Conversations with Loggers
By Gabriel Frayne Jr.
Henry Stamper, an Oregon logger of many years experience, sits in the living room of his family home, a bottle of bourbon in one hand, and explains his philosophy of forestry to three generations of Stampers gathered around him. "You need to get in there with some machines an' tear hell out of it!" he shrieks, waving the bottle in the air. "Tear it out! Only thing! Chop out the big stuff and burn the brush, grub up the brambles and poison the vines. Tear the livin' jesus outa it!"
Jim Jenkins, another Oregon logger of many years experience, sits in his living room and reflects on the spiritual nature of his work. (His name, and those of other loggers, have been changed for this article.)
"You get to the point where if you have any consciousness at all you being
to feel a little like Atilla the Hun," he says with a certain resignation. "I've
talked with the most adamant and fervent pro-clear-cut people who still admit to
feeling something when they waltz up to a 600-year-old tree
and bring it down in three, four minutes."
Stamper is a fictional character, patriarch of a boisterous clan of Oregon lumberjacks
in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. He is a caricature of the hardy soldiers
of Anglo-American progress who followed the trail of Lewis and Clark to the great
old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, reducing them to one-tenth their size
in little over a century. Jenkins, while perhaps not a typical forest worker, gives
a voice to a small community of loggers who believe that the cutting
practices promoted by the timber industry and the U.S. Forest Service will bring an end to the old growth - and their jobs - unless things change soon.
"It's lack of foresight. Mismanagement. I guess you could say greed and avarice," Jenkins tells me matter-of-factly. "It's cheaper to clear-cut than it is to partial-cut. It's economic expedience." He maintains that timber "is basically a finite resource" and claims that the old-growth timber outside of protected wilderness areas will be gone in a few years at the rate it's being cut.
These are not the words of a man born with logging in his blood. Jenkins is tall and slender with graying hair and a thin mustache which he strokes pensively as he talks. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, he settled in the Eugene area over thirty years ago and began working as a choke-setter. He quickly discovered that his notion of sound forestry was less than enthralling to more experienced hands.
"I remember one time watching them clean up after logging a clear-cut, and
that involved taking a TD-24, which was a pretty big Cat-type vehicle, and blading
up the middle of a stream. It reminded me of a parking lot with six inches of water
running over it. I didn't see how any steelhead or salmon were going to use that
for a spawning ground
Jenkins did a two-year hitch as an army medic in Vietnam, then came back to Oregon
and the timber industry. He has since earned a degree in political science from the
University of Oregon but has been unable to find other work in the ever-tight Northwest
economy. Today he works occasional
logging jobs -- wherever he hasn't been blacklisted. On his refrigerator door he keeps an old newspaper clipping showing him standing beside a giant big-leaf maple tree. Jenkins saved the tree from premature extinction when he contacted a local reporter and photographer to enlist their help in
embarrassing his (former) employer, who had yellow-tagged the tree simply because it was in the way. "People are somewhat reluctant to hire me," he says, recalling the incident. "Being outspoken has not worked in my favor."
* * *
A hundred miles south of Eugene, just off Interstate 5, the town of Riddle cuts a swath of mills, taverns, small businesses, and modest homes through the verdant hills of Douglas County in the heart of Oregon's timber country. Stewart Lange has lived here most of his life, during which time he has carved a living from the forest with a chain saw and a durable back. His wife April greets me at their house on the outskirts of town with a slice of home-baked apple pie and a cup of coffee, welcome antidotes to the cold late-autumn drizzle. Lange is happy to entertain me with stories of the old days of logging, back when it took seven days to rig a giant fir, a job that may take a half-hour today, or when it took five hand-cutters to do the same work that one man with a chain saw could do in later decades. I ask him who is to blame, if anyone, for the situation that has created so much rancor throughout the Northwest today.
"You can start with Uncle Sam," he says, folding his well-muscled arms.
"He kind of led the mills to believe there wouldn't be an end to the timber
that they could buy each year. And probably the biggest problem is that the demand
for timber has increased so much.... And then, of course,
there's plain greed -- overproduction."
Lange is not sentimental about his work; he expresses no regrets about a lifetime
spent cutting trees, nor is he particularly attached to the logging "lifestyle."
He admits to feeling a certain exasperation that "you really can't believe anything
you hear or read" about the old-growth
controversy, but forty-seven years of logging has been witness enough. "I think it's very obvious that old growth is coming to an end," he tells me with a strained ambivalence, "and I don't think it's going to take too many
* * *
The town of Hayfork, California, has been a one-industry town since a half-dozen or so family-owned timber companies began operations in the rugged mountains of California's northern coastal range back in the 1940s. Rob Neilson was born and raised here, began logging in 1944, and has done salvage logging (that is, fire remains) off and on since 1958. Now semi-retired, he speaks frankly and occasionally bitterly about the changes he has seen over the course of his life.
"Hell, I been stompin' in the hills for sixty years," Neilson exclaims
through a cloud of pungent cigarette smoke. "They're hollering about cuttin'
down the rain forests in South America, and they're doing just about as bad here.
They're cutting everything they can get ahold of.
And I don't think that's right."
We are sitting at a long, rectangular table in his comfortable home overlooking rolling pastures and thickly wooded ridges. There are mounted trophies on the wall -- mementos of his days as an avid hunter and fisherman -- and the heavy scent of burning oak issues from a wrought iron woodstove. Neilson tells me that environmentalists are partially to blame for the hemorrhaging job loss in timber country, but is also keenly aware of the effects that such factors as automation and clear-cutting have hadon the work force.
"I remember along about 1948, '49, '50 -- the papers were full of it -- that on the Trinity National Forest they kept talking about 'sustained yield.' They figured that 77 million board feet was a sustained yield for the TNF. Well, (in 1990) they've got that 'sustained yield' up to 246 million (board feet) ... I don't care how big a mill gets, is the forest supposed to be able to handle and supply enough wood to keep those mills going at full speed? That takes a lot of trees."
Somewhat later our conversation turns to his two grown sons and teenage grandson. I ask Neilson if he sees any future for the latter in the timber business. He informs me proudly that his grandson has taken a serious interest in art. "Woods work is a hard life," the elder Neilson laments, "and when you get through puttin' in about thirty years, you ain't got much."