ESSAY: The Changing Politics of Woods Work, Part One

By Hal Herring, High Country News

We were somewhere in Benewah County, Idaho, on a resplendent late April afternoon in 1993. I had planted the last of my trees for the day, shouldered my hoedad and was walking down a skid trail, eyes on the fertile valleys spread out below us, the coil of blue silver river, the great yawn of gentle mountains, patched with clear-cuts like the one we’d been working in, but still possessed of a surpassing beauty, rich, rain-drenched forests of a thousand shades of green shimmering in the sunlight and shadows of passing clouds.

I was singing, happy in the way of things then, with a hard day’s work behind me, near the end of a month of swinging my hoedad — a flat-bladed tool designed for tree-planting — on steep slash-strewn ground. I’d be home soon, with money to burn, adventures planned, a bed to sleep in and a wife to share it with. A couple of fellow planters boot-slid down the cutbank and joined me. Miguel, a wiry planter from Michoacán, Mexico, asked me, “Te gusta mucho trabajar, no?”

“Claro que si,” I answered. Yes, indeed. I love to work.

Of my many seasons of working in the woods of the West, I remember that one best. My work partner, Barry Davis, and I were the only English speakers on that crew. Neither of us minded, since everybody’s wages were more than decent. We were pulling down $500 to $700 a week at a time when the minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, and that crew, run by a company called Evergreen Forestry of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was an uncommonly good one: a band of uncomplaining, hard-working, hard-partying and often very funny obreros — workers. I had some good times in Mexico when I was younger (I majored in Latin American studies in college), and I was working hard on regaining my Spanish. Davis, a wild-haired, wild-bearded man of about 40 who lived in his truck in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley when he wasn’t working, was an anarchist and rabble-rouser who believed in the international brotherhood of laborers, and he fell right in with the obreros, although he didn’t speak Spanish.

After five weeks planting in Idaho and Washington, some of the crew came to my house in the Bitterroot Valley to celebrate the good season, drinking and shooting pool at the Rainbow Bar in Hamilton and hanging out on the river.

None of us knew it then, but we were witnessing the end of a long era of Western woods-work, the end of tree-planting, timber-thinning and most other manual labor on the public lands, at least by American citizens like Davis and me. We had gotten on that crew by responding to an ad for planters in a Montana newspaper, driving almost four hours in my gas-hog 1977 Ford 150, loaded with camping gear, hoedads, and groceries. But when we arrived at Evergreen’s offices, the white American man we spoke with grinned and said, “We don’t actually hire Americans for these jobs, you know. The ad was just there because the law says we have to place it.”

I was dumbfounded. Davis, who came of age working on the big tree-planting co-ops where every planter was a part-owner and dissent and the power of the rabble were celebrated, looked the man dead in the eye. With an almost gleeful smile, he threatened to report him to the local Better Business Bureau. We were hired immediately.

But no rabble-rouser could stop the trend, and it became clear that no Better Business Bureau or government agency would try. By the time I quit forestry in the late 1990s, after nearly 20 seasons, few U.S. citizens of any ethnicity were working forestry jobs in the West. A new narrative had entered the American conversation: Tree-planting, like thinning timber, picking cherries or peaches, milking cows, tending strawberries in pesticide-laden fields, and so on, were all declared jobs Americans won’t do. Manual labor, even skilled manual labor, has become the province of desperate men and women imported from foreign lands.

The narrative reveals hypocrisy in our national politics on both the left and the right. As I write this, the smoke has just cleared from one of Montana’s worst fire seasons. The state’s new congressman, Republican Greg Gianforte, is planning a “Forest Jobs Tour” to promote the idea that the fires resulted from a combination of U.S. Forest Service inaction and environmental litigation that has shut down public-lands logging and thinning. Absent is any discussion of the Republican Party’s relentless efforts to strangle the budget of that same Forest Service. No one mentions the fact that, should a vast renaissance in thinning timber occur, none of the jobs would go to locals, since the H-2B guest-worker program — which President Donald Trump and Republican congressmen want to expand — already boasts 9,434 forestry workers, many of whom work on public lands adjacent to Western communities with soaring unemployment rates.

On the left, the concern with the rights of immigrants, documented and undocumented, contrasts with an apparent indifference to the fate of native-born Americans in places like Clearwater County, Idaho, or Superior, Montana. Disappearing are the debates environmentalists once had about immigration and the impacts of overpopulation. There is not enough discussion of how the millions of marginalized, hungry people in the labor market suppress wages and displace American workers. Some of the staunchest advocates for the public lands seem relatively uninterested in the future management of those lands.

And two important questions go almost unasked: Why are so many rural Westerners, surrounded by public lands, some of the harshest critics of the Forest Service? And why are they among the loudest voices calling for transfer of federal lands to the states, or for their outright privatization?

Members of the Hoedads cooperative, which operated in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s and early ’80s, replant an Oregon forest after a logging project. Photo by Bruce Piepenburg, courtesy of Jennifer Nelson.

Hal Hartzell not only lived in the golden age of Western forestry contracting; he helped create it by co-founding, in 1972, the legendary crew known as the Hoedads. Now the co-owner — with his wife, former tree-planter Betsy Hartzell — of Kalapuya Books in Cottage Grove, Oregon, Hartzell chronicled his time in the forests in the book, Birth of a Co-operative: Hoedads, Inc., A Worker Owned Forest Labor Co-op.

Reforesting logged-over lands was once the province of drifters, drunkards looking for day-labor cash, and migrant workers unable to get better work. They often did a poor job, but nobody really cared. At least not until 1971, when the Oregon Forest Practices Act mandated effective reforestation of logged areas. That was followed by the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which required that cut-over federal lands be replanted within five years. That opened up an abundance of work that appealed to a new generation of Oregonians with strong backs and a love of the outdoors. Planting trees is the “hardest physical work known to this office,” read a notice posted by the Oregon State Employment Office back then. “It actually is a good job for some.”

In the summer of 1972, Hartzell was home from a two-year Peace Corps stint in West Africa. And, as he writes in his book, he was “wandering around town trying to get used to the fast pace of Eugene,” Oregon, when he met Jerry Rust and John Sundquist. They had learned hoedad tree-planting in the winter of 1969, working for a contractor on private timberland. It was while working that job that they realized that not only was the work being done poorly; the contractor was taking home the vast majority of the money. Their plan, as Hartzell later wrote, was to assemble a group of workers committed to planting trees that would survive to become forests, and to conduct business as a worker-owned cooperative, where every member was paid according to how much he could produce.

The small crew started with federal Bureau of Land Management contracts and soon moved up to larger contracts on the Umpqua National Forest. They called themselves the Hoedads.

“There were 10 of us when we started out,” Hartzell told me, “and wages were not OK then. We changed that, by having a cooperative of worker-owners who were getting the work done, and were totally empowered to say yes or no to the jobs.” By 1976, the Hoedads were each making an average of $100 (or $400 to $500 in 2017 dollars) per day. “We started expanding to everything you can do in the woods,” he said, “thinning timber, firelining, firefighting, all done cooperative-style.”

Read Part Two…

This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on October 30, 2017.

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