Recently, during an Associated Oregon Loggers (AOL) executive committee meeting, I learned there was a timber company executive who was very concerned about the looming shortage of logging contractors. He wanted to know what AOL could do to help set up training programs to help with this problem.
It takes a special kind of person to be a logging contractor. If you haven’t lived it, it’s very difficult to understand what it’s like. I am realizing that there is a lack of understanding, by some in the timber industry, of what makes the people who harvest our nation’s timber tick.
To understand where we are going in the logging industry, we must first have some understanding of where we have been. I used to think that my experiences as a logger were unique to Oregon; however, after working with the American Loggers Council for a few years, I now realize that it is very much an American experience.
My dad started his logging company in the late 50s. Back then, as he said, “If you had an old wore out cat and a chainsaw, you were a logger”. Back then, there was lots of work and loggers made better than average wages. As my brothers and I grew up, we spent as much time as we could up in the woods. Every Saturday and much of the summer, us kids would ride up to the woods. There were unlimited hills to climb and creeks to explore. There still seemed to be lots of time for family vacations and when hunting or fishing was good, there always seemed to be a lot of time for those as well.
Once we got old enough, we started helping out in dad’s operation. There weren’t many child labor laws back then so, at an early age, we learned how to run a chainsaw, set chokers and operate cats and skidders. Like many sons of loggers, I assumed that that’s what I would do for a living, I would be a logger. My mom had other ideas, as moms often do. I remember her fervently trying to convince me to be “something other than a logger”. She had seen the stress and strains that being a logging contractor had put on my father. Worse, she had lived through the experience of my older brother being killed in a logging accident.
After going to college and starting a promising engineering career, the woods started calling me back. I have often heard that “you can take the logger out of the woods but you can’t take the woods out of the logger”.
After our dad passed away in the mid 90’s, my brother and I took over his operation. Things had changed a lot from when he started logging. Profit margins were lower and wages had stagnated. My brother and I, however, felt that if we just worked hard enough, we could make a go of it.
Our equipment, however, was old and worn out, worth more as scrap metal than anything else. We spent three quarters of a million dollars on equipment upgrades. The same upgrades would cost millions of dollars these days and would make it very difficult to make ends meet. Can you even imagine, in today’s world, a bank lending a couple of young brothers with virtually no collateral in equipment and no equity, multi millions of dollars to start a logging company?
We also built a niche for ourselves, cable thinning. We were eventually recruited by a timber company with large land holdings, to do their cable thinning. It seemed to be a good arrangement, until the market dropped. The company representative came out and told us that the “bean counters told him to cut out the expensive logging” as cable thinners, he said, “that’s you”. When we asked about our signed contract, he informed us that “they always have an out in their contracts”.
It was then that we learned that contracts in the timber industry are for the timber companies and not the loggers. Many loggers were faced with the same situation, during our latest economic downturn. As loggers, we all know that we can be told at any time to clean up what we have down and move out.
Nowadays, our profit margins are lower than they have ever been. This fact was echoed recently by Kevin Thieneman (President of Caterpillar Forest Products), who I met at a recent ALC event. He confided that “Caterpillar has a finance division and we see lots of profit and loss statements and loggers do not make enough money”.
As for our generation, our fates are sealed. We are loggers. We will persevere and do what it takes to make it through.
So what about the future then? Like many other loggers, my brother and I are not pushing our children to be loggers. There is so much hard and dangerous work required for so little return, that it feels like we would be doing them a disservice.
Until things fundamentally change in the timber industry, it’s hard to imagine where the next generation of loggers will come from.
So what kinds of changes are needed? I have some ideas and am quite sure many of you do as well. Perhaps I’ll explore those in a future article.
Mark Turner owns and operates Turner Logging located in Buxton, Oregon. Mark serves on the ALC Board of Directors and is the Western Regional Delegate on the American Loggers Council Executive Committee.
The American Loggers Council is a non-profit 501(c) (6) corporation representing professional timber harvesters in 30 states across the US. For more information, visit their web site at www.americanloggers.org or contact their office at 409-625-0206.