The Long-Term Impact of the Timber Economy

As some of you know, I have a pretty complex and ambivalent view of the history of the Pacific Northwest, largely because I grew up in a timber-supported household when the industry was disappearing and when environmentalists were suing to end the unsustainable and environmentally unsound forest practices that helped create the crisis of the 1980s. The ambivalence comes from very deep sympathies for working-class people in the Northwest (where by all rights and odds I should be struggling to make ends meet now instead of being a professor in Rhode Island) but at the same time knowing that environmentalists were basically right on all the issues, even if the approach wasn’t always the best.

What I’m not ambivalent on is the responsibility of the timber industry for these problems and the lack of a diversified economy that still plagues the region today. While most people think of the Northwest as Portlandia and beer and mountains, huge chunks of the region are mired in poverty. Much of that poverty, especially on the west side of the Cascades, is directly related to the legacy of the timber industry. That most definitely includes southwestern Oregon, where you have counties that were for decades reliant on funding from the O&C land grant, a defaulted railroad land grant of timber that reverted to the government and which supported the basic government functions of these counties. When the spotted owl crisis was happening, the timber industry used this to their advantage, saying that ending logging on these lands meant the defunding of schools, police, roads, whatever. They were right about that, of course leaving the part out about their own culpability.

Even today, 20 years after the end of most old-growth logging in Oregon, the implications of this are still profound. You have Curry, Josephine, and Lane Counties, basically Eugene and the southwestern corner of the state, absolutely struggling to fund even basic government functions like the police. Because voters don’t want to raise taxes and because there really is no alternative economy in Curry and Douglas counties (outside of untaxed marijuana production), there isn’t much functionality in the county governments. That leads to some pretty severe social problems, as we are seeing.

54 comments on this post.
  1. efgoldman:

    …outside of untaxed marijuana production…

    Well, there’s your problem, right there.
    Sorry, Loomis. I know you’re dead serious, but I cannot ignore such an easy target.

  2. Anna in PDX:

    I grew up in Curry County – my father was an Earth Firster and it was a pretty awful time for everyone. The loggers were losing their livelihoods to rapacious corporate raiders, offshoring and primary resource exporting, and the fact that there were no more trees. But it was so easy to blame the environmentalists. I just watched the documentary “Who Bombed Judi Bari” last night incidentally, it was showing at the Clinton St. Theater in Portland. If you have a chance to see it I highly recommend it as a very good picture of what it was like during that era.

  3. DN:

    This is just sad to read. I spent some years in a woods working coop in Eugene/Springfield before getting my degree from UO. Since I was a high school drop-out I spent my first year in school at Lane Community College, where school basically cost close to nothing. I could never have afforded iLCC at what they charge now. It feels like we are just pulling the floor out from under people. I haven’t been back to Eugene or Springfield in a couple decades but I somehow still thought of it as special. I guess not in the way I thought.

  4. Conrad:

    Going by the numbers in the linked article the tax rates in the counties are absurdly low.

    “To generate the $3 million in lost timber payments, the county would need to add to the tax rolls 70 new $100 million golf courses, or 21,087 new homes, or 3,507 new McDonald’s restaurants.”

    So a $100,000,000 golf course would only pay $42,857 in property tax each year, a new house $142.27, and a McDonald’s $855.43?

  5. Vance Maverick:

    I don’t get it. You clearly understand his point (a reference among other things to a recent post he made on libertarian arguments against legalization), and apologize for mocking it — but don’t actually make a joke. Yes, it’s a problem that much of the economy is underground. And?

  6. Erik Loomis:

    This is a really complex issue. First, it was indeed easy to blame environmentalists because a lot environmentalists were assholes to working-class people in their interactions with them. So that’s an important point. Second, the timber industry did a remarkable job of distracting attention away their own perfidy by pointing to the hippies taking away their jobs. Never mind that the real reasons the jobs were going away was mechanization, the decline of extremely profitable old growth timber, timber company investment in the South and British Columbia, and unprocessed log exports to Japan. People identify with their employers. Unions sometimes do a good job of challenging this, but it’s always a problem.

    So it was a combination of being played for suckers by the timber industry and a very huge cultural divide.

    That said, there were more connections and conversations between radical environmentalists like EarthFirst! and timber workers than are portrayed. I’m at least hinting at that in the last chapter of my book, if it ever gets done.

  7. Erik Loomis:

    I don’t get it either.

    What’s the target? Regardless of whether one thinks marijuana should be legal or not, it is happening in those counties and taxing it would create revenue for poor counties.

  8. Amanda in the South Bay:

    My dad’s side of the family is from Coos County, and I grew up in St. Helens. My dad retired from the Boise Cascade mill, and my brother got his start as a millwright there (and my sister and I worked summers there). Boise closing the mill down a few years ago (it was featured in Time fucking Magazine!) really destroyed the local economy. I remember reading that Time article,(in early 2008 I think) and recognizing the people in it from growing up. It was even worse driving down to Coquille in 2005, that area seemed to me to be desolate.

    I was always worried growing up that my dad would lose his job if the mill shut down, and I’d have to move. Now, I should be glad it shut down when it did, but St. Helens is going to be hurting for a long time. And because of the rising price of gas, people aren’t going to be as gung ho about moving there and commuting to PDX like they did a decade or so ago.

    I guess it was really hard being an environmentalist on this issue growing up when your families livelihood depended on it.

  9. encephalopath:

    I paid for a good portion of my college education by helping to rape the land working in a stud mill in Southern Oregon in the mid to late 80s and into the 90s. We ran so much old growth Doug Fir through there in 86 and 87, it was obscene. The stuff was so big you had to cut the bell butt off the bottom segment of the tree with a chain saw to get it to fit through the double cut saw. 7 foot diameter was just too big.

    In retrospect that was the last of the old growth that was available in the region except for the wilderness areas. And you’re right about how the industry tried to blame the environmentalists for the decline in harvests. It was easy. The workers WANTED to believe that their political enemies were to blame for the threat to their jobs. 100 years of bad forest practices and a whole lot of over cutting didn’t have the same emotional resonance as blaming the hippies.

    They really wanted to think that there was lots and lots of timber available, but they were being prevented from harvesting it because of environmental lawsuits. Even if the environmentalists lots every time the timber they would have gotten wouldn’t have extended anyone’s job beyond a couple more years.

    Blame the owls didn’t ever pass a cursory sniff test. If you looked out the window of an airplane when flying north/south, the Cascades and the Coast Range were a checkerboard of clear cuts. If there were timber to be harvested in any significant amounts you would have seen contiguous areas of uncut trees. They just weren’t there.

    I’ve got a picture somewhere of me and then congressman Wes Cooley at a Save Our Sawmills protest in Jacksonville. At that rally there was one of big log truck parades with trucks from all over the region like a big blue collar Critical Mass. The worker knew their industry was dying and they tried to fight, but they never properly understood that it was their own employers who had fucked them.

  10. Terry Teagle:

    I haven’t heard anything in a while about Curry County – are they still considering trying to dissolve the county government or start a county sales tax or build a luxury golf course on pristine state parkland?

    It’s an absolute failure of local economic planning – their ‘business’ without timber subsidies is real estate for California exiles, and those people have very little incentive to ever vote to increase their property taxes (which are the lowest in the state) – they are more invested in their ideology than their community and don’t have children at home.

    It’s just going to be an endless progression of short-term patches and stupid ideas to wring money from someone else because the people in the county who have money are not willing to invest in their society.

  11. expatchad:

    I was living in Seattle and spending a lot of time in the coastal counties (Grays Harbor, Pacific, Clatsop) and yes, tree-huggers, etc, were being really nasty and gloating over the loggers’ misfortunes, etc. Hoquiam and Aberdeen were desperately trying to reinvent themselves, and Pacific county was bankrupt. I hear that the aftermath of the logging collapse is even worse now, and that Long Beach is beconing a ghost town, tourism notwithstanding.

    As of 4 years ago, the last time I was there, people were beginning to realize that they had been played for suckers by the big timber interests and were adjusting to not holding the Spotted Owl responsible for the downfall of everything from Forks to Astoria, but it’s going to take a long time.

  12. expatchad:

    I suspect that the poor spotted owl may well be extinct by now, because some residents were actively hunting it in the fury whipped up by the Tmber Company propoganda.

  13. DocAmazing:

    tree-huggers, etc, were being really nasty and gloating over the loggers’ misfortunes

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Oregon (and the northern California timberlands) and found a sizable contingent of the locals seriously hostile to anyone they thought resembled a tree-hugger. I’m finding myself less and less sympathetic to the loggers, having spent time among them.

  14. Amanda in the South Bay:

    I remember seeing a well heeled rich guy in the Whole Foods in Palo Alto wearing a hat from the golf course in Bandon, I think? Talk bout reinventing local business.

  15. expatchad:

    I am very aware that the loggers were exhibiting great hostility. They were pretty unpleasant and hostile toward strangers in general. You wanted to be careful wandering into a bar for a quick drink. It was quite palpable.

    I think their fear was responsible for the misdirection (aided ceretainly by the timber companies’ activities) of their anger, but the huggers certainly stoked it, and the last thing anybody needed then was holier-than-thou rabble rousers in a redneck logger tavern.

  16. Anonymous:

    Absurdly low? The majority of people here are retired on fixed income,social security of unemployed. 69 cents per $1000 property value is not absurd, it is pretty cool. Lets keep it that way. Sheriff Bishop singed a letter to president Obama that he won’t enforce gun control. So we are all free to defend ourselves and our homes like they do next door in Josephine County. Hey, its free

  17. James E. Powell:

    but they never properly understood that it was their own employers who had fucked them.

    Do they ever? As Erik pointed out above, the workers identify with their employers, the specific corporation and especially the industry as a whole. It becomes part of their identity. Cf. Coal miners who believe that Obama’s War on Coal is destroying their way of life.

  18. Melissa, Elk River:

    You got it!

  19. Vance Maverick:

    People identify with their employers.

    I work in a very different world (currently for Google) and I can attest to this. It’s remarkable, weird, often distasteful, but very human.

  20. Melissa, Elk River:

    Terry, what about the people who DON”T have money and are not willing to invest in their society. The majority are on fixed incomes, have no kids at home and don’t give a rat’s ass, about the county government, fortunately.

  21. Frank:

    I always like these posts on your work, Erik. You have an understanding of the region that both innate and well-earned by research. There is something you wrote, though, which I think sometimes needs to be repeated in a more generic way:

    While most people think of any region in the country other than Appalachia or the Deep South or the Rust Belt as characterized by its icons of natural beauty and/or cultural attractions and/or desirable cities, huge chunks of these regions are mired in poverty.

    This is especially true for rural poverty which is so endemic in this country but so widely ignored.

    (And of course, there is the reverse statement: while most people think of Appalachia, the Deep South, and the Rust Belt as mired in poverty, these regions also all have abundant natural beauty and cultural richness.)

  22. BigHank53:

    Not limited to blue-collar workers. Lots of engineers and programmers still think they’re irreplaceable, too. Never mind the ginormous push from the 1% for more STEM graduates and H1B visas.

  23. Erik Loomis:

    Good point.

  24. Dave:

    Poe?

  25. Dave:

    This will always be the problem in the USA – the successful, long-ago, eradication of a working-class left that might have helped workers to see things differently. But like old-growth timber, once it’s gone…

  26. expatchad:

    Well, I would really like to have heard THAT song.

  27. expatchad:

    But, would you invest in a society like that one?

  28. brett:

    “even if the approach wasn’t always the best.”

    What would’ve been the best approach? I’d love to know.

  29. LeeEsq:

    A lot of the environmentalists were probably hostile towards the workers because they saw themselves as the forces of good fighting against the forces of evil at Armageddon. If you approach a conflict with this mindset, you are going to not treat loggers that kindly since you probably are going to view them as the footsoldiers of the forces of evil rather than victims.

    What were the class origins of the environmentalists? I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them came from privileged backgrounds and never thought much about class issues. A lot of them probably could not see the loggers as being victims in anyway.

  30. LeeEsq:

    Did America ever have a working-class left like European and Latin American countries? Large swathes of the Anglo-Protestant working class rejected most forms of leftism as beign foreign and un-American since the countries founding.

    The individual mythos runs deep in the American body politic. At best, only half of this can be attributed to racism or xenophobia. Even if race wasn’t an issue, I can’t really see the American working class develop a political consiousness that is like that of the European or Latin American ones. The working-class left in Europe and Latin America developed in a societies more prone to communalism anyway and with a much more rigidly defined class system. America’s individualist orientation and more ambivalent and fluid class system would really prevented a working class-left from developing.

  31. Dave:

    Well there definitely was one. A lot of them got shot by the Pinkertons, though.

  32. PSP:

    In the late nineties, the Boston Globe did a spectacular series on rural poverty called “Hidden Massachusetts”. Unfortunately, it is hidden behind the paywall, but Ted Kennedy put excepts in the Congressional record. It is enough to convey the flavor.

    At the time, the word was that police and social services were keeping Checy Van Pickup’s name confidential, but his Mom wanted the paper to use his full name.

    I wish I had a copy of the whole series, because people tend not to believe it is that bad.

  33. PSP:

    Damn. “Chevy Van Pickup” not “Checy”

  34. burritoboy:

    Yes, people got shot by Pinkertons. But it wasn’t really repression that ended the working-class left – it was the working class itself. There was never enough repression (even during the worst periods, which were in the late nineteenth century) to reasonably say the Pinkertons or external forces ended leftism among the working class.

  35. burritoboy:

    But at what point does the working class ever have to bear the weight for it’s own mistakes – and repeatedly make the exact same mistakes? Whether or not the environmentalists treated the logging communities poorly (and I largely agree that they did), it was in those working-class communities’ central self-interest to correctly understand their own economic situation. The most important decisions that they ever would have to make were precisely those, and it doesn’t say much about those communities’ own abilities that they were easily fooled by run of the mill corporate propaganda. They weren’t living in some horrific fascist regime, where obtaining understanding of their situation was truly banned or dangerous or impossible.

  36. Pat:

    Well, you are essentially correct. There is a kind of group-think, if you will, common enough in areas where people mostly only know their relatives, in which loyalty to one’s tribe means accepting the common wisdom.

    Often, those who can’t accept the common wisdom have trouble finding jobs, and end up leaving the area. If you don’t have a lot of savings, you can’t quit working, and if you don’t live the part, you can’t get a different job.

  37. LeeEsq:

    Yes but that section of the working class left really only covered the Immigrant Catholic and Jewish working class. The White Protestant and African-American working classes weren’t really part of that working class movement. There never was a grand unified working class movement in the United States like there was elsewhere.

    Also, while the working class left in the United States faced many challenges, it wasn’t as much as the European or Latin American Left faced. They still failed to connect with many working class Americans.

  38. Anna in PDX:

    Judi Bari who was the target of death threats was working with loggers groups who were upset about their jobs being outsourced and the clearcuts happening too fast. But other loggers were all too ready to believe she was a terrorist. Seems to me that the loggers are only too ready to stereotype the environmentalists many of whom knew about the working class issues not exactly being rich themselves.

  39. Anna in PDX:

    Again this is not generally true of the more radical groups like Earth First who tended to have a pretty good understanding of class issues and many of whom had union backgrounds. Enviros are not all hipster urbans.

  40. Anna in PDX:

    Remember the bumper stickers “I like my spotted owls fried,” etc.?

  41. Anna in PDX:

    Work with the loggers, and get bombed by a far right nutcase for your pains, then have the FBI cover it up and blame you for it. Seriously those who worked with the loggers were much more vilified by the powers that be than those who write letters and stuff. They are a lot more of a threat to the system.

  42. Anna in PDX:

    Wow you are from right near where I grew up (about a quarter mile down Cape Blanco Road). I guess there are not many people with school aged kids there anymore.

  43. burritoboy:

    To be fair, the German-American and Scandinavian- American communities were strongly behind unionism, too.

  44. LeeEsq:

    A lot of German-Americans were Catholic and also the Germans and Scandinavians are coming from much more communal societies so unionism would have a greater appeal.

  45. LeeEsq:

    Anna, the more that I think about, it seem thats a lot of radical movements in the United States actually had a rather poor idea of how class works in the United States. They might have an understanding of class issues in general but not how these issues played out in the States. A lot of the 19th century radicals thought that the rhetorical tactics that worked in Europe could work in the United States. This is why most of their success was from European immigrants or their descendants rather than Anglo-Protestant workers.

    There is more than a little to Steinbeck’s statement socialism never took off in the United States because the poor view themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Earth First might have understand class issues in general but like a lot of American radicals they seemed to think that class issues in the United States works out like they do in more communal societies. The individualist mythos of the United States really distorts class issues and requires a change of tactics.

    Also, Earth First seemed to do a remarkably poor job at dealing with class issues.

  46. Anna in PDX:

    I agree with you very much on the individualist ethos – what do you suggest would work though? How to bridge this gap and bring loggers/ranchers/fishermen closer to your way of thinking as they watch their livelihoods melt away and never ever blame the right parties? It is kind of frustrating. Seems to me that labor organizing would be a good place to at least start, but that same ethos has such a deep antipathy to unions…

  47. LeeEsq:

    The thing is that I don’t no the answer to this question. Its very complicated. All European and Latin America politics are more collective in general than American politics because of the more obviously hierarchical and communal nature of their societies before these things became issues. American conservatism didn’t take a Bismarckian form either because its not something that would organically grow out of American.

    The problem with American radicalism is that the form of leftism best suited for an individualist society is anarchism of some form or another. The issue with anarchism is that it leaves American radicals unwilling to directly engage with the American political system. If you perceive the Abolitionists as the first radical group in American history than unwillingness to engage in electoral politics is as old as American radicalism. I believe Lenin referred to this as “infantile leftism” and we have Emma Goldman’s famous remark about if voting really mattered. A lot of impotence faced by the Left in America is self-inflicted from a result of failure to run for office, go to meetings, etc.

    The European radicals were much more willing to engage in electoral politics than their American counterparts during the 19th century. Even Debs, who ran for office, didn’t take it as seriously as he should have.

  48. Vance Maverick:

    But at what point does the working class ever have to bear the weight for it’s own mistakes – and repeatedly make the exact same mistakes?

    I can sort of see this retributive logic for individuals, but not for a class as a whole. “Sorry, you’re unemployed because a bunch of people in the counties around you, who you don’t know but belong to your class, had the wrong understanding of the economic situation.”

  49. JustRuss:

    Those numbers are nuts. I live 50 miles from Eugene, tax on my $150k house is about 3 grand. Different county, but it’s hard to believe their rates are that different. If they are, time to adjust them.

  50. Gregory Scott:

    What most people here don’t understand is that these counties in SW Oregon have the lowest property taxes in the state. The idiots in these counties want something for nothing. And yes, I know what I’m talking about, I live in Ashland and used to live in Medford.

  51. Anna in PDX:

    Yes, this is true, esp in the Ashland area where there is some money, but like Melissa stated above, Curry County just does not have an income base to begin with. Too many of the people are really pretty poor.

  52. Kelly:

    I’ve also like these posts Erik. I grew up in rural Marion county. My Dad was a cat skinner who built hundreds of miles of logging road. I paid for my last two years college setting chokers. One job we were sending out trucks with two or three logs per load. In the early 70′s when I was getting ready to apply to universities my first thought was a forestry degree. He was unequivocally against it. He could see the industry was running through it’s inventory long before the spotted owl crisis. He was very circumspect around his buddies when the environmentalists were being cursed. I have a degree in Computer Science which has been lucrative but I get tired of being inside all day.

  53. Grover Gardner:

    We’ve lived in Medford for six years now after a move from the east coast. It’s stunningly beautiful, the climate is to die for and the people are lovely. But Greg is right, and the comment from “Anonymous” above is typical–”Let’s keep it that way.” Greg also didn’t mention that there’s no sales tax here, except in Ashland where they tax the tourists, which makes for better schools, at least. People here complain about the stagnant economy and lack of jobs, but don’t see any value in ponying up for infrastructure and public services. Libraries, community pools, public schools–meh, who cares? One of the depressing aspects of our move here was to read a letter in the Medford paper less than a month after we arrived, from a long-time transplant who’d had enough. The gist of it was, “So long Medford, you’re a nice place but we’ve had enough of the refusal to grow and improve.”

    We’re lucky, in that my job isn’t based on the local economy. So we enjoy the area and put up with the stagnation. With the recent “open registration” law we hustled our daughter into the Ashland school district, where at least there’s some sense of involvement and a future for the kids. (And hey, we just got a Trader Joe’s and an REI so life isn’t all bad.) But it’s pretty clear that things will ever be the same here. If that’s the way people want it, so be it. But don’t complain about the economy if you’re not willing to spend a little money to improve.

  54. Hogan:

    European radicals in the 19th century were fighting for, among other things, the right to engage in electoral politics at all–to extend the franchise, and in many cases to have elections in the first place. People fighting to have any political democracy at all are going to be more invested in it than people who’ve had it for generations.

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