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Make Shasta County Great Again? Timber!

Logging truck outside Westwood circa 1958. Courtesy of www.cardcow.com.

Logging truck outside Westwood circa 1958. Courtesy of www.cardcow.com.

The logging trucks are rolling through Whitmore again and it has nothing to do with President-elect Donald Trump. The bone-dry woods of eastern Shasta County have finally absorbed enough water from recent storms to permit timber harvesting after a Cal Fire-enforced hiatus last season. It’s good to see them, and even though they’ll be gone as soon as the limited cutting’s done, I like to imagine Trump is already making Shasta County great again.

Sure, it’s a fantasy, but is it all that far-fetched? Trump hasn’t even taken the oath of office and numerous American manufacturers have announced their intention to build new factories in the United States instead of Mexico or overseas, including Ford Motor Company. Automobile manufacturing is to the rust belt what the timber industry was to much of the American west, including Shasta County. If Trump can bring back Detroit, surely he can bring back Redding?

I haven’t personally lived long enough in Shasta County to judge whether it was great at some time in the distant past and is relatively not so great now. But for the purposes of this story, let’s presume that in the 1950s and 1960s, when the local timber industry was booming along with the state’s heavily subsidized post-WWII economy, Shasta County really was great, in terms of earning a decent wage and raising a family and all the good things associated with the American way of life.

Consider the now-abandoned Shasta Mill in Anderson, built in the early 1960s and shuttered in 2001. The pulp and paper mill was once the county’s largest employer, over time providing thousands of residents with well-paying, long-term jobs with benefits. A website dedicated to Shasta Mill created by former employees offers this illuminating glimpse of the local timber industry in the fabulous 1960s:

“How about the glow from those teepee burners at lumber mills dotted along old Highway 99 between Anderson and Redding? It was reported that when Shasta County implemented the local air quality control standards as a result of the federal Clean Air Act around 1971, that the local area had approximately twenty teepee burners operating at the time. Don’t forget that Cottonwood and CV had teepee burners at their moulding mill operations, too!”

That’s right, the good old days, when a greasy film of fine, fresh soot covered your windshield every morning and particles of dioxin and mercury settled in you and your children’s lungs with every breath. Keep in mind Shasta County’s population was about 60,000 in 1960, one-third of the approximately 180,000 residents who live here today.C

We were a tougher breed back then, blissfully unaware of our hazardous surroundings because there was a job to be done and virtually no environmental regulations to prevent us from doing it. It must have been a sulfureous hellscape during summertime heat inversions, this Valley of the 20 Teepee Burners! Yet Shasta County prospered.

Similar environmental and economic conditions prevailed in timber towns all across the rural American west. Citizens were just beginning to wake up to the environmental havoc wreaked by unregulated industries, including timber and mining.

Their concern, reflected in the actions of politicians, wasn’t the strictly partisan affair it’s become today. It was a Republican, President Richard Nixon, who signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and created the EPA, with bipartisan support, in the early 1970s. Throw in an economic recession, and the 40-year decline of Shasta County’s timber industry had begun.

In California, another Republican, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, signed the Forest Practice Act in 1973, “to ensure that logging is done in a manner that will preserve and protect our fish, wildlife, forests and streams.” It didn’t bring an immediate halt to rapacious timber operations, particularly on the northern California coast, where clearcutting of old growth redwoods continued well into the 1980s. However, federal and state regulations did slow down the industry as a whole.

In 1992, I landed a journalism gig in Ocean Shores, Washington, just about as far west on the coast as you can get. I remember driving up Highway 101 on the motorcycle (BMW R80RT), crossing the bridge at Astoria, Oregon, and entering Washington, where I was greeted by mile-after-mile-after-mile of clearcut forest.

I’d never seen clearcutting techniques up close and personal. In some sections, the trees were mowed down on both sides of the road, just stumps, enormous stumps, extending endlessly beyond the periphery, as far as I could see, occasionally interrupted by giant piles of slash and broken logs. It was as devastated as a bombed-out city. I was shocked at the carnage.

By the time I arrived in Ocean Shores, virtually all logging had been shut down for several years because the federal government had declared the northern spotted owl a threatened species. The locals weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the decision, as I discovered when the publisher’s boyfriend got manhandled by a bunch of laid-off loggers who spied his Greenpeace bumper sticker while he was trying to sell an ad to a sawmill owner.

Even though it was obvious to me that the logging had been shut down for good reason—the massive amount of clearcutting—I felt sympathy for the gaunt, flannel-clad young men wandering the streets of Aberdeen, the county seat, a timber town, the place where Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain grew up. What were they supposed to do with their lives now? Follow Cobain’s footsteps to Seattle? Play the lottery? Shoot heroin?

Fast forward a quarter-century or so and I’m still wondering the same thing. What are these gaunt, mostly young men wandering our streets supposed to do for a living, assuming we can get them off the streets and sobered up in the first place?

And it’s not just happening here. It’s happening all over rural America. In one sense, Trump’s victory represents a cry for help from mostly white small town America, Hillary Clinton’s deplorables, Barrack Obama’s bitter clingers, the great white underclass excoriated by National Review political analyst Kevin D. Williamson in a widely-read essay during the run-up to the election:

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

For the record, Williamson, a conservative Republican, was referring to his native west Texas, as well as Appalachia, but he might as well have been talking about the entire Central Valley, from Bakersfield to Redding. As vitriolic and hurtful as his cut-to-the-bone remarks are, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he may be right.

Since 2000, small towns and medium-sized rural cities such as Redding, lacking any sort of major industry, have struggled for survival in the wake of two major economic recessions. It’s not uncommon for Shasta County residents, bemoaning the stagnant economy and rising crime rate, to pull up stakes and move, no Kevin D. Williamson required.

Log loader on the cutting edge near Whitmore. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

Log loader on the cutting edge near Whitmore. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

The good news (I guess) is Shasta County’s population is still growing, so it can’t be all bad. Perhaps people stay for the scenery. Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak, all the lakes and all the wonderful trees. We’ve got an awful lot of trees.

According to a Shasta County Resource Management report, more than half of the county’s 2,428,000 acres are dedicated to commercial forest uses. Of those 1,231,000 acres, 529,000 acres are publicly held, largely by the U.S. Forest Service. Some 702,000 acres are privately held. Sierra Pacific Industries, the last remaining major timber industry employer in Shasta County, is the largest private landholder.

The report notes the timber industry’s dramatic decline in employment between 1990 and 2000:

“The nature of Shasta County’s economy has undergone significant structural changes, and the timber industry, although still important, does not command the share of Shasta County’s economy that it once did. In 2002, wood products had dropped to 32.3 percent of total manufacturing employment compared to 46 percent in 1990 and only represented 1.3 percent of total county employment, down from 4.5 percent in 1990. The number of wood products jobs was 35 percent less than in 1990.”

Today the timber industry accounts for 1 percent of total county employment. Sierra Pacific has anywhere from 100 to 249 employees, depending on the global demand for wood products. There are a handful of small-to-medium sized operations, such as Warner Enterprises, which is harvesting the trees and loading the trucks that have been rolling through Whitmore the past several months.

It was those trucks that got me fantasizing about Donald Trump making Shasta County great again. According to Trump’s count, he’s already saved or created 51,500 jobs and that’s not counting Ford’s recent decision to build a $7 billion factory that will provide 700 jobs in Flat Rock, Michigan, instead of Mexico.

What could Trump do for Shasta County’s timber industry? The answer is obvious to those possessed with a Jefferson State of Mind: “Get rid of the all those damned regulations.”

That would include federal laws, which Trump might be able to do something about, as well as much stricter state and local laws, which he can do nothing about. My own mind is not quite up to processing the complexities of timber industry regulation and the wood products market, so for enlightenment I fired off some email questions to Mark Pawlicki, Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Sierra Pacific Industries.

First, I asked Pawlicki:

“Are there any federal environmental regulations that could potentially be repealed or altered by the Trump administration that would permit Sierra Pacific to expand its operations in Shasta County and thus increase its workforce–without causing undue harm to the environment?”

Pawlicki generously replied:

“I don’t foresee the Trump Administration making adverse changes to federal environmental laws in any way that would cause harm to the environment. They are likely to look at streamlining certain aspects of federal permits, but that won’t be known for some time yet. We anticipate our workforce in this area to remain about the same.

“We are growing significantly more timber on our lands than we are harvesting. That’s good news for the future. Over the next 90 or so years we will nearly triple the volume of timber we have on all of our California lands that we have now, and the average diameter of our trees will go from about 18 inches to about 30 inches. It is unclear to us the volume of timber the U.S. Forest Service will produce. That will be decided by Congress, the agency, and the Administration.”

I asked Pawlicki to play along with my Trump-making-Shasta-County-great-again fantasy, but no dice. My exact question was:

“Is it fair to say Shasta County was ‘great’ back in the 1950s-’60s as far as the timber industry’s role in the local economy, and the lifestyle it supported?”

Pawlicki made short work of it.

“We don’t look back at the past. Our efforts are focused on growing trees for the future and making sure our mills are modernized and efficient to be able to compete in the marketplace.”

So much for my romanticized view of the past. Even though Pawlicki kind of spoiled my Trump fantasy, I was pleased to learn Sierra Pacific is increasing the diameter of their trees to 30 inches. We’ve got a large SP tract next to our property, and judging by the trunk size, we’ve got a ways to go before harvest time.

It's not pretty, but like a bad haircut, it will grow back. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

It’s not pretty, but like a bad haircut, it will grow back. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

The loggers will eventually come, and when they’re done it’ll look a lot like the tract alongside Ponderosa Road where the trucks have been coming and going. I drove down there on the last sunny afternoon to take some photographs of the trucks, but the crew had already knocked off for the day. A skidder, feller buncher, woodchipper, and log loader parked near the edge of the cut loomed like robot dinosaurs over the savaged landscape.

It’s a selective cut, perhaps a couple of hundred acres at most. Some trees are left standing. The mesquite, brush, bark and wood waste have been chipped and the tract will soon be replanted. Everybody who lives up here knew it was coming; the trees have been blue-lined for several years. But it’s still a little like visiting a crime scene the first time you see it. A 10-man crew armed with modern logging machinery can get a lot of work done in a short period of time.

The Douglas fir and ponderosa pine being hauled off to the sawmill will be made into lumber, and the wood waste will be burned to make electricity in a co-generation plant. How many people are employed at any given time in the industry may depend more on the global demand for wood products and local demand for wood waste for co-generation facilities than Trump appointing alleged climate-change denier Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

One issue that’s sure to be debated is the burning of biomass, including wood waste, to produce electricity. It appears that what not too many decades ago was considered a cutting edge alternative energy source is not as carbon neutral as once thought, and has thus fallen into disfavor with environmentalists, who prefer wind and solar power as cleaner, more efficient choices.

Burney Forest Power and Shasta Green, a co-generation facility and the sawmill that supplies its fuel located in Burney, were nearly shuttered late last year until a last-minute reprieve from Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown signed a bill that helped broker a deal between Burney Forest Power and PG&E that will keep the the plant and the sawmill open another five years, saving 85 jobs. While the details of the deal haven’t been made public, in essence, the state is now subsidizing the plant and the mill.

The fact that Brown, who portrays himself as an environmentalist, would sign a bill that bucks current environmentalist trends to save a mere 85 jobs probably says more about the state of California’s rural communities than anything else. Burney residents interviewed by the local daily after learning they’d received a five-year reprieve sounded more mournful than celebratory, as if they were attending a wake.

That’s how it is living in small-town rural America. You expect to be dying any day now, if you’re not dead already. So forgive me for this Trumpian fantasy. No matter how many climate change deniers he appoints, there’s apparently not too much he can do for or to Shasta County, which will soon boast its first methadone clinic. With Trump’s emphasis on law and order, perhaps there will be subsidies available to round up the lost young men wandering our streets and get them into treatment. Hopefully, they’ll have options other than U-Haul by the time they get out.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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