ESSAY: The Changing Politics of Woods Work, Part Two

Read Part One

By Hal Herring, High Country News

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.

The business’ growth was, if not explosive, still extraordinary. By 1978, 18 crews were working in eight states. They set their own working times and conditions, and decided whether they’d be paid by the number of trees planted, by the hour, or some combination of the two. There were all-female crews, and mixed male and female crews, tree-planting competitions, rancor, conflicts and epic parties. “We had a lot of college grads,” said founder Hal Hartzell, “a lot of people who just wanted to work for themselves, be outside, and have fun.”

At its height, Hoedads Inc. had about 600 core members, and an estimated 3,000 people worked for it over the years.

“We kept it going for 10 or 15 years, and we brought all of our money home, spent it all locally,” Hartzell explains. “We weren’t sending it off to Mexico or wherever. And it was damn good money.” The money the crews brought into the rural economies where the work was done, and to Eugene, where the co-op was based, made Hoedads a potent political force. Jerry Rust was elected Lane County commissioner in 1980, a position he held for 20 years. Robert Leo Heilman, in a 2011 essay about the Hoedads in the Oregon Quarterly, wrote: “Beneath the beards, beads, long hair, and odd forms of dress and speech, the hippies were merely young people who wanted to live according to the sorts of things they’d been brought up to cherish: freedom, equality, kindness, honesty — all the noble Sunday school and scouting values that, as children, they’d been taught to believe in, and which, they later discovered, were so very often either ignored or routinely violated in the conduct of our nation’s governance and business practices.”

The Hoedads’ successful 20-year run was never without strife. The co-op almost dissolved as early as 1983, and there were annual issues with unwise bids and cash flow. Bookkeeping, given the co-op model, was always a nightmare, especially in the face of an increasing thicket of state and federal regulations regarding labor and wages.

By 1994, Hartzell said, “We decided to call it quits. The foreign crews had started showing up in the 1980s, and it had been getting harder and harder to compete with them.” Further hastening the co-op’s demise was a series of lawsuits from a group called the Associated Reforestation Contractors (ARC), created specifically to challenge the worker-owned business model. ARC claimed the co-ops had an unfair advantage because they were exempt from workers’ compensation and other expenses. “A lot of brouhaha started when the ARC sued us,” Hartzell said. ARC won the suit, and then disbanded in 1985, “having fulfilled its mandate of contesting the threat of tree-planting cooperatives on public lands,” according to Brinda Sarathy’s book Pineros.

Other factors also contributed to the fall of the co-ops. The Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930 had mandated that revenues from public-lands logging be set aside for a range of reforestation operations. The model was successful while the timber industry boomed, but when logging declined on public lands during the 1980s and ’90s, the funds slowed to a trickle, leaving less money to pay for forestry and for anything else that the Forest Service needed to do. That, and the unwillingness of Congress to fully fund the agency to make up the difference, opened the doors to contractors who would work more cheaply.

And the “brouhaha” that Hartzell describes? It was the smoke from what was becoming a raging battle for the future of forestry contracting. It was a take-no-prisoners war that would eventually take down the local planters and sawyers in rural communities as well as the hippie co-ops. It also destroyed the chances of migrant forestry workers to command anywhere near the wages and working conditions that the co-op workers achieved.

Scenes from the early days of the Hoedads, a worker cooperative that grew to 600 core members, with up to 18 crews working in eight states, top left and right. Another Oregon crew, Rock Creek Reforestation, lower left, run by the Stokes, circa 1986-’87. Lower right, forest worker Doreen Stokes in her van or “crummy,” in forest-worker lingo. Bruce Piepenburg photos, top, courtesy of Jennifer Nelson. Bottom photos courtesy of Doreen Stokes.

As soon as the Hoedads and other pioneering co-ops opened the doors to a new way of forestry contracting and working, they were followed by a flood of hungry competitors determined to take over the niche they’d created. For decades, migrant workers were an integral part of agriculture in western Washington and Oregon. As tree-planting and other forestry work increased, it was natural for these workers, accustomed to hard outdoor labor and often lacking winter employment, to seek out those forestry jobs and frequently excel at them. But they soon found themselves in the same position as the co-op workers, as unscrupulous forestry contractors swamped the market with undocumented workers who were far less capable of negotiating for higher wages or better working conditions, or much of anything else.

According to documents posted online by the organization Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN, an Oregon-based group that advocates for the rights of Latino immigrant laborers, the same labor contractors that supplied Oregon’s farmers with migrant workers began to bid on government reforestation contracts in the 1970s. Since they paid immigrants lower wages, they could intentionally underbid other contractors — specifically those with Anglo crews — with some of the bids dropping by as much as 50 percent. PCUN president Ramón Ramírez stated in the documents that these new “Russian… and Tejano contractors… were hiring undocumented workers and they were violating not only minimum wage laws, but all kinds of labor laws.”

Thom Sadoski of Sandpoint, Idaho, was an early member of Small Change Inc., a forestry co-op that followed the Hoedads model. Now 68, he has a small organic truck farm and still works as a tree-planting inspector for the private timber company Potlatch. He has been involved in almost every evolution of forestry contracting for over three decades. Sadoski loved the work, and the lifestyle: “I answered an ad in the paper for tree-planters, got that job, and never looked back — even though I had a degree in marine biology. Thirty years later, I think I’ve planted a million trees, seven or eight square miles of forest. I’m proud of that.”

But in the early 1980s, loving the work was a lot easier. “We were pulling down $1,500 a week, $300 a day, easy.” Even on tougher contracts, with harder terrain or bad site prep, the money was still better than on almost any other labor job. “We were a small, tight-knit crew, and we knew how to work our asses off for that 45-day season. … (It was) the best time of my life.”

And then cutting corners and falling wages became the norm. “The white workers just stopped coming,” he told me. “I was working as an inspector in the late 1980s, and by that time most of the workers were illegal. I remember once, in Bonner’s Ferry, we lost an entire crew to an immigration raid, and that crew was the lowest of the low, making a couple of cents per tree, with their motel bill coming out of their pay. And even then, on that crew, there was one guy (from Mexico) who was an agronomist, with a college degree, up here planting trees to support his whole family.”

A desperate workforce is a vulnerable one. My partner and I saw nothing amiss while we were working for Evergreen Forestry Inc., a white-owned business. Yet the company would be found responsible for the deaths of 14 pineros or “men of the pines” in a September 2002 van crash in Maine. Tom Knudsen and Hector Amezcua, in their 2005 exposé of the forestry industry for The Sacramento Bee, reported that the U.S. Department of Labor fined Evergreen $17,000 for violations related to the accident. Van crashes were one of the leading causes of death for forestry workers at the time, according to the reporters: “They are the byproducts of fatigue, poorly maintained vehicles, ineffective state and federal laws, inexperienced drivers and poverty-stricken workers hungry for jobs.”

Jeff Pennick started working in the woods for the Forest Service in 1973 as a tree-planter, brush piler and sawyer. “In those days, all our work was done in-house,” he told me. “We were government employees, and proud of that.”

As the model shifted, and the jobs increasingly went to contractors, Pennick — now retired — became a contracting officer, and worked first with the Hoedads and Small Change, and then with migrant crews. The early years of that transition were extremely rough, Pennick said. “The big contract guys that came in, running 20 man crews or more, with a lot of them never getting paid, not being taken care of. We had Immigration (enforcement agents) come in and the whole crew would just take off, the contract go into default, the work not getting done. It was terrible.”

Over and over, I heard stories about “the transition,” mostly from retired Forest Service employees like Pennick. Roger Thomas, a retired Forest Service contracting officer living in Missoula (and an agency historian), said one catalyst was the budget cuts resulting from the logging decline, making the lower bids offered by contractors running migrant crews even more attractive to an agency trying to get the work done as cheaply as possible. “Those budgets have been reduced pretty much every year since 1985, and I retired in 1994, and it’s still going down,” Thomas said. “We tried to work closely with the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to make sure everything was legal, and they’d haul whole crews off to the jail in Kalispell.”

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

Special to the Post

The Pagosa Daily Post welcomes submissions, photos, letters and videos from people who love Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Call 970-236-6116 or email pagosadailypost@gmail.com