Loggers Try to Carve a New Niche


One generation after another, the Pew family has been a part of these north Sierra woods for half a century.

Carl, the white-haired grandfather, drove logging trucks and ran a lumber mill. Randy, the son, started felling trees early and brushed aside a white-collar job to build his own logging company. Now grandson Jared, fresh from high school, wants to follow them into the forest.

But can the woods support him as well?

With ever tougher logging restrictions sparked by environmental concerns, the life of the lumberjack is changing like never before. Gone are the days of unbridled exploitation of one of the nation’s most valuable natural resources. Gone, too, are the romantic figures of fable and folklore.

Rising in their place is a growing fraternity employing practices that tread more lightly on the land. Resigned to stricter rules governing their trade, these new-generation loggers fancy themselves more stewards of the woods--virtual forest gardeners--than plunderers of timber. Even some environmentalists concede that loggers have begun to clean up their act.

On a growing number of timber harvests, loggers have swapped chain saws for huge, high-tech machines that handle trees like matchsticks and, despite their bulk, inflict fewer scars on the Earth. The transformation also has caused a shift in the skills demanded by a life in the woods. Brute strength is now no more essential than computer skills on the sophisticated machinery run by Generation X loggers weaned on video games.


Practitioners of the new methods say the metamorphosis is vital to the survival of a way of life. If the industry continues to sag, more timber towns could wither, as many have in the decade since wildlife concerns cut the harvest on California’s public lands to 15% of the mid-1980s heyday. In the past decade, half the state’s lumber mills have shut down and a quarter of the forest industry jobs have disappeared.

Just look at Greenville or Crescent Mills or any of the other struggling logging towns clinging to the edge of Indian Valley, a broad High Sierra meadow 75 miles north of Lake Tahoe.

Half a dozen small lumber mills once churned out salaries along with two-by-fours to fuel the valley economy. But every one is closed. Before the downturn, Greenville was alive, with a bowling alley and movie theater. Both were torn down a few years back when fate turned on the town.

The Pew clan has a very personal stake in all of this.

Carl Pew, who came to the Sierra woods in 1951 after a stint on an oceangoing freighter, owned one of those lumber mills, but closed it because he couldn’t get enough logs. His was the last mill in Indian Valley, shuttered in 1995 after nearly two decades of struggle. Blue eyes ablaze in a face etched by 72 years, he now simply mutters: “I didn’t have the sense to quit.”

Randy Pew, 46, figured to make a break from logging. As a young man, he tried selling new cars in Chico, but it wasn’t long before he wanted back in the forest.

He started a salvage logging operation and produced rough-sawed corral boards. He chuckles when talking about the early days, downing big old trees while his wife, Valerie, drove the truck.

Despite tough times, Randy used hard work and guile to keep the business growing. Today, Pew Forest Products is the biggest private employer in Indian Valley. And its owner has become a pillar of the community, serving on the hospital board and as booster club president.

Now comes Randy’s boy Jared, 18, a tall and wiry high school basketball star who grew up cutting firewood for folks around the valley. Along with brother Tyler, 16, he has learned the trade from the bottom up during summers. Jared is headed for Cal State Chico this spring, but vows to return home and take a spot in the family business.

Here is where Randy Pew decided to invest in the future, putting faith in the notion that a future does exist for the trade he loves.

One year ago, he took the plunge into a reservoir of red ink and invested $1.2 million to purchase modern logging equipment: a mobile assembly line that plucks trees and scrapes off limbs with less disturbance to the forest. He hopes the technology will carry his firm--and indeed the industry--into the 21st century.

Carl Pew, who grew up during the Great Depression, blanched at the debt, but Randy knew it was the only way that Jared, and Tyler if he chooses, could have a chance. “I wouldn’t have done this at age 46,” he says simply, “if he hadn’t wanted to stay living up here and get into this business.”

Time was, a logger needed little more than a chain saw, a strong back and a bit of will to make a living in the trees, Carl recalled. “You could buy an old [Caterpillar] and a truck and go to work for yourself.”

But the woods have become a far more complicated place.

As recently as the 1980s, federal forests were treated almost like row crops. Production loggers targeted the biggest and best trees, and didn’t give much thought to what they left behind. To get the timber to mill, a log was collared and dragged by cable through the undergrowth, pummeling the forest floor. Small trees were thrown in slash piles to be burned or rot away over the years.

In 1990, the equation changed almost overnight as the northern spotted owl was declared endangered. Timber harvests on public lands evaporated from the North Coast redwoods to Washington’s Olympic peninsula. A few years later, worries about the owl’s inland cousin prompted a crackdown in the Sierra Nevada. No tree bigger than 30 inches, a relative pipsqueak in the old days, could fall to the saw.

Faced with a new environmental reality, the U.S. Forest Service reversed course, taking on forest management as its most public cause. The woods are overgrown, threatened by wildfire and infestation, foresters declared. They need to be thinned.

Thus, the notion of the forest gardener and Randy Pew’s big investment.

Pew Forest Products has 23 employees and 14 pieces of heavy equipment. The new operators are generally young and come packing a new attitude about the environment.

Out in a sloping forest near Quincy, the Pew team is at work as rain clouds gather. Steve Clark, 29, is running his feller-buncher, a huge machine with a very sharp saw. Hands on control sticks, Clark swings the machine at his target. A steel arm puts a chokehold on a tree and the high-speed saw cuts the trunk, fast as a knife through celery. Effortlessly, the machine lifts the tree and piles it with other timber in a bunch.

Growing up in the forest, Clark figured he’d be a faller, the one with a chain saw who downed the trees. “But the job market for those guys is gone,” Clark said.

His buddy, Chris Holland, 29, pilots his log skidder over, grabs a bunch of timber with a grapple, then lifts it off the forest carpet. He glides downhill, threading the load around standing trees.

When one is nicked, foreman Don Camp paints the bald spot with tree seal. Sometimes he wraps a vulnerable tree with a big plastic culvert pipe as protection.

A decade ago, most timber men would have chortled at the thought of such measures. Many simply wanted the owl to go away, along with big-city environmentalists and their lawyers. But the thinking has evolved. Survivors see some wisdom in the efforts by “enviros” to change the old ways. Most say they never much liked the mangy-dog look of the old clear cuts.

‘A Different Set of Values’

Camp points across the road to a remnant of the past: a graveyard of stumps and slash, a grim reaper’s swath in the forest. “See this? This whole area might have looked like this. And I imagine it’s the environmentalists who stopped it.”

Though far from trusting loggers or their motives, some environmentalists concede that forest practices have improved. “Things were bad out there before,” said Scott Black, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. “And I’ll be the first to admit they have gotten better.”

Bob Lowdermilk, a federal timber sales administrator, has seen the difference. “From the skidder operator to the faller to the shearer, I’ve noticed in the last few years a tremendous attitude change,” he said. “They’ve developed a different set of values.”

Steve Drybread once wore a suit and tie at a Sacramento investment firm. He lasted nine months, then fled back to logging, which had put him through college.

Now he pilots a de-limber machine. With a computer screen and laser guides, Drybread spins the contraption like a dinosaur in ballet class. In 20 seconds, a tree is stripped of limbs, cut into manageable lengths and piled for transport to the mill.

Drybread basks in a cab with a radio, air conditioner and heater. Physical toil has been replaced by mental fatigue. He wolfs lunch while he works. No break lasts longer than a minute. To get through mornings, Drybread guffaws with radio shock jocks as he wheels his big machine.

But the lure of the old ways persists, even among newcomers. Jared Pew said he would prefer to spend a day with the chain saw, confessing that it is “a lot more fun.”

Until he starts college, Jared is honing his skills with Dick Grace and Gary Hinz, the only fallers Pew still employs.

Grace, 55, has logged since age 17. Both look like the traditional lumberjack, outfitted in suspenders and caulks, a spiked shoe that improves footing on slick wood. At 47, Hinz has worked in the woods half his life. The only concessions to new times are earplugs, protective glasses and thick gloves.

Hinz sees a day when fallers toting chain saws will work only the steepest slopes, where the big machines can’t go. The new methods may help save the industry, he said, but at a cost. “Every one of these machines does away with three or four fallers,” said Hinz. “There’s going to be a few jobs for a few people.”

Even with the new equipment, Randy Pew worries. He has work through next summer, but after that, who knows?

Timber cutting at his end of the Sierra, dominated by federal forest, could be tied up for years as environmentalists and government duke it out. The harvest could dry up, forcing him to scramble hard for thinning work on small, private parcels.

“We’re kind of all dressed up with no place to go,” Randy said, managing a smile. “It’s always a scramble. But I worry we may be dying a slow death.”