MILL CITY, OREGON — ALONG the North Santiam River, which flows out of Detroit Lake about an hour east of Salem, Oregon, log trucks thunder out of the Cascade Mountains and into the Young & Morgan mill yard, kicking up dust. Screaming steel blades are soon whittling the loads of giant fir into lumber, overseen by Jim Morgan whose father and uncle started the business. Mr. Morgan has 450 employees, three mills, and 75 log trucks to keep an eye on, which makes his operation the biggest employer in this canyon. But his focus is largely on Washington, D.C., these days where politicians and bureaucrats are deciding the future - and maybe the fate - of the Northwest timber industry. It's a situation he finds to be ``nothing but scary.''
With the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species July 23, there is little doubt in the woods and in the mills and in the little towns that dot Oregon, Washington, and northern California that changes are coming. Forest ecology is no longer being left to local or regional officials and business interests. Managing national forests in the interests of all Americans has become a political fact. The key question here is: Will jobs and a unique way of life be preserved along with the controversial bird?
Environmentalists and government scientists say the spotted owl is an ``indicator species'' whose decline warns of ill health for old-growth forests. The listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 confirms that. At the moment, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are working against a Sept. 1 deadline to produce comprehensive plans to protect spotted-owl habitat, most of which is on federal land.
The Bush administration is looking for a way to balance the human/environmental equation, perhaps by changing the Endangered Species Act so that economic factors may be considered in making official listings.
But initial indications are that the listing of the owl and the consequent removal of millions of acres of habitat from logging indeed will be scary for many in the region: 25,000 direct timber jobs could be lost, plus at least that many jobs in secondary occupations for a total of $1.2 billion in lost wages in Oregon. (Timber industry economists warn the total owl-related job losses in Oregon and Washington could be higher than 100,000, not counting the 44,500 jobs likely to disappear over the next decade anyway due to modernization of equipment and planned reductions in cutting.) Counties in Oregon stand to lose nearly $500 million in timber revenues; especially hard hit could be those 158 communities state officials list as ``timber dependent.''
Out in the shack where Young & Morgan drivers are filling out their paperwork, Harold Millard typifies the older generation of timber workers. He started out logging with horses, lives in a community of about 1,700, and predicts ``they'll flat break most of the mills'' if major timber withdrawals come to pass.
``People that owe for their trucks - they'll lose 'em, the stores will close, you'll see ghost towns all up and down here,'' he says.
Fellow driver Ken Woodworth, a generation younger with two kids in grade school, says his philosophy these days is ``prepare for the worst, hope for the best - pay off all my bills and put as much away in savings as I can.'' He wouldn't mind retraining for other employment ``as long as they do it right and not just send us off to flip hamburgers.'' Like virtually every other logger and millworker one meets, he stresses that ``we're not asking for unemployment, we're not asking for a handout.''
``I just hope it doesn't come to the point where I have to look elsewhere,'' says Ron Harksen, who started out in the woods as a ``choker setter,'' the dangerous job of setting cables around logs. ``The guys here work real hard, and that's all they want is the opportunity to do that,'' says Mr. Harksen, who supervises 23 men operating a planer. ``I respect nature. I don't want to see any species extinct, but I don't want to see my job or me extinct either.''
Over in the state capital in Salem, University of Washington sociologist Robert Lee is explaining to a special legislative committee that ``the traditional American values of independence, hard work, risk-taking, and inventiveness'' characterize timber workers, and these traits make it especially difficult for them to adjust.
They are not as mobile as urban workers or those in the military who also need to shift with the national economy, says Dr. Lee, who spent five years studying timber communities in the Northwest after the regional recession of the early 1980s. Timber workers have not been honored in the media or by well-known entertainers, as have farmers in financial trouble. Instead, they have been vilified along with the ``timber barons'' who historically have cut trees on private land faster than the trees grow back.
Dr. Lee calls this negative stereotyping a textbook case of ``blaming the victim,'' the dehumanizing aspect of what seems to be an inevitable conflict between the traditional culture represented by loggers and millworkers and ``an information-based, technological society in which people increasingly don't understand where we get our goods - how we get our meat and potatoes and wood.''
He warns of family problems, substance abuse, even suicide. ``Some people will adjust, especially younger people, but a lot won't,'' Lee tells the sober lawmakers. ``People aren't marbles who simply roll across the table and fall into the proper slots.''
``The people who are my age, [who] have college educations, will survive,'' says Dan Newton, a young forester who manages 75,000 acres of private timber for the Lone Rock Timber Company in Roseburg, 134 miles south of the state capital. ``But it is the people - and there are a large number of them - who've devoted their entire lives to the trade; those people are going to have a real rough go of it.'' Mr. Newton says his company will lay off one shift of 60 to 70 men this summer.
Roseburg is the county seat for Douglas County, which grows more trees than any other county in the United States and depends on timber for two-thirds of its jobs and two-thirds of its county government's revenue. Some here who depend on timber workers to support their businesses are pulling up stakes.
One of these is Bob Chappelle, who recently sold his interest in an automobile dealership and is moving to San Diego.
``If you can't make a living, you've got to move on,'' says Mr. Chappelle, whose two sons are approaching college age. ``You've got to go where you can support your family.'' In Mr. Chappelle, Roseburg is losing a community leader who is active in volunteer charitable work.
An hour and a half to the East, up in the Umpqua National Forest, Steve Briggs and his crew of eight are hauling out the last logs from a recent cut. Mr. Briggs is a ``gyppo'' logger out of Myrtle Creek, one of many independents who operate on contract to bigger companies throughout the Northwest.
Because of the threat of fire, the crew has to quit work at 1 p.m. when the dry, dusty heat of the day reaches its maximum. The men got up at 2:30 a.m. to be in the woods by 5, and there's been no break for lunch. Mr. Briggs, burly and bearded, is enjoying his first sustenance since daybreak: a quart of Gatorade.
His 16-year old son, helping secure cables around the logs, may or may not be the fourth generation of Briggses to spend his working life in the woods. ``I won't encourage him or discourage him,'' explains the boy's father. ``I do want him to know what it's about.'' Regarding the inevitable changes in the timber business, Briggs is sure of one thing: ``There's going to be a third less of us when this is all over.''
Gary Bixby, one of Briggs's crewmen, typifies the timber worker who would rather spend all his time in these spectacularly beautiful forests than do anything else. An example of the kind of man sociologist Robert Lee talks about, he hauls his 35-foot travel trailer from job site to job site explaining ``I always stay in the woods.'' His friends joke that ``he's a hermit.''
Before going to work for logging companies, Mr. Bixby was a Forest Service firefighter for seven seasons. In the evenings now, he lurks around old-growth forests with a government biologist friend as an unofficial ``owl hooter.'' Only one night has gone by this summer, he says, when they haven't found at least one northern spotted owl by mimicking its call. On the previous night they encountered seven. ``I like the owl,'' he says. ``He's a cute little critter.''
``We'll have to change logging practices somewhat, but we can log without hurting the owl,'' he says. ``We want to live out here. We know better than to waste it. Give us a chance. We can figure out something to make it work.''