``Are you a lumberjack?''

Well, yeah, I guess so, Tometich replied, looking down in embarrassment. ``It sure made me feel good,'' Tometich recalls. ``I mean, how many people would say,'' - he leans forward, his eyes widen and his voice, in imitation of the woman, assumes a reverent tone - `` `Do you work at Ernst?' "

The fight, of course, is ongoing. There are still trees standing in Northwest forests and there are trees daily going to the blade. How many of which ones should you cut? How much of it will you mine?

Environmentalists and timber people often use the same vocabulary when talking about forests, as if they agree on what the words mean. Most loggers insist there's still plenty of forest to go around and snort at suggestions that the resource is running out. Many resist even contemplation of the idea.

Most environmentalists insist that too much has already disappeared.

Typically, the two sides can not even agree on what it is they are arguing about. There has yet to be found a ``multiple-use forest,'' to use the contemporary vernacular, expansive enough to contain the definitions both the environmental community and the timber industry would seek to apply to it.

The two sides agree on one fact - that forests have trees in them. But even this agreement is more often a source of confusion than clarification.

Environmentalists say a forest has in it many other things, the trees being just one class of perhaps thousands. By emerging social and increasingly legal definitions, these other things - northern spotted owls, for example - are in the forest expressly not to be removed.

The timber industry's conception of the modern, managed forest is nearly the opposite. Most crudely put, a managed forest has in it only the trees and they are put there solely for the purpose of being removed. It is a fiber farm, closer in conception to a factory than a forest.

Problems inevitably arise as the two sides debate their contradictions.

Typically, the debate devolves into heated conflict, two armed camps ``lobbing heavy objects at one another,'' in the words of one industry advocate. As a result, the battles are frequently fought in court, where there are always winners and always losers. Any sense of comity has long since disappeared.

The result of the conflict has been a slow, steady shift in the balance of power from the industry to the environmentalists.

There will certainly continue to be a timber industry in the Northwest, but very few of even its most diehard advocates doubt that fundamental change has occurred.

Earlier this year, federal authorities declared large sections of national forest lands off-limits to loggers in order to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl. In the same way that the spotted owl is viewed by scientists as an ``indicator species,'' the viability of which signals the viability of the larger forest ecosystem, the decision to protect the owl is an indicator of the relative power of the timber industry.

``The message of the owl is you're never going to cut as much timber down as you did, or were free to do, in the past,'' says David Harrison, director of the Northwest Policy Center at the University of Washington. ``You can either cut the last tree and look like some mining town or you can manage the resource. What you have as a future is not so surprising: a new resource-based economy, at a reduced level, or a diversified economy.''

What has happened is a recognition of limits, physical in some instances, political in others. Logging is moving from the extraction of a seemingly boundless resource to farming a finite one.

``The way I see it,'' says Bill Tometich, the logger, ``we're not destroying the forest. We're making room for another one. You're taking a forest that's dead and dying and making room for another one, a new forest producing more oxygen, more timber.''

``The question is, how much old-growth timber does a person need to see to realize what an old-growth forest looks like? . . . How many millions of acres do they need to look at?''

Francis Napoleon recalls the first, uneasy intimations of limits.

When Napoleon started logging on the Olympic Peninsula more than 40 years ago, no one worked weekends. Then, crews started working Saturdays and Sundays. Then the companies put lights on the equipment so they could work all night.

``You get in the high country up there and you could just see the logs disappearing, the trees disappearing,'' he recalls.

At lunchtime, the loggers would sit on a landing and look out on the hillsides, remarking nervously about how much of the land was being logged, and wondering where the next harvest would come from. But someone who seemed to know better - maybe a truck driver who saw more territory than they did - would come along and reassure them, telling them there was a lot of wood back there yet.

There still is.

Harvey Barnes lives in Oak Ridge, Ore., where, he says, ``You can almost throw a rock from city hall in any direction and hit a national forest.''

Despite this, Oak Ridge has lost every single one of 1,000 mill jobs. ``We're not abandoning the timber industry. It's abandoning us,'' he says.

If the trees and the workers are still there, what has changed?

Not most of the logging companies. When able to, they cut as if there were no end in their sight. Or in God's sight, for that matter. This failure to change, many of them now will tell you, doomed them.

Failure to change is also what troubles many loggers. They are doing exactly what they have always done and what in many cases their parents and grandparents did. The ground has moved beneath them.

``I have a friend who's a Vietnam vet,'' says Billie Lawson, associate director of social work at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. ``He said, `In some ways, it's like these guys (loggers) are the way we were in Vietnam. You start off in your career, sort of like the epitome of . . . the American dream. You signed up in the Army and you went through the ranks and you were doing the right thing, the good thing.

``People were doing what they were supposed to do and all of a sudden, somebody changes the rules on them. And then, all of a sudden . . . you're not rewarded for fighting for your country, you're baby-killers.

``And, in a sense, you're no longer the he-man of the Last Frontier here, you're a spotted-owl killer, you're a murderer, or you're a tree-killer. And it's sort of like, wait a minute. Who changed the rules here? And they're right. Who did change the rules?' ''

The answer, succinctly, is: Us. The rest of us, the non-loggers, non-mill workers, non-log-truck drivers. We changed the rules.

First, there have become many more of ``us.'' Since statehood, neither Oregon nor Washington has had a majority of its population born in the state. People continually come here from somewhere else, and most of those who come move to the cities. They do not come here to cut trees. They come here to look at them.

Tim Hibbetts, a pollster who has studied timber issues for more than a decade, describes Northwesterners as polarized.

``The cities are very pro-tree,'' he says. ``The espresso crowd who drive their cars three blocks to the store to have an espresso, they want to save the trees. On the Olympic Peninsula and in Grants Pass, it's screw the owls, cut the trees.''

``There is an enormous gulf between those communities dependent on timber and those who are not.''

Tree faller Chuck Klinger can't understand how people in urban areas can complain about cutting trees when they're living in wooden houses on some of the state's first clear-cuts.

``Some of that prime, prime timber country is covered with cement,'' he says. ``That's Seattle.''

In addition to a clearcut, Seattle seems very much a foreign culture - and a monoculture at that - to some loggers. The men who are so capable in the woods often admit that their feelings of infallibility fail them when they have to go to a city.

Bill Tometich says his wife handles the driving when they go to Seattle. The congestion and noise on the streets drive him crazy. Even a brief trip can be a trial.

Jack Churchill, who runs a shovel for Mason Timber Co. of Aberdeen, says:

``I get nervous going Christmas shopping.''

Boutiqueing a la Eatonville is just one possible outcome for a timber town. Appalachia is another. In most cases, the towns themselves have little choice in the matter.

``If you aren't on a highway or near one, the underlying reason for the existence of the community is gone,'' Whitelaw says.

Some of the timber towns of the '90s will have to find new reasons to be. So far, this has not been a happy or fruitful search.

Don Comstock is a community-development specialist who decided to delay an academic career and put his expertise to work during the recession of the early 1980s. He moved to Raymond and spent five years trying to find ways to diversify the economy.

``It's very difficult because there isn't much to work with there. The people are good, but there isn't much they can do,'' Comstock says now. ``I was remarkably unsuccessful.''

This is one of the saddest lessons of U.S. economic history. We have not found ways to relieve the pain of economic transitions. As industries have become obsolete, so in many cases have their workers.

The most recent forecasts place job losses in the wood-products industry as a result of far-reaching changes in the forests - some but not all resulting from increased environmental protection - at 40,000.

King County adds that many jobs every other year. So why is the loss considered apocalyptic? Isn't it simply one little sputter in an otherwise dynamic economy?

To start with, the jobs are highly concentrated and the resulting loss is equally concentrated, not spread across the broader geography. This will mean the end of the world for some towns. There is also the high-paying nature of the jobs themselves. In good years, a logger can earn up to $40,000.

``It's not as if you're talking about 15,000 K-Mart minimum-wage clerks,'' says David Harrison.

But there are issues beyond pay and location. They have to do with the way timber communities define themselves.

``Loggers and other small-town entrepreneurs share a view that they're the people who built America. . . . Because they're tough and resilient, they can face uncertainty and fluctuating markets, fluctuating weather, death in the woods, and they've learned to cope with this uncertainty,'' says Robert Lee, a UW forestry sociologist.

``We asked people over the years one question: `If you couldn't log, what else would you do?' And a lot of people just can't imagine anything else. They hem and haw around and then they say, `I really don't know.'

``It used to be when we talked about professions we talked about callings. And in a sense, it's that same sense: People feel born to be loggers.''

Matthew Carroll, a collaborator of Lee's at Washington State University, says: ``These people believe in the American dream as much as anybody in American society. When you take away jobs, there are different effects when your job is your life. They like the work. From an objective standpoint, they love the work. It's who they are.''

Francis Napoleon worked in the woods for 43 years before retiring this year.

``I was raised up Neah Bay and it was either work in the woods or fish,'' Napoleon recalls. ``They didn't have farms.''

``Once you get hooked on the woods, it's hard to leave. That's all you know, the woods. That's why I tell these younger people not to start in the woods because once you start in the woods, you never leave. It's all you learn, it's all you know.''

The identification with the woods becomes so strong that many loggers refuse to consider even closely related jobs. Would he ever consider being a log-truck driver if he couldn't work in the woods, Mervyn Thomas is asked. In response, he lets loose a loud, derisive snort. Then he drops his head into his hands and shakes it slowly.

Other loggers respond similarly, seeing driving a truck as a long step down. There's an old saying in the woods that kind of sums it up, says one longtime logger:

``I'd rather have a sister in a whorehouse than a brother in a truck.''

There is a debate among public-policy experts over the proper way to approach severe economic dislocations. At one end are those such as former President Reagan, who say that people whose jobs have disappeared must ``vote with their feet.'' That is, they must move to where the jobs are. And so they have in the past.

But you can't move west of the Olympic Peninsula. There is nowhere left to go. There are no more unexploited plains. And there are practical reasons for wanting to preserve rural lifestyles.

One obvious reason is that they are, indeed, rural. If the tally sheets of urban woes - crime rates, school dropouts, drug addictions, teen pregnancies - are any indication, our cities already have too many people.

``It's not at all to the state's advantage to have Seattle be a flagship surrounded by rowboats,'' says Harrison of the Northwest Policy Center. Comstock insists that we have to find things for people to do in the old resource towns, although he admits we have yet to find out how to accomplish that.

``The frontier attitude was that the economy determines the people rather than the people determining the economy,'' he says. It is time to move beyond that laissez-faire approach, he says, to apply political solutions and national resources.

``What I find people saying is there are resources in our economy (to help dislocated rural workers), but these people do not have the political power to get them and so consign them to the dustbin.

``There's a tremendous cost to us in that.''

If it is better for society as a whole for these people to stay where they are, it is not always better for them individually. Wood products is a notoriously cyclical industry, booms following busts. It is difficult for people to be convinced that what is going on now isn't simply one more cycle.

But staying put has an element of cursing the darkness to it. Many workers engage in a sort of denial. Having been conditioned to reject the notion of fundamental change by their entire experience, they have failed to recognize its arrival.

``People hang on believing things were going to get better when they weren't,'' Carroll says.

And while they wait, government programs and payments, and individual savings, all of which are intended to ease the way into new lives, are exhausted in much the way that some forests have been. - without thought to what will follow.

A logger learns to glance at a tree and feel the wind to know which way the tree will fall. He knows what parts of its flesh might contain rot. He knows how to keep from getting lashed by a springy tree, knows which tree to cut first so the rest won't fall across it. He knows how to fell trees with the lay of the land, which way to run from a tree that's being felled, which end of a tree is heavier, which way a piece of blown-down, twisted timber will fly if something lands on it.

Little of this is spoken in the woods. Most communication among members of a logging crew is done via a system of whistles. Men who wrap choker cables around logs will sound a whistle once to tell the yarder operator to go ahead and haul the log away, three times to tell him to stop.

The knowledge culled from a lifetime in the woods isn't going to help many loggers get a job in the city.

``All that we've learned is for nothing,'' says Jim Gold, spreading his hands, shaking his head and laughing the laugh of the good sport who has discovered he's the butt of a giant joke.

Gold is a Grays Harbor logging contractor. He's spent the past few years watching his business go downhill. In April, he sent most of his logging equipment to the auctioneer. He expects to go out of business sometime this winter and wonders what he'll do then.

``What good,'' he asks, ``are whistle signals in the city?''

When industrial workers in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania were laid off in the past decade, many were able to take their skills into other jobs. Machinists, for example, moved from a shutdown Mack Truck plant into dozens of small, new, specialty engineering companies.

When a logger loses a job, there are not many others like it to look to. There are very few uses for a chainsaw other than cutting down trees.

``You're talking about people who are not working because what they did no longer exists, as opposed to your company shuts down and you're an engineer and engineers that did the kind of thing you do can work in other settings,'' says Lawson, the Harborview social worker.

``People who are dislocated economically really are in a life-threatening position. It's not, I think, in the same way as if somebody's holding a knife to your throat. On the other hand, it really is like that.

``The sense of your world being destroyed, I think, is greater for people whose industries are wiped out.''

This is a potentially horrifying mix of anger, rage and despair that can, and often does, yield dysfunctional responses. Social scientists have developed models that coldly calculate the increased incidence of family violence, mental illness, infant mortality, suicide and alcoholism that accompany each percentage increase in the unemployment rate.

``The economic changes are difficult,'' Comstock says. ``The cultural changes are devastating.''

The woods are far from a perfect place. Many loggers in the old days were restless, cocksure and had no goals beyond getting a check and going to town to blow it.

Says one old logger: ``I know guys that worked in the woods for years and years, and the biggest thing they had to point to was the big drunks they went on.''

Many loggers were Swedes and Norwegians who came straight from the old country to the woods of the Northwest. Invariably, they were bachelors. The woods and the rustic logging camps where they lived circumscribed their lives.

So isolated were the camps that some loggers made the long trek to town only on Christmas and the Fourth of July. They frequented the whorehouses and the bars. When they died, many willed their estates to the company.

Felling trees and cutting them up caused the day to fly by, but the work took a toll. Loggers referred to their work as ``taking off your body and putting it in your pocket.''

Injuries were a fact of life.

Though careful, Finley Hays of Chehalis has managed during his life in the woods to turn an ankle, poke a hole in his shin, break his leg and break his arm. He has been cut badly by a chainsaw and knocked unconscious a couple times when people dropped things on his head. ``If you were an athlete, they'd call it playing hurt. That's normal for a logger,'' he says.

Hays' father bears the mark of the woods. His family likes to joke that he singlehandedly caused six insurance companies to go broke.

When his father went to have yet another operation, his doctor exclaimed he'd never seen such a scarred body. He called in five more doctors to take a look. They called other doctors.

Before he got his clothes back on, his father said, about two dozen hospital workers had traipsed through the examining room.

One indication of how near to heaven on Earth the Olympic Peninsula is thought to be is the name given a small park north of Humptulips along U.S. 101. It's called the Promised Land.

Just across the street is an indication of the differing promises the land can hold - a clear-cut owned by Rayonier Timberlands Operating Co., cut and burned in 1984, replanted in '85. The land is part of Rayonier's ``managed forest.''

Down the road in Hoquiam, local dreamers talk about what they might do as the wood runs out. One of the ideas is to build a theme park, a sort of pretend timberland to show tourists what logging was. The dreamers fail to realize that the theme park has already been built. The entire Northwest is a theme park and the managed forests are among its amusements.

They have the same relationship to the old forests that Disneyland has to life. They are a manufactured reality. That is not to denigrate them. These manufactured landscapes are - like Disneyland - capable of much good use. They provide jobs, wood and subsequently enjoyment for thousands, millions of people.

But they are not the forests they have replaced. And the modern Northwest is not the place it replaced, either. The rivers are not the rivers they once were. The filled landscape is not the empty one it supplanted.

The mythic Pacific Northwest is dead. Relics of it, human and otherwise, are scattered about the landscape, but it is unmistakably gone. In its place is a different country filled with factory outlets, Thai restaurants and tree farms; car dealerships, software designers and airplane factories; opera companies, beds and breakfasts.

This isn't of itself good or bad. It just is.