The Timber Wars in the Pacific Northwest could have been avoided

Tree Thieves (1) is a non-fiction version of Damnation Spring, a novel that tells the story of the Timber Wars that ended with the death of the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.  Although the industry collapsed throughout the Pacific Northwest, both books focus on the redwood forests of coastal Northern California. 

Sequence of Events

When the timber industry began in earnest after the Gold Rush of the 1850s, there were said to be 2 million acres of redwood forest on the coast of California.  The demand for timber during the Gold Rush fueled the unrestricted clear-cut methods that decimated the forest, provoking a backlash.

The city-slickers who established the Save the Redwoods League in 1918

The National Park Service invited three well known conservationists to visit the redwood forests of Northern California, which led to the creation of the Save the Redwoods League in 1918.  Two members of that team–Madison Grant and Henry Osborn—were also advocates for eugenics, the control of human reproduction for the purpose of increasing characteristics considered desirable.  The author of Tree Thieves, Lyndsie Bourgon, describes their purpose for creating the Save the Redwoods League: “They considered protecting the redwoods as part of a mission to enshrine White, masculine dominance over the wilderness.” (1) Save the Redwoods League purchased several parcels of redwood forest for preservation, setting the stage for the continuing perception of environmentalism as the hobby of wealthy city dwellers, with little understanding of the lives of those who live and work in resource extraction industries such as forestry.  The League has acquired a total of 66 redwood forests as of 2018, according to Wikipedia. 

In the 1930s the government imposed restrictions on the timber industry that limited clear-cutting methods because of concern about dwindling timber stocks.  The industry returned to clear-cutting methods after World War II in response to the demand for new housing.  By 1968 90% of redwood forests had been logged, according to Tree Thieves.

Consequences of clear-cut logging

The author of Tree Thieves believes that the turning point leading to the Timber Wars was a flood in 1955 that triggered a landslide that “toppled 1,000 year old redwoods and covered the region in silt and mud.”  The landslide was the result of decades of clear-cutting the forest:  “During clear-cut logging, topsoil is lost and streams are bulldozed for roads…In Humboldt [County’s] forests, the root system could no longer contain the immense annual rainfall and waterways began to flood.  Mangled roots, lack of second growth, and flattened shrubs made the earth unstable and the construction of roads deep in the woods to transport logged wood had hastened erosion and habitat destruction.”

This is what remains of Orick, Ca. Google Earth

Clear-cut logging didn’t stop after the first flood and landslide and in 1964 another flood and landslide swept through the town of Orick.  The town of Orick is at the center of Tree Thieves’ telling of events.  Orick is said to be a Yurok word for “mouth of the river,” perhaps referring to Redwood Creek that bisects Orick. Yuroks were one of several tribes of Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants of the region.  At the height of the post-war timber boom, there were about 2,000 inhabitants of Orick.  The 2010 census downgraded Orick from a town to a “census designated place” with fewer than 400 inhabitants. 

These catastrophic floods alerted the Sierra Club to the issue of clear-cut logging and the government was becoming concerned about the environmental devastation it caused.  In 1968, the government established the Redwood National Forest, which ended logging in the park. The government believed—or said they believed–the park would create a tourist trade, replacing the logging economy.  Timber corporations were compensated by the government for the loss of their properties, but there wasn’t government relief for the loggers.

The Timber Wars

The promise of a tourist industry proved to be a fantasy, which forewarned the loggers of the consequences of expanding the national park that occurred in 1978.  This time the loggers fought back and environmentalists organized to engage in that war.  In the 1970s, Humboldt County became a rural refuge for hippies fleeing the druggy disorder of cities as described by Joan Didion in Slouching towards Bethlehem.  They were the foot-soldiers opposing the loggers in the Timber Wars.

Both sides of the Timber Wars engaged in violence and vandalism, as well as degrading rhetoric.  “ARE YOU AN ENVIRONMENTALIST, OR DO YOU WORK FOR A LIVING?” was a typical protest sticker worn by loggers.  One of the leaders of the environmentalists, Judi Bari, described the loggers as “the equivalent of the white racists in Mississippi…They’re being used by the system.  But they are people who are not real bright who have bought into it.”

The battle lines need not have been drawn between loggers and environmentalistsIf they had worked together to find a solution to environmental issues, the battle lines could have been the timber corporations vs. the government.  The decision to clear-cut and spray with herbicides was made by the corporations, not by the loggers.  Many of the loggers had learned their profession by taking individual trees in the forest, which quickly recovered from single tree removals.  They knew that clear-cutting was destructive and they probably would have been glad to return to less destructive methods of logging.  Many of them also knew that herbicides used for road clearance and destroying competing vegetation after clear-cuts were poisoning the watershed and sickening their community.  That aspect of the story is best told by Damnation Spring

If loggers and environmentalists had worked together to pressure the government to regulate the destructive aspects of the timber industry, the environmental issue could have been resolved without a war that permanently alienated both loggers and environmentalists.  Government has the right to regulate pesticide use and it could restrict clear-cutting, but it didn’t and it won’t.  The Timber Wars also alienated some people from environmentalism and others from the logging industry.  There is a lesson here for those who wish to learn it. 

The loggers were also disrespected by the government.  While the plan to expand the national park was being debated, the loggers organized a convoy of logging trucks across the country to Washington DC in 1977.  They carved a redwood log into the shape of a peanut, intended as a gift to President Carter, a former peanut farmer, hoping to engage him in a dialogue.  President Carter refused the gift and the request for a meeting.  He said the peanut-log was a waste of a valuable resource.  The logging convoy not only failed, but it subjected the loggers to abuse across the entire country and back.

The decision to expand Redwood National Park in 1978 incorporated the forests protected by the Save the Redwoods League and California state parks into a total of 139,000 acres, protecting approximately 45% of remaining redwood forests.  Once again, the timber corporations were compensated for the loss of their properties.  This time, the federal government tried to compensate loggers for the loss of their employment by funding a job training program, community development projects, watershed restoration, and direct compensation to unemployed loggers.   

The failure of the job retraining effort was very disappointing:  “By 1988, $104 million had been spent on about 3,500 people, of whom fewer than 13% had received retraining….’Never have so many given so much for so few,’ one critic noted of the funding.”

The fate of the loggers and their community

When spotted owls and several other forest species were designated as threatened species by the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, much of the timber industry was also shuttered in Washington and Oregon.  Between 1980 and 1998, 23% of logging jobs were lost. 

Using the community of Orick in California as an example, Tree Thieves describes the consequences of the loss of the timber industry.  Many people moved away.  Those who remained pieced together a meager living of odd jobs.  Many of those odd jobs were criminal.  Poaching of whole trees in the national park is still common, but poaching the valuable redwood burls is more lucrative. 

Redwood burl. California State Parks

Redwood burls are the tree’s means of recovering from wounds.  The burls have artistic patterns in their wood grain that make them valuable to make furniture, art objects, and veneers for the dashboards of luxury cars.  The tree is damaged by the removal of its burls and is sometimes killed by the damage. 

Tree Thieves interviews many of the former loggers, now poachers.  They are an angry bunch who feel justified in their thievery.  Their livelihoods and self-respect have been taken from them and they have been subjected to decades of abuse by self-righteous environmentalists and government enforcement.  They now feel owed. 

Having won the Timber Wars, environmentalists are rarely directly engaged in confrontational encounters. Now the anger of dispossessed loggers is directed at government employees who are trying—with little success—to stop poaching and punish poachers.  Government employees are also imposing new restrictions on the communities surrounding the national park, opening new wounds.  For example, these poor communities are now prohibited from collecting drift wood on the beach, which was used to fuel wood-burning stoves in the past. 

Timber corporations were not blamed for the Timber Wars.  They were compensated by the government for the loss of their land.  They had already logged much of the land and didn’t see much future in the few forests that remained.  They were responsible for much of the loss of employment because they had mechanized much of the work and reduced availability of unlogged forests after clear-cutting for decades.  They walked away unharmed. 

Making, selling, and using methamphetamines is also a common way to survive in Humboldt County.  Those who choose that mode of survival frequently engage in other criminal behavior and their lives are often ruined in the process.

The marijuana trade in Humboldt County is also a popular career choice.  Ironically, the damage to the environment caused by large marijuana farms hidden in the forests is one of the consequences of the transition from a logging economy to an odd-job economy.

This scenario is probably similar to many other small towns and rural communities in America.  There are devastated communities in former coal country and in the rust-belt where manufacturing industries have been closed as the result of global trade agreements that enabled industries to move to countries with lower labor costs.  Those are the places where angry people no longer trust the government, where environmentalists and other “experts” are hated.  And those are the places where desperate, resentful people have turned to an angry, resentful politician to lead our country.  We reap what we have sown.

  1. Lyndsie Bourgon, Tree Thieves:  Crime and survival in North America’s woods, Little, Brown Stark, The Hatchett Group, 2022.  All quotes are from this book.  Some factual information is from Wikipedia.   

Collaboration triumphs over competition in the forest

“Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system.” Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree

Suzanne Simard is an academic scientist of forestry of some renown because her research has revealed that the forest is a community of plants and trees that share resources to their mutual and communal benefit.  Her recently published memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, about her 40-year career in forestry is deeply personal and informative. 

Simard grew up in the forests of British Columbia in an extended family of traditional loggers who used manual methods to selectively remove individual trees, leaving forests intact.  This is physically demanding and dangerous work, making it a predominantly male occupation. 

After her education as a forester, Simard joined the Canadian Forest Service and a profession dominated by men and committed to maximizing profit by clear cutting patches of forest with mechanized methods.  This policy requires the destruction of all vegetation in clear cuts considered potential competition for the next crop of timber.  After mechanical removal, the ground is sprayed with herbicide from helicopters before being replanted with tree seedlings.  This policy is called “free to grow,” a misnomer that was eventually revealed by Simard’s research.  The plant and tree neighbors of the seedlings are their collaborators in the enterprise of the entire forest, functioning as an ecosystem that creates a home for every life form in the community.

Suzanne Simard’s lonely professional journey in forestry

One of Simard’s first assignments as a forester was to assess the health of seedlings planted in a clear cut.  The seedlings were not doing well.  It became her mission to find out why.  A lifetime of observing healthy forests had taught her that the soil is occupied by vast networks of fungi that connect the plants and trees.  These mycorrhizal fungi transfer moisture and nutrients from the soil to the trees and plants, to their benefit.  She speculated that the destruction of all vegetation in clear cuts was eliminating that support structure and she designed experiments to test her hypothesis. 

Douglas fir forest, MacMillan Provincial Forest, Vancouver, British Columbia

Her experimental plots were divided into areas with varying degrees of vegetation clearance.  At one extreme, seedlings were isolated by sheets of metal buried deep into the soil that prevented development of mycorrhizal networks to support the seedlings.  Decades later, these isolated seedlings were the most likely to have died.  The seedlings that survived most often were on the perimeter of clear cuts, with access to the surrounding intact forest.

The relationships between tree and plant species and their mycorrhizal networks vary by plant and fungi species.  There are thousands of mycorrhizal fungi species associated with trees and about half are generalists that associate with most tree species.  Specialist species of fungi are confined to a narrower range of tree species, genera, or families.  There are fewer species of mycorrhizae associated with plants and most are generalists. 

The specifics of fungal associations between trees also varies, which requires that we describe a specific relationship.  Simard’s original studies focused on the fungal associations between Douglas fir and birch trees.  Birch trees were destroyed in the clear cuts that were then planted with Douglas fir seedlings that were not doing well.  Simard’s experiments eventually revealed that birch trees and firs mutually benefit one another through their fungal networks.  Carbon stored and the sugar produced by photosynthesis by firs are shared with deciduous birch during winter months while they are leafless.  In summer months when birch are foliated, they store more carbon that is shared with firs.  Birch is resistant to a root pathogen to which firs are susceptible.  In a sharing fungal relationship between birch and firs, birch confers some of that resistance to the root pathogen onto their fir neighbors.

Nitrogen is essential to plant and tree health, but not all species are capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen to soil nitrogen available to plants.  When a nitrogen-fixing plant is associated with a plant without that capability, it can share its nitrogen with its neighbor through their fungal network. 

A mature tree can store more moisture than its young seedlings without extensive root structure.  The mature tree can share its stored moisture with struggling seedlings through its fungal network.  Seedlings with access to that network are more likely to survive while establishing their own root structures.  Research of Simard’s graduate students and collaborators eventually found that such sharing of resources between mature and young trees occurs more frequently within the same species, but sharing also occurs with unrelated tree species.  The mature trees nurture their offspring, enabling their survival and the survival of the species.  They are, in effect, Mother Trees.

MacMillan Provincial Forest, Vancouver, British Columbia

Herbicides used to kill vegetation in clear cuts

Another early assignment by the forest service required that Simard determine the most effective herbicide regimen to kill plants in clear cuts perceived to be potential competitors of the seedlings of the next timber crop.  Simard and her sister applied several different concentrations of herbicide to vegetation and predictably determined that the most concentrated formulation of herbicide was the most deadly.  Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide for this purpose.

This particular episode in Simard’s early career was disturbing in view of the fact that she eventually developed breast cancer that nearly killed her.  Simard and her sister were uncomfortable about their assignment and they suited up cautiously as best they knew how while applying herbicide.  The Simard sisters felt ill after an application and they sought medical help from whom they learned that their masks did not contain the necessary filters.  Required safety measures for herbicide applicators are only as good as the knowledge on which they are based.  That knowledge moves slowly forward and becomes more alarming as we learn more.

What has the timber industry learned from Simard’s research?

The short answer to that question is very little.  The strategy of the timber industry in both Canada and the US remains clear cuts that destroy all trees and vegetation followed by herbicide application by helicopter to kill all herbaceous vegetation before seedlings are planted.  Simard reports that concentrations of herbicide have been reduced recently.  She also says that a few large, mature trees are sometimes spared by clear cuts. 

Recent knowledge of the health effects of glyphosate is causing some concern, but few changes in policy or practice have been made.  Declining moose populations in a region of Canada led to decreased herbicide applications.  Legislators in the State of Maine recently passed a law to ban herbicide applications in timber clear cuts.  That legislation was then vetoed by the Governor of Maine.

Strangely, none of these reports of reduced herbicide use by the timber industry mention that herbicides are known to damage mycorrhizae.  Health concerns are cited as the sole reason for reducing herbicide use despite the fact that we now know the importance of mycorrhizal networks to the health and survival of forests.  While Simard opposes the use of herbicides in forests, she does not explicitly connect herbicides with the destruction of mycorrhizal networks that enable the survival of tree seedlings. 

Are these studies relevant to our urban forest?

Those who are looking for support for our urban forest in Simard’s work will be disappointed.  Her focus is on the health and preservation of native forests. In fact, she has harsh words for “exotic weed invasions:” She says they are accelerating the decline of native grassland “possibly by sending the native grasses some poisons or an infection to finish the murder.  Or starving them, taking over their energy, degrading the native prairie. Like the invasion of the body snatchers.  Or the colonization of the Americas by Europeans.”  Note that her indictment is speculative and not the conclusion of an empirical study.   

But the principles of Simard’s findings are relevant to our concerns for the destruction of our urban forests and the herbicides used for that purpose.  Mycorrhizal fungi are as essential to urban forests as they are to native forests.  Herbicides used in our urban forests are as damaging to fungal networks as they are to clear cuts of native forests. 

Trees, Truffles, and Beasts (1) was written by academic foresters in Oregon and Australia who are primarily concerned about the destructive consequences of destroying native forests and replacing them with timber plantations, often of another, faster growing species.  Ironically, in the case of old growth eucalyptus forests in Australia, the choice of replacement species is often Monterey pines.  Since some species of mycorrhizal fungi are specific to certain species or types of trees, this change of species is not successful without the inoculation of appropriate species of fungi.  For example, some of the mycorrhizal fungi that grow on the roots of conifers are not found on eucalyptus species.

I corresponded with the authors of Trees, Truffles, and Beasts to confirm that fungi are found in the eucalyptus forests of California.  Since eucalyptus was brought to California as seeds, rather than potted plants, I needed confirmation that our eucalyptus forests are also enjoying the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi.  We are grateful that the authors replied.  They report that eucalyptus forests in California are indeed populated with generalist fungi, including some species that are native to Australia.  Therefore, we can assure our readers that our description of how the forest functions as a community applies to the eucalyptus forest in California, as well as in Australia.

When eucalyptus is destroyed in California their stumps are immediately sprayed with herbicide (usually Garlon) so the tree does not resprout.  The herbicide is carried into the roots of the tree through the cambium layer that is briefly functional after the tree is destroyed.  Garlon is known to damage mycorrhizal fungi.

Herbicide is also used to destroy the non-native vegetation that thrives in the full sun after trees are destroyed.  Glyposate that is commonly used for that purpose is known to kill microbes that are essential to soil health, handicapping any replacement planting. 

Suzanne Simard’s mission

Before leaving the Canadian Forest Service, Suzanne Simard made every effort to inform her colleagues of the damage being done by the timber industry and the potential for more successful planting of a new generation of timber if policy and practice were revised to preserve soil health.  In a male-dominated profession that was committed to the methods being used, her message fell on deaf ears.  In fact, her colleagues were openly hostile to her message, making the offer of an academic position welcome relief that gave her more freedom to conduct research and deliver her message.

After recovering from a nearly fatal bout of breast cancer, Simard became more committed to bringing her research to the attention of the public.  She has delivered inspiring and wildly successful TED talks and she was immortalized as the heroine of The Overstory (2), the barely fictional account of defenders of the forest that made Simard’s research accessible to the general public.

Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard’s memoir, is a sad reminder of the difficulty of bucking conventional wisdom that is deeply rooted in the profit motive.  In the case of the timber industry, competition remains the dominant narrative that drives policy and the consequences of that approach are unnecessarily destructive.    

  1. Chris Maser, Andrew W. Claridge, James M. Trappe, Trees, Truffles, and Beasts, Rutgers University Press, 2008
  2. The Overstory, Richard Powers, W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.