This is a small town, with only 2,800 people, but because it’s the self-proclaimed “Logging Capital of the World,” everything here is big.
Big pickups. Big trees. Big men with 4-foot-long chain saws. The biggest stumps you’ve ever seen.
So it’s a bit of a shock that loggers are starting to enter the woods here thinking small. They’re looking to cut only small trees. They’re trying to have a small impact on the environment - close to “no impact,” one of them said. And they carry very small 18-inch-long chain saws - embarrassingly small by Forks standards.
“People see these little chain saws and they scoff at us a bit,” said Al Angrignon, a logger and director of the Forestry Training Center, a first-of-its-kind school nationally that opened March 27 in Forks, a town on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. “But we expect some resistance. We’re trying to change a generation of thinking about working in the woods.”
So has begun the era of New Age logging, an industry’s attempt to remake itself.
As Congress continues to argue whether to resume logging of some of the Olympic Peninsula’s giant old-growth trees, a few timber companies and woods workers here have concluded the days of cutting old growth are over.
They have opened a school to teach a reluctant industry the techniques of pruning and thinning developed years ago in Sweden.
Clearcutting, the widely used practice of removing every tree in a stretch of forest, is out. What’s in are concepts foreign to most loggers in this land of abundant, massive trees: How to delicately remove some trees to help the rest grow faster. How to prune a young tree to make knot-free lumber years later. How to log and leave nutrients and ground cover in place. How to dress and act like a professional in the woods.
How to dress?
Students at the new school must discard their blue jeans and leather chaps for hard hats, close-fitting, brightly colored jackets and long matching pants.
“In Sweden, logging is a revered profession; loggers have the same status as doctors,” said Bart Phillips of the Clallam County Economic Development Council, a Port Angeles-based agency that is a sponsor of the new school. “They also come to the woods dressed as professionals. We hope to encourage Northwest loggers to do the same.”
“I think we’ll look like a sailing team lost in the woods,” said Steve Poppe, 40, a logger and student in the class.
Attire aside, the Forks school is really about the changing economics of the forest industry, its founders say. It is designed to capitalize on the next great wave of Pacific Northwest logging.
After four decades in which millions of acres of centuries-old trees were clearcut, vast areas of Washington and Oregon look like a patchwork tree farm with blocks of 10- to 40-year-old trees dotting the hillsides.
The trees are too young to be clearcut; doing so would prevent them from reaching maturity, when they are most valuable. But by logging every third or fourth tree without damaging what’s left behind, thinning gives the remaining trees room to grow faster. The technique soon may dominate all Northwest logging, some experts believe.
More than 20,000 acres in Clallam County are prime for thinning, Phillips said. In contrast, only 353 acres of old-growth trees are slated to be logged on the Olympic Peninsula under Congress’ controversial timber “salvage” program.
The demand for loggers trained in efficient thinning is rising in the Northwest, and graduates of the course likely will get jobs almost immediately, Angrignon said.
The Forks school is financed by $1 million in equipment and money from timber companies plus $475,000 in government grants.
Swedish thinning techniques are difficult to learn for loggers accustomed to cutting down every tree. Loggers must manage the forest by selecting the correct trees to cut, minimizing damage to the environment and, in some cases, operating computerized logging machines that limb and cut trees to the exact length required by a mill.
“It’s going to require that loggers grow out of their macho, Neolithic thinking,” said Ryan McBride, 27, a logger from Missoula who is in the class.
“The new forestry of tomorrow demands the skills of a true forestry professional, not merely a ‘logger,”’ says a brochure from the Forestry Training Center.
That description of their trade didn’t go over so well with some of the loggers attending the first Forks class.
Tramping through a stand of 35-year-old hemlocks and firs that at rainy Forks have attained heights of 100 feet, four men - training to be instructors - said they are proud of their past woodcutting. And they are proof the industry can adapt, however slowly, they said.
“Working in the woods all your life makes you very independent,” said Poppe, who was a casualty of the spotted-owl logging shutdown in 1990 before he landed a state job managing prison work crews. “We don’t like to be told that we have to do things differently.
“But now it’s time to move on. We can sit around and bemoan the lack of timber or the lack of jobs or what the government has done to us, or we can figure out how to move into the future.”
xxxx LOG ON FOR MORE DETAILS Links to Swedish Forestry Institute and Clallam County Economic Development Council are on the Seattle Times Web site at http://www.seattletimes.com
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.