‘Old-Growth’ Forests Depleted : Timber Shortage Putting Jobs, and Trees, at Risk

Times Staff Writer

At the moment, Harry Earnest is a veteran millwright at a profitable sawmill. Soon, however, he will be an unemployed, 59-year-old man trying to find a way to support his invalid wife and a daughter in college.

“This could hurt real bad,” he mused, sizing up Louisiana-Pacific’s plans to mothball its mill south of Red Bluff--and cut Earnest’s job--this spring. “It could take my life savings just to get by.”

Other people in other towns face the same future. Sawmills are closing throughout the Pacific Northwest, from Snoqualmie, Wash., to Sweet Home, Ore., to Klamath, Calif. Hundreds of workers have lost their jobs and thousands more are estimated by industry officials to be at risk.

The timber industry is known for frequent booms and busts. But this time something is very different. This time the sawmills are closing while the industry reaps record harvests and enjoys record sales.


This time, there is doubt about the supply of logs available in the most densely forested region on Earth. Foresters warn that a “log gap” looms in the Pacific Northwest.

This scenario concludes that years of intensive harvesting have virtually depleted privately owned “old-growth,” or virgin, forests--centuries-old Douglas fir and redwood trees that dominate a unique ecosystem including the rare spotted owl and other endangered species. The forests load more organic material onto an acre of land than even the densest tropical rain forest.

At the same time, trees planted in the 1950s--replacing old-growth groves harvested to supply the postwar suburbanization boom--will not be big enough to harvest for several decades.

This gap is particularly ominous to timber-dependent economies. California, which is second only to Oregon in timber production, has 11 counties in which the timber industry contributes 10% or more of all jobs. In Sierra County, 40% of all jobs are in timber; here in Tehama County, the total is 20%.

Loggers contend that the only way to bridge the log shortage is to cut more timber in government-owned national forests. Delays in making those trees available is creating the “timber supply crisis” that has closed at least 35 mills in Oregon, California and Washington in a time of unrivaled abundance.

“What you’re seeing now is the start of an attrition caused by this timber supply crisis bearing down on us,” said Rus Fredsall of the Western Wood Products Assn. “There are many facets to this, but it’s primarily a matter of uncertainty of supply, and it’s going to be with us for the next 30 years.”

Conservationists’ Arguments

Conservationists counter that log supplies, which have been hurt as much by fires as conservation measures, are but one reason for the mill closures. Others include a transition to highly automated mills needing fewer workers, industry efforts to weaken unions, lower wages and earlier overharvesting practices that should not be employed on publicly owned forests.

“These forests are really living cathedrals,” said Patricia Schifferle of the Wilderness Society, a conservation group actively working to reduce timber sales in national forests, “and you don’t tear down cathedrals to make picnic tables and remodel kitchens.”

In the vortex of this controversy, the U.S. Forest Service is attempting to finish drafting specially detailed and comprehensive 50-year management plans for 123 national forests, including the 14 significant timber producers in the Pacific Northwest.

Final plans, which were ordered in the 1976 National Forest Management Act, are suffocating beneath an avalanche of administrative appeals by loggers and conservationists. When completed, the plans face years of lawsuits.

Simpler Appeals Process

In an attempt to unknot the planning process, the Forest Service this month simplified its appeals process. But Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) has already warned that Congress may try to forbid any legal challenge to any Forest Service management plan. A similar measure was used last year to stifle lawsuits over a national forest timber sale in southern Oregon.

The outcome of this fight could have profound effects on housing prices and remodeling costs on the Pacific Coast. Also at stake are thousands more jobs--13,000 in 1989 alone, according to the American Forest Council, an industry group--and the small cities and towns dependent on them.

Hardship is plain to see as lumber and plywood mills shut down, taking with them thousands of high-paying jobs from remote, resource-dependent communities with few other options. The small communities of Burney and Fall River Mills in Shasta County already see local businesses preparing to leave after a nearby mill shuts down next month.

“This is going to kill us,” said Walter Caldwell, editor of the Mountain Echo newspaper and president of the Eastern Shasta County Economic Development Corp., which is scrambling to attract new employers to the resource-rich area. “The 116 jobs we are going to lose represent 14% of the local work force--and we already have 11% unemployment.”

No Other Skills

With so many mills being lost at once--three others in California are planning to close in February--Caldwell said millworkers are unlikely to find other work in the industry. Most have no other skills.

Earnest, for example, fears that he is too old to be retrained, and said his only other skill is computer maintenance--a trade not in high demand in rural areas and one he has not used since leaving National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Lab near Pasadena two decades ago, before the microchip revolutionized computers.

“The thing about a tree is that when you cut it down another one will grow in its place,” he said. “Jobs don’t necessarily do that.”

Old growth has become the focus of the current timber fight for several reasons. It is valuable to timber companies because of the trees’ huge size, which makes logging more efficient, and its unique composition, with a tight grain that offers great strength, nice finish and few knots. Conservationists, meanwhile, revere the rugged and diverse beauty of standing old growth and are growing more fond of its unique ecology.

Until recently, old-growth forests were seen as silvicultural deserts where trees grew slowly, if at all. However, more recent studies show that virgin forests are ecological oases that nurture some animals that do not thrive in tree farms.

Nurtures Animals

For example, the spotted owl makes its home in standing dead trees, of which there are many in old-growth forests. A virgin forest’s uneven canopy lets sunlight in but keeps snow out, assuring deer and other animals of winter forage. Fallen trees and other dead matter recycle soil nutrients, feed both new plants and insects, and inhibit erosion.

These features, together with such forests’ value as a gene bank for breeding seedlings, have forged a consensus in support of old-growth forests. But no one can agree on how much of the forests should be saved and where.

Indeed, there is not even a standard definition of what constitutes old growth.

For many years, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies have not even inventoried old growth as a separate class.

Unsatisfied, the Wilderness Society, a Washington-based conservation group, hired foresters to develop a scientific old-growth definition. Besides tree sizes, it considers the number of standing and fallen dead trees, variety of species, the number of living trees of a certain diameter or age and total volume of organic material per acre.

A standard definition is important because foresters, such as Dennis E. Teeguarden at the University of California, said it is impossible to manage a resource if no one knows how much there is, where it is found or for what it can be used.

Conflicting Definitions

To illustrate the problem caused by conflicting old-growth definitions, the Wilderness Society studied government plans for six national forests in Oregon and Washington. The conservation group found that the Forest Service estimates that 2.5 million acres of old growth are in those forests, but the society contends that only 1.1 million acres--less than half--fits its more stringent definition.

The Wilderness Society says its estimates paint a bleak picture. It asserts that there is only a three-year supply in southern Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Schifferle said current harvest levels may claim all of the Pacific Northwest’s available old growth--what is not already in parks or wilderness areas--in 30 years.

Peter Morrison, a forest ecologist hired by the Wilderness Society to study Forest Service management plans in the Pacific Northwest, asserts that the planning process has taken so long that many plans are based on outdated information.

“In some cases,” Morrison said, “forest plans predict there will be more old growth in the coming decades than now exists.”

Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes in San Francisco blamed this disparity in old-growth estimates on the lack of a universal definition of the resource. After the Forest Service develops its new definition, which he said may or may not be stricter than existing standards, it will draft a new inventory.

Management Plans

Until then, he added, management plans will be based on the old estimates.

“You can’t just simply shut down timber harvesting,” he said. “Congress gives us money each year to pump timber into the economy. What we’re doing is being as conservative as we can with the information we have.”

Of course, many thousands of acres of old-growth forests are being preserved in parks and designated wilderness areas. The Timber Assn. of California notes that there are 3.8 million acres of national-forest wilderness in California alone. The Forest Service has estimated that 500,000 wilderness acres in the state are old growth.

Conservationists, citing old-growth-dependent animals that they assert are being driven to extinction, say old-growth logging should be restrained until the resource is properly inventoried. After that, they believe foresters will find more old growth needs to be preserved, at a wider variety of elevations and in different geographic regions.

“Do we really want to sacrifice our nation’s heritage for a few more years of cutting--even if it still means, ultimately, that we’ll face the very same problems we’d face anyway?” Schifferle said.

Loggers contend that enough is already protected and that more is evolving all the time within the area’s mature forests.

Industry’s Stand

“On a strictly timber-growing basis, industry sees no value in maintaining any old-growth stands” beyond those already being preserved, said Gil Murray, vice president of the Timber Assn. of California.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service, buffeted by lawsuits, administrative appeals and demonstrations, as well as mixed signals from Congress, is working to sort out a compromise, balancing the need for jobs and wood products with a growing demand for recreation and the mandate to protect endangered species.

It is not easy. Although more is known about old-growth forests now than in the past, many questions persist. No one, for example, knows how many breeding pairs of spotted owls are left, where they are or how much old growth they need to survive. No one knows how big groves must be to keep distinctive old-growth characteristics. No one can say what effect a changing global climate may have on these forests.

Without answers to these and other questions, and without solid information on how much viable old growth remains, there is pressure to cut less and study more. The effort is focused on national forests, but some private landowners--notably the Pacific Lumber Co., which owns large tracts of old-growth redwoods in Humboldt County--are also included.

“It (the old-growth issue) worries me politically, because it has become a political pawn,” said James R. Craine, another vice president with the Timber Assn. of California. “But as a forester, it doesn’t bother me. Because I have seen elsewhere--back in northern New York and New England--where the forests have been cut and come back, some for the third or fourth time by now.”

Nonetheless, the pressure to preserve old growth is intensifying. Environmentalists use a federal endangered-species law to block harvests. Members of Congress are drafting more preservation legislation. New state laws already limit harvests. And, when desperate, protesters have blocked logging roads, chained themselves to trees, sabotaged heavy equipment--even booby-trapped trees.

Pinched between hardball politicking and bottom-line economics, more than a few timber workers, such as sawmill electrician Forest Finck in Red Bluff, are seriously reassessing their futures.

“My brother told me 20 years ago to get out of the timber business because he said there was no future in it,” said Finck, 59, and the father of two preteens. “It looks like he was right.”


The Mattole River watershed in south Humboldt County is a case-study in the loss of prime forest land in California. These maps plot the “old-growth” forest areas from 1947 and from 1987; shaded areas reflect old growth. The open areas today are not barren; rather they are planted with “second-growth” vegetation. Environmentalists consider second growth inferior: it lacks the variety in species, is subject to pest problems and cannot support the full range of forest animals.