In faint morning sunlight, the tree planters moved quickly over the steep terrain.
“It’s not easy work,” said Henry Rodriguez, scratching away brush and debris with a pickax.
He lifted the ax high overhead and sank the pick in the rocky soil. He plopped a seedling in the hole, stomped the loose soil and moved on.
“Sometimes it’s like walking uphill on marbles,” he said.
Each spring, the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe plants 80,000 seedlings, reforesting clearcuts, burns and brushy fields. Many of the seedlings, each a few inches high, will outlive the workers who planted them.
These seedlings, the tribe hopes, will be the timber harvested by the children of their children’s children.
“As long as there’s a tribe, we’ll have forests,” says planting crew boss and tribal member Joe Chapman.
From tree planters on a mountainside above the St. Joe River basin to an Indian logger, cursing the rain and mud that halted his work, the tribal forests anchor a lot of people to the land.
Individually and communally, the Coeur d’Alenes own 27,000 acres of forest. They log about 6.5 million board-feet of timber per year - enough to build 650 threebedroom homes.
Depending on the type of tree, market price and logging cost, that’s $1 million to $3 million worth of wood.
A single timber sale can net an Indian landowner tens of thousands of dollars. A 173-acre timber sale recently sold for $277,000. With the tough reservation economy, the lure of cash creates pressure for Indians to log their land.
The pace of logging is controlled by the seven-member Tribal Council. Indian landowners must get council approval before their land can be logged.
“We have to manage the forest and we have to look out for everyone,” said tribal chairman Ernie Stensgar.
Eventually, he said, “We’d like to manage the forests for other uses - let it go back naturally, for game and gathering.”
Before the logging requests go to the tribal council, they land on the desk of Janel McCurdy, manager of the tribe’s forestry program.
“I’ve heard both ends of the spectrum, from ‘Cut it all’ to ‘These trees are sacred to me,”’ she said.
McCurdy’s office is a mobile home at the tribal headquarters compound south of Plummer. Wool clothing, fatigues and a firefighter’s backpack sit in one corner.
“There are so many requests (from tribal members wanting to log their land) that there’s a waiting list,” she said. The wait averages eight months. Twenty people are now on the list, waiting for tribal foresters to inspect the land and decide whether logging should be allowed.
The requests are generally approved, McCurdy said, unless logging would harm streams or hurt forest health, she said.
Recently, she said, the tribe has begun converting marginal farmland to forest - last year it planted 200 acres of fields. The tribe has also expanded its forestry expertise, hiring biologists and water experts.
“There are more people to tap into, instead of one person here in forestry trying to be everything at once,” McCurdy said.
Near the reservation’s eastern edge, a truck jounced over a forest road.
On the left was a brushy clearcut. On the right was more recent logging, with many trees left standing.
“That’s due to the political changes on the reservation,” said the truck’s driver, Kurt Mettler. “A lot of the locals want to see some trees left there. The direction has been to pare down the clearcuts.”
Clearcuts, he said, are now rare, used only in areas where disease or insects are destroying a timber stand.
The tribe has also shrunk the size of its timber sales, he said. In the mid-1980s, a big sale was 3 million or 4 million board-feet. Now, it’s 2 million.
Mettler parked the truck and examined a recently logged area.
“I’ve got a couple of logs I flagged here in the winter,” he said. “I want to see if they (a logging crew) came back and got them.”
He stopped at a fallen larch tree and wrapped a band of surveyor’s tape around it.
“They probably felled it on a Friday, or maybe before a big snowstorm,” he said. “They never got it.”
Mettler is the head of the Tribal Logging Operation, a 9-year-old venture in which the tribe acts as a timber middleman.
First, the tribe offers timber to mills for, say, $1,500 per truckload. Cedar logs go to one mill, larch to another, ponderosa pine to another, depending on who’s paying the most.
Then the tribe hires local loggers to cut and deliver the trees for, say, $800 per truckload.
The tribe keeps the difference.
North of Worley, Jim Beebe scanned the skies and cursed the clouds.
The mud on his logger’s boots told the story. It was another day Beebe couldn’t work - the tribe prohibits “skidding” logs to a pickup point when the ground’s too wet. Foresters say it’s too destructive to the forest floor.
Beebe, a member of California’s Yurok Tribe, is one of very few Indian logging contractors on the Coeur d’Alene reservation. Most tribal members, officials say, don’t have the thousands of dollars needed to get started.
Beebe works alone, hauling in twin 28-inch chain saws, wedges, an ax, gas and oil jugs. He fells, tops, limbs and skids the trees, then pays a trucker to ship them to a mill.
By the end of the day, he’s generally cut and stacked one truck load, earning $350, before taxes. He goes home and sharpens his saws for the next day.
“When logging’s good, you can make some good money,” Beebe said. “This year, I don’t know. We’re getting rain every other day.
“If I can make it through this year, I believe I can make a go of this,” he said. “This has been kind of the test for me.” He became a logging contractor three years ago, quitting the Plummer lumber mill job he’d had for 19 years.
Beebe, 42, is the son of a logger. If his son becomes a logger, Beebe wants the trees to be there.
“I hope there’s going to be work for a long time to come,” he said.