COLVILLE, Wash. – Most people are familiar with old-growth forests.
Among certified consulting foresters, Maurice Williamson might be considered old growth himself.
“My certification by the Society of Professional Foresters is number 27 out of the whole country.”
Williamson maintains more than 700 client files. His services include timber management – appraisal, evaluation, planting and harvesting supervision – contract negotiations and expert-witness testimony.
He also has devoted considerable time and effort in various collaborative efforts regarding forest policy.
Now 72, he describes himself as “blind in one eye and my knees are bad.” But he has no intention of retiring.
During a recent interview, Williamson discussed healthy forests, hair dressers and death threats.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Williamson: Northeast Missouri, 50 miles south of Mark Twain’s hometown.
S-R: Did you explore nearby woods?
Williamson: Yes. I hunted and fished from the time I was 9.
S-R: What trees grew there?
Williamson: Sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, oaks, hickory. But I didn’t really appreciate the difference until I was in college.
S-R: What was your first job?
Williamson: When I was 12, my dad – a veterinarian – paid me a dollar a day to hold pigs while he vaccinated them. He’d start vaccinating when they were about 30 pounds. Some were much bigger.
S-R: Were they cooperative?
Williamson: They were terrible! They’d bite. They’d scream. I still can’t hear well because of that high-pitched screaming.
S-R: What were your interests in high school?
Williamson: Girls. Booze.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
Williamson: Nah. I didn’t like high school.
S-R: How did you decide on a career?
Williamson: I attended the University of Missouri thinking I wanted to be an attorney, but quickly decided that wasn’t for me. I was putting myself through school working in the agricultural chemistry department, so I thought about being a pathologist. But chemistry cured me of that. I was about to quit college when my high school counselor and my dad took me aside and blew a bunch of smoke about forestry, and here I am.
S-R: What brought you west?
Williamson: Jobs were scarce back then. The year I graduated, I was one of only two people out of 30 who got a job in forestry. I was hired by the Department of Natural Resources office in Omak, then was transferred to Forks on the Olympic Peninsula. Next, I took a job as a logging supervisor in Wyoming. When the boss’s kid came back from Harvard, I lost that job and went to work for Chevron as a mining technician. But if you’ve worked mostly outdoors, being stuck in an office or underground becomes claustrophobic. So I took a job with Georgia Pacific in south Arkansas to be closer to home. But I hated the heat, the snakes, ticks, chiggers and Southern Baptists. I applied to every place I could for four years and finally got hired by a mill in Republic. Several years later, that company was sold, and I wasn’t sold with it. That’s when I became a consulting forester.
S-R: What were your expectations?
Williamson: My dad was self-employed and I didn’t see him as much as I would have liked, so I was reluctant to go into business for myself. I wanted to be a government drone. That didn’t work out. But I’m glad, because this job is much more varied and exciting – lots of different people, different situations.
S-R: How has the business evolved?
Williamson: When I started 38 years ago, I was the only full-time consulting forester in this area. There were a lot of weekend warriors who didn’t know what they didn’t know, and the jobs weren’t being done scientifically or ethically. But as environmentalists blocked the sale of government timber and stumpage prices rose, I got a lot of work and started hiring help.
S-R: What impact did the recession have?
Williamson: Significant. I had 20 employees and should have laid a bunch of them off, but I’d been fired before and didn’t want them to go through that. So what financial cushion I had evaporated.
S-R: Now that we’re well into another building boom, have things turned around?
Williamson: The short answer is no. The market here has changed. We used to have three sawmills that took ponderosa pine. Now we have one. Anything that Vaagen Brothers can’t use we have to haul to Idaho, which cuts into profit.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Williamson: My goal is to raise our professional standards. Washington doesn’t require a license to practice forestry. Hair dressers have licenses, for crying out loud, yet anyone can call themselves a forester in this state. The result is often less than ethical stewardship of the forest.
S-R: Do you sometimes suggest certain practices that aren’t what some clients want to hear?
Williamson: Certainly. My job is to make recommendations and let them make decisions. Generally, they follow my recommendations.
S-R: Have those recommendations changed over the years?
Williamson: They’ve remained fairly consistent. Each stand is different and has its own prescription. I look at the longer time frame unless the landowner tells me otherwise, and the major issue there is species composition. Monocultures aren’t good in the long term. With partial cutting, you get regeneration, but mostly shade-tolerant species. To get a better mix – including, say, western larch – requires more sunlight, meaning open areas.
S-R: What do small landowners typically want?
Williamson: They usually don’t know. They might say, “I want to manage for fire and aesthetics and a healthy forest.” Well, what is a healthy forest? Even professionals can’t agree.
S-R: If a 100-acre stand is managed well, is that lucrative or will it just pay the taxes?
Williamson: It will more than pay the taxes, but it’s not a living.
S-R: What do you charge for your services?
Williamson: My hourly fee for my technicians is $50. I charge $65 for myself. But we mostly work on a commission basis – a share of the harvest. We mark the trees to cut or leave, help locate a logger, draw up the contract, deal with the sawmills to determine the best price based on haul distance and supervise the contract.
S-R: What are some common misperceptions about forest management?
Williamson: One is that thinning is all that’s needed. As I said, that discourages variety. Our area is blessed with an overabundance of regeneration, but we need the right species. It’s hard for people to accept that logging – no matter how careful you are – looks ugly the first few years. What is aesthetically pleasing isn’t accomplishing what is essential to the health and future of a particular stand of trees.
S-R: How often have you gone into a forest and thought to yourself, “This looks the same as it did a century ago”?
Williamson: Virtually never. Eastern Washington is strongly influenced by disturbance – wildfires, snow breakage, windstorms. There are some old-growth stands, but we were never purely old growth. Even an 80-year-old stand on private land is very rare.
S-R: Are you ever in awe of a patch of forest?
Williamson: Not in awe. But when I occasionally get into an old stand that hasn’t been screwed up, I’m pleased. And it’s getting hard to find a market for big old trees because all the mills are geared for smaller logs.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Williamson: April to December. People start thinking about doing something when the grass starts greening up. That’s not necessarily the time to operate, though, because you can damage the soil and the trees you don’t intend to harvest.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Williamson: Pretty near everything.
S-R: What do you like least?
Williamson: Dealing with bureaucracies.
S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?
Williamson: That I can continue to learn.
S-R: Is there anything you would have done differently?
Williamson: I wish I’d been more of a businessman when times were good.
S-R: How do you market your services?
Williamson: I’ve tried all sorts of things. I even spent $10,000 on TV ads one year, which didn’t get me swat. (laugh) One little old lady in Spokane called asking me to come down and look at her bushes. I told her, “Sorry, you need to find an arborist.”
S-R: What’s a typical mistake people who own small woodlands make?
Williamson: Turning a logging contractor loose on their property without supervision. At the very least they should seek free advice from the Department of Natural Resources or their conservation district.
S-R: What’s the career outlook?
Williamson: When I graduated, there weren’t any jobs. Now there aren’t enough graduates. I’ve had a heck of a time hiring qualified people the last three or four years. WSU just restarted its baccalaureate forestry program, and the UW only has a graduate program. So here we are, one of the major timber-producing states, without the public colleges serving the industry.
S-R: Looking back, what are some unusual things you’ve come across deep in the woods? Plane crashes? Wolves?
Williamson: Nope. I’ve found dope plants. My crew found a sack full of prescription medicines hidden on a client’s property, unbeknownst to him. They threw the drugs away, and very soon afterward I started getting death threats.
S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Williamson: I’ll just keep on doing this.
S-R: What’s your exit strategy?
Williamson: I’m gonna die. (laugh)
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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