A fading generation: Number of loggers in Northwest has plunged

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter


SWEET HOME, Ore. For logger Mike Rice, some things have not changed. He still rises before dawn and washes down a biscuit and egg sandwich with a glass of milk. His pickup takes him into the woods, where on this spring day the rain falls like a clammy nasal drip.

But this second-growth forest has none of the thick-barked giants that the 52-year-old Rice felled in his youth, when it might take 15 minutes or more to cut a single tree. Here, in just five minutes, Rice breezes through a dozen or more slender trunks "fuzzies," he calls them.

This is the 21st-century workplace for the last generation of big-tree loggers in the Northwest, who followed their fathers and grandfathers into the old-growth forests of Oregon and Washington.

A decade after the Northwest Forest Plan put most of the remaining big trees on federal lands off-limits, logging crews now largely cut the small, second-growth trees on private land.

The job remains the most-dangerous profession in the United States, but pay has stagnated and health and pension benefits increasingly are rare.

The chain-saw crews also face new competition. They have ceded ground to a new generation of diesel-powered machines called feller bunchers, which buzz-cut the tree base, then use steel claws to grasp the fresh-cut logs and lay them on the ground like so much cord wood.

A decade ago, the machines claimed less than 10 percent of the harvest. Today, the machines' share approaches half of the harvest, with only the steeper slopes still off-limits.

"Sometimes we can look across the way and see the feller bunchers, and it makes me upset because we could be working on all that ground," Rice said. "But I know that the contractors got to have them. One of these machines can cut as much in a day as we can cut in three to five."

Rice has a pate of receding gray hair and a rail-thin build honed by more than 30 years as a cutter. He is a native of the foothills of the central Oregon Cascades southeast of Salem, where Sweet Home and other small towns once were epicenters in the old-growth logging boom.

The cutting peaked in 1988, when Sweet Home boasted seven sawmills within five miles of town.

That year, the nearby Willamette National Forest yielded a record 907 million board feet of timber the most of any federal forest in the nation. This year, the Willamette will produce less than 30 million board feet, and all but three Sweet Home-area mills have closed.

Mike Rice, 52, of Sweet Home, Ore., has hand and back problems from 30 years of cutting down trees. After 28 years with a large timber company, he was laid off and now works for a small outfit.

Many displaced workers left or became commuters, trading in their jobs in the woods for construction or other jobs in Willamette Valley cities such as Salem and Corvallis. Meanwhile, Sweet Home spruced up with murals to attract tourists, and a local golf course is planned to cater to an influx of retirees.

The changes that swept Sweet Home were part of a broad but uneven transformation of timber towns across the region. Though none tasted the economic boom that buoyed Seattle, Portland and other urban centers during the '90s, some towns managed to hold their own. Others spiraled into decline.

As for loggers, their numbers shrank from more than 23,500 in Washington and Oregon in the peak harvest year of 1988 to about 15,000 today.

For survivors, there may be an occasional foray into a patch of big timber. But most of the work now involves clear-cutting second growth on private lands, where secure union jobs are all but gone. Instead, even the large corporate landowners now contract with nonunion operators, most of whom don't offer health insurance or pensions.

Rice once thought he would ride one of those union jobs to retirement. For 28 years, he worked for Willamette Industries, the largest private forest landowner in Oregon with its own crew of loggers. But last year, he joined a small nonunion outfit after the new owners of Willamette Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser decided to lay off his crew.

"We got three days' notice. They said 'see ya later,' and down the road we went," Rice recalled.

Smaller trees, same dangers

This month, Rice faces a 70-mile commute west, across the Willamette Valley and into the rain-soaked Coast Range made famous in Ken Kesey's classic novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," which chronicled the saga of an ornery family of old-growth loggers.

This is some of the most productive forest in America, born out by the huge, moss-covered stumps scattered about the second-growth stands, where Rice works as part of a four-man crew.

The crew is paid by Mark Armstrong, a Sweet Home-based contractor and third-generation logger. But Armstrong's father retired from the woods before he was born, yielding to his wife, who had lost her father to the woods.

"A snag came off and killed him when my mom was still a little girl," Armstrong said. "So she made real clear that she didn't want my dad working in the woods. He went into the grocery business."

In the early 1900s, the old-growth forests were a virtual killing field, claiming the lives of several hundred loggers each year. And even as late as 1985, in the heyday of old-growth logging, 27 Oregon loggers were killed.

Today, in the second-growth forests, loggers still face hazards as their saws bite through as many as 200 trees a day or more. Tree-top limbs known as widow makers can fall with deadly force. And the tree trunks are so light that, if not properly felled, they can get hung up on another tree, splinter, and send wood daggers flying back at a logger.

"I think this stuff can be more dangerous than the old growth," Rice said.

Tree feller Ken Sheffield pauses in the central Oregon Coast Range, which has some of the most productive forests in the region. The clear-cut in the background has been replanted.

Last year, 14 Oregon and Washington loggers died on the job, state records show. And nationwide, the fatality rate for loggers remains nearly 30 times higher than the average for all occupations.

Such high-risk work used to earn loggers some of the best blue-collar wages in America. In the early '80s, Oregon forest workers earned 25 to 30 percent above the average wage for all the state's workers, according to John Garland, an Oregon State University professor.

By 2000, the pay advantage had all but evaporated: The average yearly salary for Oregon loggers including truck drivers and machine operators was $34,990, compared with a statewide average of $32,776 for all workers

The stagnating salaries reflect the fierce, at times cutthroat, competition among logging contractors. With the federal forests all but shut down, the contractors must try to outbid each other for trees in state forests or on private lands.

In recent years, loggers have complained that the private landowners have squeezed their profit margins too tight, drying up the cash flow needed to maintain equipment and improve worker benefits. The trade group Associated Oregon Loggers recently met with at least one large landowner to press for better pay.

"When you aren't making money, and your margins get squeezed tight, you stop maintaining your equipment, crew morale goes down," said Jim Geisinger, the association's executive vice president. "You can't burn the candle at both ends."

A representative of large landowners concedes the cost-cutting trend. "It's not a pretty picture," said Ray Wilkeson, with the Oregon Forest Industries Council. "Landowners are being squeezed because of the global nature of the industry, and managing costs are critical to survival."

Logging contractor Mark Armstrong steps up on a stump just left by his feller buncher machine, which can cut as much timber as several chain-saw operators.

For contractors, survival generally requires deploying a mix of chain-saw crews and feller bunchers and making sure there's a steady flow of work to make the bank payments. Sweet Home contractor Armstrong puts his total investment at close to $1 million in equipment. He offers no 401(k) or retirement plan but pays some of the best logging wages in the state $210 a day for a six-hour chain-saw shift, compared with the $180 to $200 a day some competitors pay.

Armstrong also tries to negotiate a price rather than low-bid a job with customers who appreciate the skills of a veteran crew. The crew has had an excellent safety record, and that helps keep down workers'-compensation costs. In a decade of logging, Armstrong says he has yet to have one of his men carried out of the woods with a serious injury.

But there have been close calls. Last fall, 37-year-old Ken Sheffield was driving home when his vehicle was rear-ended. He missed more than a month of work and finally returned in December with a neck kink that made it hard for him to peer up at the trees to check for hazards. As he felled one fir tree, a jagged branch dropped, missing his hard-hat but striking one of his arms.

"It ripped the meat and the skin open," Sheffield said. "I just rolled around on the ground and felt like I wanted to cry."

More than a paycheck

Loggers who escape injury still face a life of aches and pains. Hunching over to cut trees strains the lower back. Loggers wear out their knee joints scrambling over downed logs. And the constant saw vibration can damage the hand's nervous system, leading to a condition known as "white fingers" or carpal-tunnel syndrome.

Ken Sheffield peers up the trunk of a large tree, figuring out which way it will fall.

Still, the loggers say there's plenty besides a paycheck to keep them cutting trees. Rice and his crew say they savor their time in the forest, and six-hour days leave them free for an afternoon float trip down salmon-filled rivers.

Yet as Oregon and Washington loggers age, its tough to find people willing and able to follow them into the woods, even in a sour economy that has created some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Contractors complain that most of the younger generation even those who grow up in timber towns lack the work ethic required to succeed.

"A lot of them don't know what hard work is," Armstrong said. "If they don't show some initiative and common sense on the first day ... they will get run off the job."

And among loggers, there is often a certain ambivalence, at times downright hostility, about having their own children take up the saw.

Rice's chain-saw partner on the Coast Range job, Scott Lafond, has had too many near misses, and helped pack three injured comrades out of the woods. So he doesn't want his 19-year-old son, now living at home, to try to earn a living from a logging job that carries no guarantees of benefits or long-term employment.

"I take him out here for a day with me. And he loves it. But as far as a career, I won't allow it. I want him to have something more stable."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.



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