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Valsetz

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For this week’s Forestry Friday, I want to talk about the town of Valsetz, Oregon.

Valsetz was a tiny company town in the Oregon coast range founded in 1919. It was owned by the Boise Cascade corporation (after a couple of earlier owners). Company towns aren’t as well known in the timber industry as in steel, mining, and other eastern industrial occupations, but there were many scattered around the region. Valsetz was a mill and some houses. It was a pretty rough place to live. It was isolated in some very hilly country. When people think of the Northwest, they think of Seattle and Portland and Eugene. They think of hiking and beer and hipsters. But outside of those urban areas, it’s basically Appalachia West. That’s especially true in the coast range of Oregon, which reminds me very much of West Virginia. Valsetz was about as far back into these little mountains as you could get. Connected to the world only by a dirt road, the town received about 145 inches of rain a year. That’s about 350% of Portland’s annual rainfall. December averaged 22 inches of rain, January 21 inches. Lacking proper sidewalks, the town was essentially a giant mudhole, which the company solved by building wood plank walkways above the mire.

In all of this, Valsetz was probably a little rougher than most Northwestern logging towns, but not by too much. This was rough, hard country defined by rough, hard work. A Northwest very much under the radar today.

I talk in the past tense because Valsetz is no more. In late 1983, Boise Cascade decided to liquidate this small town. With extreme prejudice. Struggling through the Reagan Recession, it felt running the town and mill made little economic sense. So it told all the residents to pack up and get out. And then it bulldozed the town and burned the mill.

Valsetz became a symbol around the Northwest for the timber industry’s decline. By the 1980s, the region’s employment base and identity suffered threats on all fronts. Corporations, increasingly dominated by huge multinational operations, sought to liquidate assets and maximize profit. This led to both increased mechanization and the rapid disposal of lands and people no longer deemed profitable. Unemployment rose alongside worker productivity. Exports of unprocessed logs to Japan put more people out of work. Companies like Louisiana-Pacific decided it was cheaper to cut trees in California and ship them to Mexico for processing than mill them in their already existing facilities on the North Coast. Finally, the growth of wilderness areas took some areas out of production.

I was in Portland last week and happened upon the showing of a new documentary Home: The Story of Valsetz by the director Ronan Feely. I’ll admit to not walking away liking the film all that much. Feely, who presented the film in person, decided to focus on the memory of the people who lost their homes. And there’s great power to that. But the problem is that people’s memories, lacking much context, are pretty boring and self-selective. Feely allowed his subjects to go on and on about how it was such a great place to grow up, nobody had to lock the doors, it was so simple and wonderful.

Yeah I don’t know about that. I don’t doubt that people do remember it that way, but statistics of crime in rural places consistently show it as high or higher than the cities, I was curious about the teenage pregnancy and high school dropout rates, etc. I don’t have much tuck for unchallenged romanticization about the past.

Moreover, the film doesn’t provide enough outside context. It does engage the historian Linda Carlson as a talking head which helps some, although she actually comes across as apologetic about company towns which raises some red flags. I hoped for a movie that saw Valsetz and the personal tragedies suffered by its residents as a window into the decline of the timber industry. But Feely doesn’t do that. The recession is mentioned as the reason for the town’s destruction, but without any analysis. One of the interviewees talks about his work within “the union” but we don’t know why there was a union in the mill or even what union it was, IWA or Carpenters (I know from my own research that it was a Carpenters local). And as for the rest of the story, the overall collapse of the timber economy, etc, that’s not part of the story at all.

Of course, it’s not my film. But I felt there was some missed opportunities here to tell a truly compelling story.

However, there was a couple in the same row as I. They were probably in their 70s and I assume had lived in Valsetz. And they were weeping throughout the film. Literally weeping. And I can be as much as of an analytical historian and film critic as I want, but it kind of breaks down when a movie affects people in such a powerful way. The loss of job, of home, of community is something that some of us might be able to understand, but the literal erasing of your history from the landscape is pretty unique and awful. Sitting next to those people and seeing their response to the film affected me deeply, reinforced the rapaciousness of timber capitalism and the complex and contested history of forestry and land management in the Pacific Northwest.

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