Last Ditch Logging

By Judi Bari - Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 10, 1991, Reprinted in Timber Wars, © 1994 Common Courage Press.

One thing about working in the woods in Mendocino County is that there just isn't much wood left. The once mighty old growth is gone, and even decent second growth is getting hard to find. You can see how a logger in Humboldt or Del Norte could be fooled into believing there is enough forest left to sustain this logging assault. But here in Mendo(cino) County, the land of the baby redwood, it's getting harder and harder for the loggers to ignore what they're seeing with their own eyes.

"I can't live here anymore. I've seen too much of the woods destroyed," a twenty-year veteran Mendo(cino)logger told me. "It's a paradox. You love the wood, you're with it all day, and you're killing it." A younger woods worker, born and raised in Mendo(cino) County, says he's "fed up with doing the damage. It's not right. That's why so many loggers are drunk. It's not natural to whack up that much shit in one day."

It's not easy for a logger to admit that his job is destroying the forest, and the fact that a few are beginning to come forward and do so is an indication of how bad things really are out there. Unlike mill workers, and unlike most industrial workers, loggers have a legendary pride in their occupation. "The whole idea of being a logger," says one of my sources, "is that it's not something you do, it's Something you are. While you're out there, your cursing it. It's 100°, there's flies, there's mosquitoes, there's dust and dirt all over the place, and those chokers are heavy. But it's a good job for someone who likes to work."

 A choker setter is the perfect example of that, After the trees are felled, his job is to scramble up and down the hillsides carrying up to 100 pounds of metal cables, which he wraps around the cut trees so they can be hauled in to the landing. He has to dodge moving equipment, trees and cables to do it. For this he gets paid $9 or $10 an hour, and most local gyppo companies work a ten-hour day. Equipment operators get up to $13 an hour, and fallers get paid piece work, usually amounting to $150 or $200 a day, out of which they must buy and maintain their own equipment.

L-P has never had union loggers in this county, but G-P loggers used to be covered by the IWA union contract. "Back then we did pretty good," said an ex-union faller. "We got an hourly wage plus a production bonus." But in 1985 IWA union rep Don Nelson agreed to a contract that cut out the woods workers from union protection, and now all the loggers in Mendo(cino) County work for gyppo firms. L-P and G-P contract out to the gyppos, and the job goes to the low bidder who is willing to cut the most corners. Competition among the gyppos is intense, and the corners they cut include quality of logging, equipment maintenance, wages, and worker safety.

Logging is the most dangerous job in the U.S., according to the U.S. Labor Dept. The death rate among loggers is 129 per 100.000 employees, compared with 37.5 for miners. Charlie Hiatt's father, Kay Hiatt, was killed in a logging accident when a stump rolled down a hill and crushed him. His son-in-law had his back run over by a loader. "I've been hit over the head by trees four or five times, twice without a hard-hat," one choker setter told me. "once I got hit in the face by a cable," says a logger, "I woke up two days later."

Okerstrom has one of the worst safety records of the Mendo(cino)gyppos, with three deaths and a neck down paralysis in three years. In 1986, Okerstrom and L-P knowingly sprayed Garlon over an area where a logging crew was working near Juan Creek, poisoning 12-15 people. The loggers' skin turned beet red, they had severe headaches, diarrhea and nausea, one man threw up blood and another man's wife had a miscarriage after handling his clothes. The company maintained that the loggers just had the flu. When they tried to complain and to document the poisoning, Okerstrom fired two longtime good employees, Tom Fales and his son Frank, and threatened them with a lawsuit if they caused any more trouble.

But the Garlon spraying, like the PCB spill a few years later, was the exception in that it aroused opposition from the workers. Mostly loggers just accept the danger as part of the job. "These are tough guys," a logger told me. "Guys who will cut their hand off and put the glove back on with the hand in it and go back to work." So when these same guys, who rarely complain about damage to themselves, start complaining about damage to the forest, you know how close we must be to the end.

 "There's very little logging going on out there. There's a lot of trashing," says an R&J logger. "We'll log an area and move on to the next landing, and R&J flies over it with a helicopter to check it for any trees we might have missed. That's when I realized how fucked it was." In cat logging jobs like these, the tractor is driven as close as possible to the logged area. A main cable is attached to a winch on the tractor, and five to seven choker cables are hooked on the end of the main cable. Each choker cable is wrapped around a felled tree, and when you pull five to seven trees at once, you're going to knock down a lot of small trees, says my source. "oaks are no expense--if they're in your way just mow 'em down. In between skids I sit on a bald mountain looking at another bald mountain. The yarder is crashing, whistles blowing, trees swinging around, branches flying off like missiles, dust flying it's all death and destruction."

Cable logging is used in places where the slope is too steep for a tractor. It does less damage than tractor logging because the cables lift one end of the log off the ground as it is dragged up the hill. But cable logging enables them to log slopes that are too steep to sustain the damage. "I've seen canyons in this county that are 1000 feet straight down. And we logged them!" says an experienced Mendo(cino)logger.

A lot of the actual logging practice is in the hands of the guy on the cat. "I've seen roads built where they pushed the soil right into the creek," says a Hiatt logger. Even when done according to the forest practice laws, you are allowed to log right up to a stream. You don't have to leave any shade at all on a Class 3 (seasonal) stream, and you can take 50% of the shade in a Class 2 (year-round tributary to a fish-bearing stream). If there's a canopy left you can take all the conifers, and in the past, logging practices have been so sloppy that they have counted the fog as a canopy. "Really, I've seen it written into plans. It's horseshit," said a longtime coast logger.

But the most urgent complaint I heard from the Mendocino County loggers I talked to was the cutting of baby trees. Before the 60s, they didn't even take the second growth, they considered it junk. Now L-P's limit for a sawlog is 6 inches by 8 feet. out of this they claim they can get two 2x4s, one 1x2, and chips. Things have gotten so bad that last year in Comptche some of the timber fallers actually walked out on a cut because the trees were too small for them to make any money at their piece-work rate.

R&J is one of the prime offenders at cutting baby trees. "There was one cut on the Garcia last year where they needed 40-50 more years for the trees to grow. They were cutting trees 15 inches at the stump," said one source. Another told of an R&J cut in Manchester where they took 12-inch trees. A decent second growth cut will yield about 70,000 board-feet per acre. The trees in Manchester were so small that they yielded only 2,500 board-feet per acre.

 Hardwood logging is another new policy from L-P. There's no legal requirement to leave the oaks, but redwood loggers didn't used to bother with them. Now L-P takes it all, as Harry Merlo promised, leaving our hills even more denuded and subject to erosion. They chip the oak and send it to their pulp mill in Samoa, or ship it to Japan to make fax paper. The chip market is always good, even in winter, and L-P wants every timber dollar they can get their greedy hands on. In a recent timber harvest plan for 1,100 acres near Covelo, L-P broke new ground in the field of liquidation logging by including the digger pines and manzanitas in their cutting plans. That's what Harry meant when he said he logs to infinity -chipping up scrub trees and bushes to extract the last bit of biomass off the dying Earth.

It's a far cry from the giant redwood and fir trees that used to cover our area. "The way I see it," says a lifetime Mendo(cino) resident working in the woods, "we're missing out on about 80% of what used to be here. Not just 80% of the forest, but 80% of the whole ecosystem." That number, deduced from life experience, is strikingly close to the numbers that Hans Burkhardt worked out on his computer. Hans figures that the standing volume of timber left in Mendo(cino) County is only 10% of what it was 140 years ago, before cutting began.

"It used to be, you'd go out to Navarro or Ray Gulch and there would be trees. Now it's all clearcuts," laments a local logger. "I grew up around Fort Bragg, and every place I ever loved is gone," says another. "Anderson Creek, Indian Creek and Rancheria used to be loaded with steelhead. I remember one hole where they all met, and there'd be 250 fish in the hole, stacked three deep. Now we haven't had a run in four years."

Along with no trees comes no jobs, and between the recession and the overcut my sources estimate that unemployment in the woods is 50% this year. Some people are waking up. They can't help but see that there's hardly any loggable timber left in Mendo(cino) County But most of them are "too scared to admit the truth, even to themselves. When I talk about it they say yeah, but they refuse to take it seriously. They just put their heads in the sand and blame who they're told to blame." And that means us.

There's a lot of anger out there, and my sources were all afraid for our safety. "It's part of loggers' pride to attack Earth First!," said one. Last year some of the gyppos hired armed guards to watch their equipment. one guy who works for Hiatt tried to get people to meet at his house and go after EF! with clubs when we were camped at Navarro Beach around the time of the osprey Grove demo. Luckily, we moved the night before, so we don't know if it was just talk or if they would have done it. But there was peer pressure on the job for people to join in. Comments like, "I'll kill one of them" are heard on the job all the time. And this week's violence in Headwaters Forest has shown us once again the kind of hatred we're up against.

"It's going to be a war. It's going to be the biggest social change in our lifetime," one of the loggers told me. "But we're going to have to change, otherwise we're not going to have a place to live. If we keep destroying our home, we're going to run out of home. The problem is that the system is based on consumption."

The problem in the forest is both biological and sociological. But there is a solution to both problems, according to the woods workers who talked to me. "Put the loggers to work doing restoration," said one after another of them. "I'm sure they can handle planting trees for $12-$15 an hour." "Why can't all these loggers drive their cats and four-wheelers and haul things out of the creeks? It's full-time work to replace what we've destroyed." of course the corporations are in no hurry to finance restoration. They're already in the run phase of cut-and-run. But, for example, when someone like Congressman Pete Stark sponsors a bill to tax old growth at 75%, that money should be earmarked for hiring displaced loggers to do restoration. "Loggers don't want welfare or relief funds," said my sources. "They want to work."

Last week I went to the EF! Rendezvous in the Siskiyou Mountains. It's all public land there, and it's checkerboard clearcuts. Not as bad as Mendo(cino) yet, but heading the same way. Some of the local loggers from the nearby town of Happy Camp came up to our rendezvous and told me their story. Lots of people got laid off after the election last year, just like they did here. one of the men I talked to lost his mill job and tried growing pot, but got busted and was losing his house. Another man was a logger who also got laid off but had a temporary job building a house for his boss. Both families--four adults and eight kids--had moved into the logger's house together. But now they were all getting kicked out of there too, because the landlord had sold the house to a yuppie who wanted to use it as a vacation home. "We're going camping, I guess," said the logger's wife. Born and raised in the mountains, they are determined not to be driven into the city, where many displaced timber workers are going. "We're going to Idaho. There's work there for sure. There are places where you can stand on a mountaintop and not see a clearcut." I've heard other people say they're going to Oregon, but loggers in Oregon are leaving, and the problem is the same all over.

Last January, the Happy Camp loggers told me, they had a demo against the Forest Service to protest the unemployment. It was organized by the yellow ribbon people, and 450 Happy Camp timber workers and their families rallied in Yreka at the fairgrounds. When I asked if it did any good, they said no. "It barely made the Yreka papers. Then we went home and we were still unemployed." And it occurred to me that yet another purpose of the timber management-sponsored yellow ribbon campaign is to prevent real or effective local organizing. Imagine what could have happened if, instead of just protesting the unemployment, the displaced timber workers had demanded jobs restoring the clearcuts. It's public land. Every environmental group in the country would have backed them up, and they just might have gotten funding.

But if we keep going the way we are now, the forest and the loggers have had it.