NASHWAUK, Minn. – Scott Pittack grew up in a logging family and has made his living in the woods.
But as he climbed down from a timber harvester at the end of a winding road in the hills, the forest behind him aflame with October color, he admitted he has his doubts about the business.
Nowadays, the industry that’s hiring on the west end of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, where Pittack has been cutting down trees for more than two decades, is taconite, not logging.
In the past 18 months, Pittack’s six-man operation has lost two truck drivers to mineral companies.
“I don’t blame them guys for going to the mines,” Pittack said. “There’s some days it looks pretty appealing to me.”
Lumberjacks are the foot soldiers of the forest industries, and in recent years they’ve been pounded on two sides. Not only have more than 100 U.S. paper mills shut down in little more than a decade, as demand for paper declines in the Western world, but the collapse of the American housing market eliminated demand for building products made from trees.
In the past 10 years, 22,500 jobs in logging have disappeared in the United States, a 32 percent decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As mills have closed, loggers have found themselves in a dogfight to find customers and turn a profit.
“The mill closures are a tough blow no matter where you’re at in the state, because it all has a ripple effect,” said Dale Erickson, 57, a second-generation logger based east of Baudette, Minn. “It’s tough right now.”
Modern logging involves large machines that look like tractors, with climate-controlled cabs. Many loggers use joysticks and computer monitors to cut down, de-branch and in some models immediately chop the logs to length.
Pittack, 44, swung his $550,000 cut-to-length harvester into action one day this fall. It’s a John Deere tractor with tracks and what looks like a giant steel fist on the end of an arm.
The fist seized the base of an aspen tree and gave it a quick shake. A chain saw whipped out and hacked the tree off at the base. The fist tipped the tree over and traveled the length of the trunk, shaving off branches with fixed steel blades. Then it cut three logs to length and dropped them in a pile on the ground. It all took about 20 seconds.
Pittack keeps a handheld chain saw inside the harvester in case a tree’s branches are too big for the machine, but he rarely uses it.
His niche is harvesting diverse sections of the forest and sorting the logs for different customers. What had been a stand of 60-foot-tall trees – much of it aspen – had become a debris-strewn meadow.
The elm and red pine were spared for the sake of birds; the other trees were cut and stacked by type and quality next to a road Pittack built, ready to go. When there was enough to justify a trip, Pittack’s drivers hauled timber from the stand to four mills.
“You have to do it because you can’t market everything to one mill,” he said. “This day and age, that’s the name of the game.”
Erickson, the logger from Baudette, grew up on a farm where the prairie meets the woods just below the Canadian border.
It was a thriving Scandinavian cooperative where three large families raised wheat and grass seed in the summer. In the winter, when they weren’t milking cows, the men drove into the snowy forest to cut down trees for the paper mill in International Falls, Minn.
The mill is still there today, a steel blue collection of warehouses and towers that looks across the Rainy River toward Canada. The mill is still the Erickson family’s biggest customer.
“I’ve made my living, and my wife and I have raised our family off the land,” Erickson said. “I’m actually to a point now that I could go back and start cutting some of the areas that I can remember were some of the first areas I ever helped cut when I was back in school.”
But loggers like him are becoming rare. Startup costs for the business today easily surpass $1 million – the harvesters, tracks for the machines so they don’t get stuck, $50,000 steel trailers that haul timber and only last a few years, semitrucks that pull the trailers, and $4-per-gallon diesel fuel that powers it all.
Erickson’s father founded his business in the 1930s, and Erickson started working for him full time when he graduated from high school in 1974.
“That’s what the boys up here did, for the most part,” Erickson said. “Back in them days, it was easy to do. But now, for somebody to start a business, if you are not in a logging family or a line of succession somehow – whether you’re family or a valued employee – you’re not getting in the business.”