It’s a classic story of boom-and-bust. Timber was king here in Southern Oregon for half a century, lavished thousands of jobs in mills and forests and built the towns and cities of the region. Then, almost overnight, the explosion of clearcuts, parade of logging trucks and scores of smoky mills all petered out.
Finally, the environment said "no."
At first, in the early '90s, it was the little spotted owl that faced extinction — and an enraged wood-based populace sported bumper stickers reading, “I love spotted owls: deep-fried, baked or toasted.”
But, said historian and former U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Jeff LaLande, the owl was just the fabled canary in the coal mine. Logging was throwing nature into chaos.
“It was a train wreck,” says LaLande, in his talk in Medford last Wednesday that he'll present in Ashland next Wednesday. “It hit our loggers upside the head. Medco, the huge mill across from where the Medford mall is now, closed. The incredible harvest volume, after 1994, dropped straight down.”
It smashed small logging towns like Butte Falls and Prospect, but the Rogue Valley floor “dodged a bullet” because cities shifted to the service economy, retirees, health care and other new ways to make a living, said LaLande in his talk, “When Timber was King: The Rise and Decline of Southern Oregon’s Wood Products Industry.”
He give his talk from noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 14, at the Ashland Public Library. It’s free and public and will include many historic photos. It’s part of the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s monthly “Windows In Time” lectures. The full schedule is at www.sohs.org/event-list.
America’s logging industry bloomed in the upper Midwest in the late 19th century when timber barons “cut over” vast tracts of white pine, which never fully recovered, LaLande notes, then they moved into the Northwest, where they were astounded by seemingly inexhaustible forests whose pines were so fat, they wouldn’t even fit in mills.
LaLande’s photos show loggers standing on elevated “springboards” inching their way through giant trunks with single-bitted axes, wedges and two-man saws, soon loading them on “high wheels,” a monstrous two-wheeled thing pulled on rough terrain by horses.
It was a dirty, strenuous and dangerous job, done by nomadic young single men who needed to be fed enormous volumes of food in shifting logging camps. They were frequently killed on the job, but the work had to go on. Their bodies were picked up at the end of the day.
Mill towns sprang up, but they had to be near water, so as to grab rivers for power and to float wood to a hungry San Francisco market from Coos Bay, Puget Sound and the Columbia River. The mills were water powered and slow, but got a boost from steam power in the late 1800s. Railroads started transporting timber by the turn of the century.
In the 1890s arose the idea of “forestry” — taking care of forests. Soon, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management were created — and they administered "O&C" lands, the source of immense wealth for counties. "O&C" is short for "Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands," 2.4 million acres of forests granted in the 1860s to facilitate building of a railroad line connecting California to Portland, Oregon. In 1937, Congress established that the lands were classified as timberlands to be managed for permanent forest production.
Trails and fire lookouts were built and, dating back to after the big fires of 1910, the practice of tree-planting and fire suppression — custodial forestry — kicked in, saving much timber but leaving future generations “holding a tiger by the tail” because of fire-accustomed forests now choked with fuel.
With the housing boom after World War II, up sprang “industrial forestry,” with chain saws, huge machines to haul huge trees to huge mills, dependable, well-paying jobs for family men and a steady flow of O&C funds from the wood products industry to counties, helping build many bridges, parks, jails and other projects, including the now-withered historical societies.
This was the half-century heyday, 1943 to 1993, he says. Ashland had half a dozen mills in town and half a dozen just outside town, says LaLande, all belching smoke and dust “but no one minded because it was the smell of money.”
The first seeds of “eco-system forestry” sprouted in the '70s, with the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Soon, courts saw a slew of lawsuits over timber sales and threatened creatures of the woods. This came to a head as the “Timber Wars” of the 1990s, cutting harvests, whacking O&C money and being greatly aggravated by passage of tax limitation measures.
The Rogue River National Forest cut went from an annual 220 million board feet to 30 million by the end of the century.
“The timber war of the '80s and '90s was part of a wider conflict, but it was especially intense here,” LaLande says. “What came out of it is ecosystem forestry, a holistic way that looks forests health instead of dollars … It would puzzle the foresters of bygone days, that is, no more industrial forestry model on federal funds (via O&C).”
Given the glory of its unlimited “cutover era” and its gut-wrenching crash, LaLande says the industry is in a sobering time, looking, in the short term, at an economy based on:
—Fuel reduction, after decades of fire-suppression that has changed species and densities.
—Density management by cutting from below.
—Pine and oak restoration and open canopies at lower elevations.
—Selective, judicious and low-impact logging.
—Retaining many old growth areas.
—Forest resiliency and diversity of species.
—Use of fire. Address increased home building in woods.
LaLande ended his talk with a caution: “You can’t exclude fire.”
—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Feb. 11: Story updated to correct start time of lecture.)