Taking Root – The Town That Trees Built

This assignment for Eugene Magazine’s summer 2013 issue was pitched to me as the history of logging in Eugene. Logging is inseparable from Lane County’s history, and I wanted to know more about it. The story I submitted, as it turns out, which included the voices of forest experts explaining the modern need to log our trees as well as the need to have healthy trees standing, and the improvements that have been made in logging and forestry practices, was deemed “not sexy enough” by the management, because it didn’t include enough product placement opportunities, so it was heavily edited into a history of local products made with wood. I’ve posted my original article below this preview if you want to read what the article should have been about.

Based on my research, many of the people who make these products are using scrap lumber and wood, which is great, but it doesn’t quite match with actual logging. Regardless, I’m proud to have my name on this article and it’s worth reading. I got to talk with representatives of the logging industry, the publisher of biweekly local and global wood products industry magazine, and I got to tour a third generation-owner sawmill that still cuts 70-foot planks using steam.

Summer 2013 Eugene Magazine

Trees: Today, Tomorrow and Forever
Lane County was built on trees.

By Vanessa Salvia

Is a tree more useful to us in a forest, or cut and used as a product? Whether we like it or not, the answer is yes. There’s no disputing the environmental importance of trees, but tree products are also used in unexpected places. Oregon trees find themselves in cellulose film for movies and photographs. Shredded cheese is coated with powdered cellulose. Linoleum flooring is made from pine rosin. Rayon is made from ground wood fibers. Disposable diapers are absorbent and low-fat ice cream is creamy because of wood pulp.

Trees are useful in many ways, including creating jobs. Statewide, the forest sector accounts for 1 in 20 jobs, employing 76,000 Oregonians and generating $5.2 billion in income. Oregon’s total land area is more than 63 million acres, and nearly 25 million of that is timberland, most of which is owned by the federal government. Oregon remains the No. 1 producer of plywood and soft lumber.

Due to Oregon’s land use laws there is nearly as much wood growing in Oregon forests today, by volume, as there was in the early 1950s. Looked at another way, more of the state is covered by forestland today than in 1900, and substantially more wood is growing than is being harvested. That’s good, right? That depends on who you ask. In a classic case of understatement, Cynthia Orlando, a certified arborist with the state, says, “I’m not sure everyone sees this issue the same way.”

A history of change

The history of the timber industry in Lane County is the history of Lane County, which was established in 1851. The first sawmill was built in the Pacific Northwest in 1827. A mere six years later, some of those logs were being shipped to China. By 1870 there are 173 sawmills in Oregon. In 1827, the first sawmill is built in the Willamette Valley, on Chehalem Creek in Yamhill County. In 1935, the chainsaw is invented. Slightly south and two years later, in Monroe, Oregon, the Hull-Oakes sawmill was built by Ralph Hull.

Logging has historically provided the economic base in our area. And it still does, though the overall picture looks quite different than in years past. From the end of World War II until 1989, timber harvests in Oregon ranged from 7 to 9 billion board feet annually. Since 1989, timber harvests on federal land have dropped about 90 percent due to litigation and changes in management practices. Tree harvest hit bottom in 2009 when the recession hit and construction slowed. The 2011 harvest was about 3.65 billion board feet.

Jon Anderson, publisher of Random Lengths newsletter, has lived here his whole life, and has been part of the industry since 1974. Random Lengths publishes weekly prices for commodity lumber with a midweek update and a bi-weekly international report. He’s seen the changes. “There are less mills, they’re more efficient, there are less jobs,” he says. “The industry has taken criticism for that, but what industry doesn’t try to get more efficient?”

The jobs are still here, they’re just different jobs. “What’s forgotten in many cases with jobs is the law firms, accounting firms, insurance firms, and on and on and on that are involved somehow in serving the industry.” He says in his experience he talks with people in manufacturing who can’t seem to fill certain positions. “There are jobs, but they’re not the sexy jobs that hi-tech companies offer,” he says. “We fairly regularly hear, ‘geez, we’ve got a position to fill and we can’t.’ Even sales positions and office positions are difficult to attract people.” I speculate that people may be reluctant to align themselves with the timber industry in any way. “Some people are and some people aren’t,” he says.

Sawmills and power poles

In Lane County, the timber industry accounts for 12 percent of our employment. In neighboring Linn County where the Bell Lumber and Pole Company has a utility pole facility, it’s 15 percent. By comparison, Clatsop in the far northwest corner relies on timber for 29 percent of its jobs and Lake in the central south, 30 percent.

Rick Bleskey, Bell Lumber operations coordinator, says that their utility poles made in Lebanon from Douglas fir, could end up anywhere in the lower 48 states. “The market for that product is very, very hot right now,” Bleskey says. “There’s a lot of demand for it,” due in part to the rebound in construction.

Bleskey helped the company look for a location for the poleyard for a year and a half before finding the site of a former sawmill in Lebanon in 2008. “We looked at a dozen different sites and most of them were former sawmills,” Bleskey recalls. “It was very moving to be at some of these mills that we knew were some of the biggest sawmills on the planet and now are just skeletons or piles of concrete.” When the Lebanon facility opened, Bleskey helped interview people whose families had been in the logging industry for three generations. “We’ve only got 5 to 7 jobs out there but we’re getting guys jobs back in the industry,” he says.

Bell Lumber and Pole was founded by M.J. Bell, who worked in Maine lumberyards at the age of 13. At 16 he moved to Wisconsin and eventually operated seven sawmills. Today, a fourth-generation Bell runs the company. The Hull-Oakes sawmill in Monroe has a similar story. Founded in 1934, Ralph Hull got his start by leasing a mill from a friend who had closed his operation. He also began purchasing timberland to ensure his own log supply. Today, Ralph Hull’s grandson, Todd Nystrom, runs the company.

Hull-Oakes specializes in large timber up to 85-feet long, and many parts of the mill still run on steam generated by burning their sawdust, making it an endangered species—one of the last commercial steam-powered sawmills in the United States. “My granddad had a philosophy that if it’s not broken don’t fix it,” Nystrom laughs. “It works, it’s not the most efficient, but we get a lot of pride out of it. We have 65 employees and in a lot of automated mills you probably have half that.”

The company has 9,000 acres throughout the Coast range, and also buys oversize logs from timber sales. “The logs go all over the US and the world,” says Nystrom. “A lot of our stuff goes for bridges and docks and trestles.” The company has the largest bandsaw in the United States, at 9 feet in diameter (54 feet long), seconded only by a couple of 10-foot bandsaws in Canada. The saws are sharpened every two hours by a 1954 grinder that follows the curve of each notch and blade. They have upgraded somewhat, because some of the equipment is getting too old to replace. “You cant get the equipment anymore and you can only glue it back together so many times,” he says, laughing but with a touch of wistfulness in his voice. What will the sawmill look like in the future?

The equipment might not run on steam, but Nystrom’s timberlands will likely look much the same as they do now.

Cut a tree, plant a tree

“We replant 400 trees per acre, twice the trees required by the Oregon Forest Practices Act,” Nystrom says proudly. That adds up to between 80 and 90,000 trees. In 1941 Oregon enacted the landmark Forest Conservation Act which required logging operators to either leave some trees within a harvest unit or to plant new trees. Most timberland owners will only see their land cut once in their lifetime.

“We try to have a succession plan going,” says Nystrom. “My granddad bought a lot of the ground in the 1930s and ’40s and to pay for it he had to log it. We’ve had to log some of it to pay for it to keep it going. But we’re very responsible with what we do on our grounds so it’s hopefully going to take care of the next generation as well.”

In our area, we’re used to seeing log trucks barreling down the highway. Just about any rural drive will take you past a sorting yard, such as those owned by Seneca, Weyerhaueser or the Giustina family. The Giustinas have managed their resources so well that they can cut in perpetuity. “That’s the idea,” says Larry Giustina.

The Weyerhaueser Company, founded in 1900 by German immigrant Frederick Weyerhaueser, built what was at the time the world’s largest sawmill in 1929 in Longview, Washington. Today the company owns about 942,000 acres across the state—about 334,000 acres in Lane County. In 1949, Weyerhaueser began lumber, pulp, and containerboard manufacturing in Springfield. The company is also one of the largest manufacturers of wood and cellulose fibers products, and they develop real estate, primarily as a builder of single-family homes. In 2012, Weyerhaueser generated $7.1 billion in sales and employed approximately 13,200 people, a little over 1,000 people in our state, and about 550 people in Lane County.

Greg Miller, a Weyerhaueser manager, observes that the remaining forest products manufacturers “are leaner, more efficient, and more responsive to shifts in the marketplace.” Miller lived in Eugene from 1977 to 1988 and began his professional forestry career working in western Lane County. “What has not changed,” Miller says, “is that Lane County is blessed with native tree species, such as Douglas fir, that has world-wide consumer demand.”

Forest protection

Landowners must replant within two years of harvesting trees, which means that about 40 million new trees are planted each year in Oregon. Harvesting, road building and chemical use are regulated near water sources. Live trees and snags must be left in any units larger than 25 acres, and clearcuts cannot exceed 120 acres within a single ownership

A company that is based on cutting down trees simply can’t stay in business if its forest management practices aren’t sound. “Our forest management on private forestlands today is based on best available science backed by company research and development, University collaborations and cooperatives, and partnerships with federal natural resources agency research organizations,” Miller says. “All of this leads to sustainable forest management.”

Many private landowners have opted to certify their forestlands by independent third parties such as American Tree Farm System (ATFS), Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). All of Weyerhaueser’s forestlands are SFI certified, including those in Lane County.

Miller sees the industry heading toward even more technological innovation in both product development and manufacturing. “For example, engineered wood products that blend wood with metal components are on the forefront of products for multi-story buildings. “Blending cellulose fiber with plastic for durable, biodegradable auto parts is a new frontier,” he says. “Because trees can be managed sustainably, are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable, who knows where product innovation will take us?” Even bio-fuels for aviation and beyond are on the horizon.

The housing market turned a corner in 2012. Total starts, both single and multi-family, totaled 781,000, nearly a 30 percent increase from 2011. “This is the highest level of housing starts we’ve seen since June 2008,” says Miller. “Our industry readily embraces technological innovation and while mature, we are far from a dying industry as some have claimed.”

While the urban tree canopy is quite different from a national forest, Dennis “Whitey” Lueck has seen it all. Lueck is an instructor in the UO’s Landscape Architecture department and regularly leads campus tree tours. He has a master’s degree in botany and forest ecology from OSU. “It’s amazing the positive changes that have occurred over the past decade or two,” he notes.

Lueck repeatedly finds himself “straddling the fence” of the tree issue. “I’m a forest ecologist but I’m not anti-logging,” he says. Cutting down trees is not entirely different from cutting down a field of wheat. “Tree farmers are not growing wheat or cabbages or filberts but they’re growing trees,” he says. “I acknowledge that it’s visually upsetting. But I’ve lived long enough to see what happens on a given parcel of land and how quickly it comes back.”

When Lueck was just getting started in his forestry career, he says he found the site of clearcutting repulsive. “But now I can go back to places I saw cut 20 years ago and see all these young trees,” he says. “It’s gotten so much better over the past 20 years, and I have every reason to believe that it will continue to get better.”

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