This article focusing on Oregon's timber industry contributes to recent efforts to chart the longer history of working‐class conservativism, while also arguing that environmental change and conflict played a central role in shaping the political leanings and class identities of white, rural workers in resource extraction industries. It pays particular attention to Oregon's independent contracting and milling operations—small, often family‐owned enterprises where the lines separating labor and capital were blurry at best and where bosses and employers alike viewed unions and working‐class radicals with deep skepticism. Independent contractors became the dominant form of labor relations in Oregon's timber industry in the 1970s, largely because of changes to the forest wrought by decades of overharvests and the flight of large timber corporations. Workers unmoored by capital flight increasingly turned to independent contractors and thus began to believe that their economic futures depended on maintaining close ties with their employers. This sense grew stronger in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Oregon environmentalists began seeking new restrictions on logging to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl — restrictions that threatened to further reduce timber‐based employment and exacerbate the economic problems of rural, timber‐dependent communities. Workers and employers joined together in more visible coalitions, held together by a shared populist outrage at the urban, liberal, and affluent elite who, in their view, were responsible for their economic precarity. This view remains evident in Oregon today, where a new movement that joins bosses and workers, Timber Unity, has coalesced to fight proposed legislation intended to address climate change.
The convoy started to take shape early on the morning of February 6, 2020, in those cold, unforgiving hours just before dawn. Across Oregon timber country—the rural parts of the state where many people still earn their living in the woods—people met at small diners or in the parking lots of dimly lit gas stations on the edges of towns, grabbed a cup of hot coffee, and then hit the road. Some people came from the coast, where the trees grow tall despite constantly being buffeted by high winds. Others came from towns tucked into the hollows of the Siskiyou Mountains to the south, and still others from the high-elevation pine country to the east. By the time they all joined forces on Interstate 5 in the Willamette Valley, the convoy had grown to more than a thousand vehicles and stretched for miles. All this had been organized by Timber Unity, a recently formed movement of “common working folks,” according to the group's website, in response to what many in rural Oregon said was a class war being waged on economically struggling, timber-dependent communities. Their final destination was the state capitol in Salem, where they intended to confront the politicians who, they said, had sided with monied interests over hard-working loggers, truck drivers, and sawyers. The signs that were hung to the sides of the logging trucks leading the convoy spoke to the distinctly working-class orientation of this movement. They read: “Standing Up for working Oregonians,” “Proud to Be a working Oregonian,” and “Taking Back our State.”1
The scene in Salem when the convoy arrived around 10:00 a.m. was nothing short of chaotic. The city's narrow streets had not been designed to accommodate massive logging trucks, and a giant traffic jam that reeked of diesel exhaust quickly developed. Salem residents caught in the commotion leaned on their horns—some in frustration, some in opposition, and a few in support. Logging truck drivers blared their air horns in response. Eventually, the convoy made it to downtown. People poured from their vehicles and gathered near the steps of the capitol, where a massive crowd—three thousand strong, according to some reports—listened to speakers forcefully deliver messages about the need for timber workers to exhibit a strong solidarity in response to the challenges they were facing. Perhaps the most pointed speech was delivered by Mike Pihl, a logger from Vernonia and Timber Unity's president. Oregon's politicians don't care about workers, he said, so “we need to protect ourselves. . . . We need to fight for ourselves.” Jeff Leavy, a logging truck driver from Columbia City and Timber Unity board member, followed Pihl on stage, delivering a message that was no less immediate. “We are under fire,” he said. “They're coming for us.”
It was powerful rhetoric that harkened back to Oregon timber country's past. Indeed, this is a place with a long history of working-class radicalism, where labor leaders once delivered similar messages about the virtues of working-class solidarity to crowds of picketers and strikers. But if there were echoes of timber country's radical history audible at the February 6 event, they were, in the end, just the faintest of echoes. The convoy and rally were organized not in response to a strike or contract dispute—the sorts of things that once mobilized timber workers—but, rather, in opposition to proposed climate change legislation. A month earlier, Oregon lawmakers had introduced SB 1530, a bill that aimed to reduce carbon emissions by instituting a cap-and-trade system. The bill's architects claimed it only targeted energy companies, but Timber Unity countered that it would raise the timber industry's operating costs, put many small companies out of business, and cause rural Oregon's already high unemployment rate to climb even higher. Nor are Timber Unity's enemies the traditional enemies of Oregon's rural working class. The “they” Pihl and Leavy spoke of weren't lumber barons or timber trusts. Instead they were the chief supporters of SB 1530: environmentalists, liberal Democrats in the state legislature, and Portland's middle class.
Timber Unity may cultivate a distinctly working-class identity, but the group's definition of “working class” also appears to represent something new. Sharing the rally stage with Pihl and Leavy were several small sawmill owners, some of whom have made financial contributions to Timber Unity. This, in the end, is a group that represents capital as much as labor. Complicating matters further was the fact that many of the rally's attendees appeared to have been drawn there less by Timber Unity's call for working-class solidarity and more for issues linked to contemporary far-right populist outrage. People in the crowd held signs expressing support for then-president Donald Trump, his proposed border wall, QAnon, and Oregon's militia movement. The crowd appeared to have issues with both BLMs: the Bureau of Land Management, a federal land-management agency that's long raised the ire of rural populists, and Black Lives Matter, a social movement seeking to end police brutality in communities of color that has more recently become the bane of political conservatives who, as some signs at the rally stated, “back the blue.” Interestingly, or perhaps tellingly, in light of Timber Unity's claim that SB 1530 amounts to a war on the working class, recent polls indicate that a vast majority of workers not employed in Oregon's wood products industry—which, in the twenty-first century, is the vast majority of workers in the state—strongly support cap-and-trade.2
How should we make sense of all this, given Oregon timber country's storied history of labor radicalism? It's certainly tempting to treat a group like Timber Unity as representative of Northwest timber workers’ fall from proletarian grace, their abandonment of a broad, working-class consciousness that once formed the basis of industrial unionism for the seemingly narrower identity and politics of rural, right-wing populism. But that interpretation only works if you believe radicalism was the sole working-class tradition in the Northwest woods; the fact of the matter is that in Oregon as elsewhere, workers have never agreed on what it means to be working class. While some workers did indeed cast their lot with radical unions and articulated a fierce opposition to capital, others cultivated partnerships with employers, looked askance of organized labor, and, long before the white working-class backlash against civil rights in the later twentieth century, embraced a politics of racial and gender exclusion. While historians studying the Northwest timber industry have focused most of their attention on the more radical tradition—probably because it's a more romantic story of the variety we labor historians prefer to tell—understanding a group like Timber Unity requires us to pay more attention to that second, conservative tradition.3
While historians of the Northwest timber industry have yet to fully grapple with this history, conservative, rural, populist-leaning workers have recently garnered a great deal of attention from historians studying other workers in other regions and industries. Bethany Moreton, for one, has rooted late twentieth-century rural conservativism in a longer history of rural evangelical Christianity and the lingering influence of the (capital-P) Populist movement. J. Blake Perkins has countered that, at least in the Ozarks, what he terms the “populist defiance” of rural working people emerged more in response to federal programs directed by an affluent elite in the early twentieth century. Focusing on the late nineteenth-century rural Midwest, Dana M. Caldemeyer has argued instead that many miners rejected organized labor because they embraced the profit-seeking of capitalism. Jared Roll has made a similar argument for late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century metal miners in roughly the same region, adding that many rural white workers rejected unionism—interracial unionism in particular—as a means of protecting the privileges of whiteness and masculinity. Certainly, similar analyses could be brought to bear on the history of conservative rural workers in the Northwest. But Timber Unity's intense focus on climate change legislation and its framing of SB 1530 as a class war suggests another dimension to conservative working-class history that needs to be further explored: environmental change and conflict, as much as anything else, shaped working-class populist outrage.4
Indeed, the history that gave rise to Timber Unity—the history this article aims to tell—is a story about the tension between the radical and populist working-class traditions in Oregon timber country and the ways that environmental change and conflict diminished the influence of the former and magnified the influence of the latter. For roughly the first half of the twentieth century, Oregon's timber industry was dominated by large, powerful companies and equally large and powerful industrial unions. But not all timber workers accepted work at the big companies or organized labor. Others sought work in independent contract milling and logging operations—smaller, often family-owned companies made up of small crews, where the lines separating labor and capital were blurry or altogether nonexistent, and where bosses and employers alike viewed unions with deep skepticism. Contracting became the dominant form of labor relations in Oregon's woods beginning in the 1970s, largely as a result of changes to the forest. As a result of decades of overharvests, the Northwest's timberland became far less productive, and big, unionized companies fled the region. Workers unmoored by capital flight turned to the remaining smaller companies and, as they did, they began to believe that their economic futures depended on fostering and maintaining close ties with their employers. This became all the more true in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Oregon environmentalists began seeking new restrictions on logging to protect the habitat of the ostensibly endangered northern spotted owl—restrictions that threatened to further reduce employment in the state's timber industry and exacerbate the economic problems of rural, timber-dependent communities. Workers and employers joined together in more visible coalitions, held together by a shared populist outrage at the urban, liberal, and affluent elite who, in their view, appeared to be responsible for their economic precarity. It's a worldview that remains very evident in a group like Timber Unity today.
This story may take place in Oregon, but it's also one that helps us make better sense of the white, rural, working-class anger we see across much of the contemporary political landscape. Timber Unity is hardly the only group in recent memory to mobilize populist outrage in opposition to environmental policy. The most visible example may be the Pennsylvania miners who stood beside their employers holding “Trump Digs Coal” signs, voicing support for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his pledge to dismantle regulations that had reduced fossil fuel consumption. But go to just about any rural community struggling with the decline of a resource extraction economy and you're almost certain to find working people who blame environmentalists for their plight. The late twentieth-century environmental movement can hardly be blamed for rural America's economic problems, which have much more to do with capital flight and broad changes to the national and global economy. Still, too often activists and politicians who press for environmental protections turn a blind eye to the social and economic consequences of their policies, making them easy targets for rural anger and frustration. What do we owe people in communities who once dug the minerals and cut the timber that built the national economy, but whose work is no longer needed or valued as politicians and activists push us toward a less environmentally invasive economy? This is a story about what happens when that question goes unasked and unanswered, which makes it a story with implications far beyond Oregon's borders.
The Decline of Organized Labor and the Rise of Independent Contract Logging
As it's often told, the labor history of the Northwest timber industry is a proper proletarian drama. The heroes of the story's opening chapter are the Wobblies, the nickname given to members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union founded in 1905. When the Wobblies came to timber country, they entered an industrial landscape that appeared to confirm the opening line of the IWW's constitution: “The working-class and the employing-class have nothing in common.” The entire timber industry was controlled by a handful of southern and midwestern lumbermen who had become fabulously wealthy by exploiting nature and labor in equal measure. Clearcuts proliferated, as did the number of overworked, poorly paid loggers missing fingers they'd sacrificed to the bosses’ saws. Wobblies proposed industrial unionism as the only salve to timber country's problems, preaching the virtues of working-class consciousness, sometimes quite literally from the tops of soapboxes. The message resonated, and the number of loggers carrying the IWW's distinctive red membership card increased, as did strikes and incidents of industrial sabotage when employers refused to improve conditions. The IWW's rise was cut short by state repression following World War I, but in the late 1920s the Communist Party picked up where the Wobblies had left off and went about trying to build an industrial union movement. These efforts culminated with the creation of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), a Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) affiliate founded in 1937. Aided by New Deal labor laws and a membership quick to strike to win union recognition, the IWA quickly grew to over a hundred thousand members by the end of World War II. Wages improved dramatically, as did safety. IWA militancy extended to conservation, and throughout the 1950s the union attempted to reform federal forestry policy and expand wilderness areas. The IWA's politics were perhaps best summed up by one member who, in 1954, wrote, “As far as I'm concerned, the forests are the heritage of our people and should be used for our people and capitalism has no place in our forests.”5
At least that's the popular story, and it's not entirely wrong. However, it does ignore contract logging, a part of the timber industry governed by an entirely different set of labor relations, where workers and bosses alike—insofar as those distinctions held any relevance—were far less antagonistic. Commonly called “gyppos,” contract logging crews consisted of between two and twenty men, often related through kinship and community, who ran small, mobile mills cobbled together from spare parts and logged timber on public lands using rusting equipment purchased on credit. It was an economically precarious existence of intermittent work and fierce competition among crews in which fortune favored the risk takers and those willing to do dangerous jobs quicker and cheaper than the competition would. What contracting offered, though, was economic opportunity for men who were, in the words of the wife of one contract logger, stricken by “that virus of independence.” Indeed, contractors worked when they wanted, how they wanted, free from the oversight of the scientific managers who guided production at the big companies and the restrictive safety rules mandated by unions. According to many contract loggers, organized labor only protected the slow, the lazy, and the incompetent. A man's economic worth, they said, should be measured by his skill, his speed, and his willingness to accept risk. This was a part of timber country where Wobbly and CIO radicalism didn't reach, where danger was often celebrated, and where bosses and workers were tied together through entrepreneurial ambition rather than divided by a belief that they were members of opposing classes.6
Scorn ran in both directions, and labor leaders were often as disparaging of contractors as contractors were of them. The very term gyppo may have been invented as a pejorative by Wobblies, who often claimed that contract outfit owners “gypped” their crew members come payday. Even if that's apocryphal, and it may be, there's no denying that union leaders harbored something of a deep disdain for contractors. Union leaders complained that contractors drove down wages across the industry and contributed to broader economic instability by flooding the market with cheap, low-grade lumber. Both the IWW's and IWA's newspapers routinely warned the rank and file about seeking out jobs at contractors, where the pay tended to be lower, the workdays longer, and the old machinery incredibly dangerous. And, at least for the first half of the twentieth century, that was advice that many rank-and-filers heeded. Exact figures are hard to come by, but prior to World War II, it's likely that less than 15 percent of Northwest loggers and sawyers worked for or as contract loggers. Those that did were often younger men without families who were more inclined to accept the high-risk, high-reward culture of contracting.7
Things began to change in the postwar era. Responding to the unprecedented demand for lumber created by suburban growth, the US Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opened up more public forestlands to logging. This was a shift in resource policy that significantly favored contractors. Large timber companies weren't particularly well suited to public lands logging. Their machinery and labor management regimes had been designed to log massive forest tracts on privately held timberlands, not the smaller parcels auctioned off in public timber sales. Contractors using lighter and more mobile machinery were better suited to the task, and as the allowable cut on federal forests expanded, so too did the number of contractors. By 1952, forester Jerry Phillips estimated that there were over five hundred contractors operating in Oregon's Coos County alone. “Everywhere you looked,” he said, “there was a small mill employing between five and fifteen men that was cutting timber.”8
Phillips would have been able to count even more small mills and logging operators in the 1970s, a decade that marked the end of the era of big companies and big unions, and one that saw contracting become the dominant form of labor relations in the Northwest woods. All of these changes, in one way or another, were rooted in broader environmental changes in the forests. By the late twentieth century, most private industrial lands had been completely stripped of valuable old-growth timber, leaving just stands of lower-quality, second- and third-growth timber that didn't bring nearly as much at market. Faced with declining private forestland productivity, many large companies shuttered their Northwest operations and took off for the South, where dense stands of yellow pine and a largely union-free labor market promised better returns on investments. The case of Weyerhaeuser Lumber was illustrative. Since coming to the Northwest in 1900, Weyerhaeuser had been the region's single largest private forestland owner and, for a time, employed more wageworkers than all other timber companies combined. Starting in the 1970s, the company began selling off its cutover lands to real estate developers and transferred its operations elsewhere. By 1975, more than half of the company's timberland was located in the South, and in Columbus, Mississippi, it was preparing to build its largest ever sawmill.9
Capital flight was nothing short of disastrous for logging towns. As employers locked the gates at their mills and dismantled logging equipment, the unemployment rate across much of the rural Northwest skyrocketed, in some places exceeding what it had been in the Great Depression. All of timber country suffered. From northern California to northern Washington, and from the coast to Idaho, men—and a few women—who had given decades to the industry found themselves holding layoff notices instead of paychecks. But no place was hit harder than Oregon. The state's timber industry had become the nation's leading producer of lumber in the 1950s, which made its rapid decline in the 1970s all the more devastating. Between 1971 and 1978, Oregon's timber industry shed more than twenty-five thousand jobs, which amounted to about a third of all jobs in the state's wood products industry. Employment data was just one measure of the problem. Stores and diners in many rural towns depended on the spending of loggers and millworkers, and as those loggers and millworkers lost their jobs, rural Main Street businesses posted Out of Business signs and boarded up their windows. Completing his study of Coos Bay, a coastal Oregon logging town hit particularly hard by layoffs and mill closures, historian William Robbins looked out on a place that had been fundamentally transformed by capital flight. “Empty office buildings and storefronts and vacant automobile dealerships are becoming regular features of the landscape,” Robbins wrote. “The area once billed as the ‘Lumber Capital of the World,’ with its tremendous production records in the postwar years is now taking its ‘turn in the bucket.’”10
Most IWA locals throughout the Northwest responded in ways that only exacerbated the crisis. In several locals, union leaders agreed not to contest layoffs of younger, recently hired workers so long as companies retained older workers with seniority, which only angered and frustrated those younger workers. In other locals, the union reopened contracts at the behest of company negotiators and accepted significant reductions to wages and benefits packages. Some locals did try to fall back on the IWA's long tradition of militancy, and members voted to strike rather than accept concessions, only to be stymied by new labor laws enacted during the Reagan administration that allowed companies to discharge workers on strike. In 1983, for instance, workers at Tillamook, Oregon's Louisiana-Pacific mill took to the picket lines after the company threatened to roll back contractually guaranteed wage increases. The strikers were all fired, and their jobs were given to replacement workers who, a year later, voted to decertify the IWA in the mill. But in the end it mattered little whether IWA members voted for strikes or for concessions, as most companies went ahead and closed their mills regardless of what organized labor did or didn't do.11
Somewhat ironically, consumer demand for Northwest lumber did not attenuate as large lumber companies left the region. While the broader economic problems of the 1970s led to fewer housing and construction starts in the United States, urban and suburban growth in several Asian countries created a significant demand for Northwest lumber—a demand that federal foresters met by once again expanding the cut on public lands. By 1984, public timber accounted for more than 60 percent (4,643 million board feet [mfbm]) of all lumber harvested in Oregon (7,550 mfbm). This created even more opportunities for contract loggers and provided work for formerly unionized workers who had lost their jobs at the big companies. Indeed, men who had worked for wages their entire lives at companies like Weyerhaeuser, Louisiana-Pacific, and Georgia-Pacific took out loans, purchased equipment, and went into business for themselves or lined up at the gates of the smaller, family-owned mills that remained in the region, looking for work. They ignored the long-standing counsel of their union's leaders, who had said that contracting was a world of long hours, low pay, and unsteady work. That might have been good advice in an earlier era, when jobs at the big companies were plentiful and when organized labor ensured high wages. But those big companies were gone now, and by accepting so many concessions, organized labor itself had become something of a source of economic uncertainty. By 1990, more than 85 percent of all Oregon timber workers would work for or as contractors.
Because independent loggers worked under short-term contracts that rarely, if ever, included benefits, the rise of contracting represented the Northwest timber industry's turn toward the flexible labor relations of late twentieth-century neoliberal capitalism. But workers didn't necessarily see it like this. Rather, for many, contracting offered a modicum of stability in otherwise unstable times. Dick Gilkison was one of those workers—a tall man with a logger's characteristically broad shoulders who today, even in his eighties, still sometimes puts in a full day in the woods. Gilkison began working in Weyerhaeuser's Oregon logging operations in the 1950s, while still a teenager in high school. Even though he'd been a loyal IWA member since his first day on the job, Gilkison started to feel that, by the 1970s, the union had, in his words, “worn out its welcome.” Like many of his fellow IWA members, Gilkison was frustrated by the leadership's inability to stem capital flight and by the wage concessions he was being asked to take. He also worried about the future of his two sons: they worked in the industry too. In 1984, Gilkison and his boys quit their jobs at Weyerhaeuser, took out a loan, bought some well-worn and broken-down logging equipment, spent a few weeks getting it in working order, and went into business as contract loggers. They called their operation Gilkison & Dad, a play on the “ . . . & Sons” names commonly given to male, family-owned businesses.12
Trying to label Gilkison as either boss or worker, as employing class or working class, is an impossible, if not meaningless, task. He often worked for mills that bid on public timber, making him something of their employee, even as he employed a crew of his own workers. As the company's owner he collected a larger share of contract payments, but he also spent a significant portion of his take-home pay on maintaining logging equipment; like the men who worked for him, Gilkison often struggled between paydays. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about loggers like Gilkison was that company ownership was not a ticket to a life of employing-class leisure. Quite to the contrary, Gilkison worked ten-to-twelve-hour days alongside his crew in the rain and mud, and he typically returned home at the end of the day covered in equal parts sweat and sawdust. Company ownership also did not shield Gilkison from the dangers of logging. “I've had my back broke . . . my leg broke,” he said. Once, when working a steep hillside, a falling snag caught him and punctured his kidney. Unable to muster the breath to scream for help, Gilkison had to crawl nearly half a mile uphill before he could get to his crew and be taken to the hospital. Doctors told him he would never log again. He was back in the woods less than a year later. When asked if he thinks of himself more as boss or worker, employer or employee, Gilkison quickly brushed the question off. “I'm a logger,” he said, and he said it with an obstinance common in timber country's work culture, with a tone suggesting that follow-up questions on the topic would be unwelcome or, at the very least, would yield no additional insights. It's a revealing comment all the same, one that hints at the ways that men like Gilkison dispensed with any lingering notions that the relationship between bosses and workers was fundamentally antagonistic as they turned to contracting.13
The same was largely true in the smaller, family-owned, independent sawmills, which workers looked to as the bigger mills shut down. Roseburg Lumber, operating out of Roseburg, Oregon, is a case in point. The company was started in the late 1930s by Kenneth Ford, an unemployed logger suffering through the Depression who pieced together a mill from spare parts he salvaged from a scrapyard. Ford invested his early profits into buying cutover timberland that had been abandoned by larger companies and then nursing it back to productivity through an aggressive replanting program. In the 1950s, Ford started a philanthropic foundation, and in the 1980s that foundation began donating millions of dollars to rural school districts and social service providers facing budgetary shortfalls as a result of timber country's broader economic crisis. By the late twentieth century, Ford could no longer creditably claim to be working class, even if that's where he had started off, but workers could still see something of themselves in him. According to one southern Oregon timber worker, small mill owners like Ford were, like the men they employed, local people who “just tried to make a buck.” Even more significantly, many workers began to believe that, after years of layoffs—the result of decades of poor forest management—the conservation measures that companies like Roseburg implemented would, as another worker said, “guarantee the future” of rural Oregon.14
This was a brave new world of labor relations that the IWA was equal parts unwilling and unable to adapt to. Even as the union struggled with a rapidly declining membership as a result of layoffs, IWA leaders continued to malign contracting and made no significant effort to organize independent crews. Even if they had, it's not clear it would have borne results. Like Gilkison, many timber workers turned to contracting because of their frustrations with organized labor, and it's doubtful they would have welcomed labor organizers on their job sites. In 1970, the IWA had just over 115,000 members. In 1981, it had fewer than 21,000 members, and its ranks continued to rapidly dissipate thereafter. By 1994, membership in the IWA was so low that the union merged with the International Association of Machinists (IAM). What became known as the IAM's Woodworker Department played no tangible role in the labor relations of timber country. Rather, it mostly existed to manage the pensions of retired timber workers—the last generation of men who had worked at big companies, where the lines separating bosses and workers were far clearer. For many of them, timber county of the late twentieth century probably felt like a foreign place.15
The changing terrain of labor relations in the late twentieth-century Oregon woods may have reshaped the ways that workers and employers—insofar as those categories still meant something—understood each other, but these changes weren't solely responsible for creating the populist outrage that is so evident in Timber Unity today. Rather, that was more a product of what workers and bosses alike interpreted as broader indifference to their social and economic problems. Indeed, the proliferation of independent contracting outfits may have offered much of rural Oregon a way of coping with capital flight and high unemployment, but the 1970s and 1980s hardly represented a return to timber's heyday in the mid-twentieth century. Contractors contended with an unstable lumber market, intermittent work, and competition from southern lumber producers. Much of Oregon timber country was still, as one woman put it, “dying on a vine here.” But few outside rural communities concerned themselves with the timber industry's economic problems. In fact, some, particularly those in cities, welcomed its demise. The New Deal and World War II had fundamentally changed Oregon's economy. Electrical power flowing to Portland from Columbia River dams combined with the rapid expansion of wartime industry reoriented the state's economy away from resource extraction and toward industrial manufacturing. By 1965, wood products accounted for less than 14 percent of the state's GDP. Urban industrial growth created urban affluence, and city dwellers used their excess wealth and leisure to spend more time outdoors. Hikers, backpackers, and anglers wanted bucolic vistas, not clearcuts, when they visited rural Oregon, and many in the state began taking an increasingly dim view of logging.16
Oregon's embrace of a post–resource extraction economy was perhaps most visible in 1966, when the voters overwhelmingly elected Tom McCall as governor. A newspaper reporter turned politician, McCall promised to protect open spaces and save Oregon from sprawl, unfettered economic growth, and what he once called “the buffalo hunter mentality” that had guided previous generations of Oregon politicians. During his second term as governor, McCall signed the 1971 Oregon Forest Practices Act, a law that placed significant restrictions on the timber industry and limited the size of clearcuts on both public and private lands. The following year, he helped write and pass a land-use planning system that likewise limited industrial activity in the state's forests. The emergence of a new environmentalist ethic in Oregon politics was part and parcel of the growing environmental movement, reflected in the new environmental protection laws enacted at the federal level. Across the United States, postwar affluence helped spawn the modern environmental movement and led many in the urban middle class to question rural resource extraction and pressure politicians to enact legislation aimed at preserving outdoor spaces. Congress passed Wilderness Acts in 1964 and 1984, which permanently preserved millions of acres of forestland. In 1970, Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act, which, among other things, required public land management agencies to make the timber sale process more transparent. And in 1976, Congress enacted the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), which placed more limitations on the size of clearcuts and required the Forest Service to consider soil, watershed, and wildlife habitat health when planning harvests.17
The problem here wasn't necessarily that each new law reduced the available lumber supply and held the potential to exacerbate Oregon timber country's economic problems, though that was certainly an issue for people in many rural communities. Rather, it was that the activists who pressed for these laws rarely considered their economic consequences. The environmental movement of the late twentieth century had an ecological conscience, but it lacked a social conscience, at least when it came to rural, working people. That, in many ways, was a product of the New Left's influence on late twentieth-century environmentalism. Many environmental activists of the 1970s and beyond had come from the civil rights, women's, and antiwar movements—all movements that in many ways harbored a deep disdain for the white working class of the Old Left. That disdain then infused the environmental movement, and many activists came to believe that what they described as rural, working-class backwardness posed a significant roadblock to more enlightened environmental policy. Anthropologist Theresa Satterfield found plenty of evidence of this way of thinking while conducting field research in rural Oregon in the 1980s. “Many of these workers are ignorant,” one environmentalist told her. Another described timber workers as “uneducated dolts,” while yet another described loggers as “piggish louts whacking down trees with reckless abandon, rubbing their chain saws in glee at the destruction of the forest.” Steven Yaffee, a sociologist specializing in environmental policy and planning, heard similar claims while conducting his own interviews in Oregon. “I personally look around at a lot of these loggers and I feel sorry for them,” one environmentalist told him. “They're uneducated, they're crude. . . . I don't think there's a defensible reason to keep these people doing what they're doing and in their state of ignorance. . . . Bring them up so that they can spell, talk, and get along like the rest of us.”18
Given comments like these, it's easy to understand why many in Oregon timber country would develop a deep animus toward environmental activists. And no activist was perhaps more loathed in rural Oregon than Andy Kerr, a figure the Portland Oregonian once described as “the most hated environmentalist in rural Oregon.” At the very least, Kerr has the unique distinction of being hanged in effigy in rural communities—twice. Kerr first became involved with the environmental movement while a student at Oregon State University, where he helped form the first student-led environmental group on campus in the early 1970s. After leaving college, Kerr helped found the Oregon Wilderness Coalition, which changed its name to the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) shortly thereafter. While at the ONRC, Kerr looked to what, at the time, was a little-used provision in the NFMA that required the Forest Service to maintain viable populations of invertebrates on agency lands. Kerr and the ONRC routinely identified species that would be harmed by logging and then appealed to the courts to block timber sales. By the early 1980s, Kerr and the ONRC had won injunctions blocking dozens of timber sales. What made Kerr such a polarizing figure, though, was his adamant refusal to consider things like jobs and the unemployment rate when deciding what timber sales to block. He acknowledged that timber country was struggling in the 1980s but quickly added that he wasn't going to, in his words, “dial it back” because a few loggers might lose their jobs. For Kerr, as it was for many environmentalists of his time and place, considering rural economic well-being would have required compromise, and compromise was tantamount to defeat. “Don't ask me to compromise,” he said. “The forests have been compromised and there's not enough left.”19
Earth First!, another environmental group active in the late twentieth-century Oregon woods, shared this belief; indeed, one of its oft-used slogans was “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!” What made Earth First! unique—and what would make it a particular object of rural scorn—was that its members rejected legal activism in favor of more direct-action tactics that both imperiled workers and further disrupted the timber supply. Earth First! was started in the Southwest in 1980 by activists who believed that mainstream environmental organizations had become too conciliatory because they relied too heavily on legal and political systems. Earth First! would become widely known for a form of industrial sabotage it called “monkeywrenching”: blocking gravel roads leading to mining and logging sites and sneaking into operations at night to destroy equipment. Earth First! came to Oregon in dramatic fashion in late April 1984, when more than forty of its activists were arrested for blockading a logging road and preventing a timber harvest in Josephine County. Soon the press was reporting about incidents of “monkeywrenching” throughout the state, including forests that had been spiked with metal stakes. The idea was that a saw hitting a metal spike would break and ultimately slow down logging operations. But Earth First! members rarely thought about the loggers holding those saws, many of whom, like timber feller Mark Keiser, regarded spiking as “pretty scary business.” A saw hitting a spike, he continued, could “cause the saw to kick back violently, probably into my chest or legs. . . . I don't like to think about it, but I guess every timber feller does.”20
More than any other group, Earth First! illustrates the paradoxical and problematic ways that many late twentieth-century environmentalists related to, and thought about, timber country's workers. The group modeled itself, in part, on the Wobblies, who also (supposedly) sabotaged logging equipment in its war on the timber barons. Earth First! activist Judi Bari even attempted to organize a new IWW local during the northern California timber wars of 1990. They claimed to be the heirs to the Northwest's history of radicalism, and romanticized workers of the past while spiking trees, destroying logging roads, and endangering workers in their present, then wondered why they were objects of rural scorn. Most Earth First! members believed in ecocentrism, a strain of environmental thought that believes all living things, from trees to people, are equal, but their activism showed a great deal more empathy for trees than people. They often criticized capitalism and the ways it produced social problems even as their activism exacerbated those problems. And that may be the greatest of all the paradoxes they embodied: though Earth First! said it was waging a war on multinational timber companies, its activism on Oregon's public lands typically ended up targeting smaller mills and independent contractors who relied on those public lands.21
Not every environmental group was as uncompromising as Earth First! Headwaters, a small organization started by Art and Paula Downing in southern Oregon, is a case in point. Refugees of the Bay Area's hippie scene, the Downings moved to Oregon in the early 1970s and quickly became involved in efforts to restrict logging. Yet the couple also got to know people in rural communities, and Art even started a side business harvesting small trees for pole manufactures. “I looked like somebody that worked in the woods. I talked like somebody that worked in the woods. And I was sincere,” he told interviewer Beverley Brown. Even though Headwaters pursued the same general legal strategy as the ONRC, the Downings were ultimately highly selective in the timber sales they sought to block, often seeking counsel from loggers in nearby towns about how their activism might impact employment. “We've got people who are just scared to death of being out of work,” Art told Brown, “and you don't do yourself or your cause or the woods any good by alienating people.” It was an important message, one that demonstrates that other, more cooperative directions were possible for the environmental movement of the late twentieth century.22
Unfortunately, the more measured activism of a group like Headwaters was eclipsed by the more uncompromising positions held by groups like the ONRC and Earth First!—though in fact timber country's problems could hardly be blamed on environmentalism, regardless of how radical or uncompromising it became. Rural economic precarity had much more to do with capital flight and the impersonal market forces of neoliberalism. But in enacting new restrictions on harvests, blocking timber sales, and spiking trees, politicians like Tom McCall, environmentalists like Andy Kerr, and radical groups like Earth First! became an easy target for rural populist outrage, the personification of the otherwise impersonal economic forces now allied against them. No one articulated this better than Betty Dennison. Speaking of environmentalists in 1980 before the Oregon Logging Conference, a group mostly representing contract loggers, Dennison claimed, “They consume you produce. They are parasites and you are creations. They have been brought up in remote cities, unaware of the need for basic resources, unaware that their comfort and affluence is paid for not just with their desk jobs, but ultimately by the sweat of your brow.” This sort of rhetoric was nothing new, exactly. This was the worldview of earlier generations of contract loggers, if not much of rural America. Indeed, you can hear this same sort of sentiment in the Populists of the late nineteenth century and the Progressives of the earlier twentieth. For workers in Oregon timber country, as elsewhere, the divisions between country and city, between those who appreciate and celebrate the dignity of hard work and those who unconsciously reap its rewards had long been the major divisions in society. Still, if Dennison's anger wasn't exactly new, the target of her anger was. For Dennison as for many others in rural Oregon, environmentalism had become the chief source of their problems, the movement most guilty of taking for granted their comfort and affluence at the expense of rural peoples. Her language portended a deep, disruptive conflict on the horizon.23
The Spotted Owl
It was, of all things, a diminutive bird that tipped rural Oregon into that conflict. That bird, which until the late 1980s few had ever heard of and fewer still had ever seen, was the northern spotted owl. What the press would ultimately come to call “the spotted owl conflict” or, in their more hyperbolic moments, the Timber Wars, is a complex story having to do with the ways ecological thinking reshaped forestry science, the complex bureaucracies of federal land-management agencies, and esoteric arguments made by lawyers and the courts. Here, though, is the general arc of that story: In the early 1980s, wildlife biologists noticed that the population of the spotted owl was in decline and hypothesized that the reason was habitat loss caused by logging. Scientific research on the owl attracted the attention of large environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, who initially pursued the same strategy as the ONRC, using provisions in the NFMA to block individual timber sales containing spotted owl nests. But in the late 1980s, lawyers for these organizations reasoned they could more effectively restrict logging and preserve owl habitat by winning an endangered species listing for the owl under the terms of the 1972 Endangered Species Act. In 1987, environmental activists filed the first petition with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), seeking an endangered listing for the owl. Two years later, with the FWS's status review of the owl ongoing, federal judge William Dwyer issued an injunction blocking 163 federal timber sales until the agency could make its final ruling.24
Dwyer's decision dramatically reduced the available timber supply and had immediate economic effects on rural, timber-dependent communities. The injunction probably didn't cost the fifty thousand jobs that timber industry representatives claimed it did, but the consequences were tangible in ways that extended beyond direct employment. Because many of Oregon's rural communities contain significant amounts of public land, counties cannot collect enough property taxes to adequately fund social services. To make up for the reduced tax base, federal land management agencies have, since the late nineteenth century, shared a significant portion of timber sales with rural county governments. Dwyer's ruling thus threatened what had become a crucial revenue stream for much of rural Oregon. People from timber-dependent communities voiced specific concerns about education funding and wondered how rural school districts would cope. “This is child abuse of the worst kind,” one woman opined in a letter to the editors of the Albany (OR) Democratic Herald. Bruce Theil agreed in his own letter to the editors of the Portland Oregonian, wondering how rural kids would fare in a school system now potentially short millions of dollars. “Instead of the spotted owl,” he wrote, “the Oregon schoolchild should be listed as a threatened species.”25
Cherie Girod perhaps best understood the broader social crisis created by Dwyer's ruling. Girod ran the Canyon Crisis Center, a nonprofit that provided social services counseling to residents of Mill City, a small logging town in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Up until the late 1980s, most of Girod's clients had been women who were victims of domestic violence. Starting in 1989, however, her office began to attract a new clientele. “We would get men into our office who would not normally come,” she told writer Alston Chase. “Loggers, people of the earth, are stoic, very proud, and these men would come on the pretext of using the coffee machine.” Those men, Girod continued, would begin to “talk of problems with the industry, then talk of friends who were having difficulties, then start to relate these to their own families and finally to themselves.” Girod described loggers who worried they were drinking too much, who felt anxiety about their children's futures, and who described more frequent arguments with spouses over what bills to pay. “These things that so embittered these men and churned in their stomachs would start to come out,” she said.26
That embitterment had as much to do with immediate economic problems as it did with larger and seemingly more intractable cultural problems; what timber country was up against wasn't simply job losses but, as one timber worker opined in an editorial that ran in the Portland Oregonian, “hard realities and harder institutions indifferent to our humanity.” Indeed, to many people in the rural Northwest, environmental activists appeared to care more about a bird than the loggers who forlornly wandered into Girod's offices. Robert Lee, a sociologist who conducted field research in rural Washington during the height of the spotted owl conflict, explained what people in the rural Northwest were experiencing by turning to the sociological concept of “moral exclusion,” the idea that moral considerations don't apply to people living outside an imagined moral community. “Moral exclusion of those who ‘harm or abuse the environment,’” wrote Lee, “has been one of the most prominent expressions of the emerging cultural theme associated with environmental preservation.” Environmentalists “fret about owls and trees,” he continued, “but reveal indifference to rural peoples’ plight.” What Jefferson Cowie has more recently argued about the American working class in the late twentieth century is equally applicable: namely, that starting in the 1970s, workers were excluded from social and civic life, often blamed by the New Left for their own economic precarity. But one needn't have read sociological theory or labor history to see what the problem here was. One just needed to listen to the words of David Brower, the onetime director of the Sierra Club. On timber country's problems in the late 1980s, Brower said this: “People being out of work because of [the] spotted owl is, in my eyes, no different than people being put out of work after the furnaces at Dachau shut down.”27
If the changing terrain of labor relations since the 1970s had replaced big companies and big unions with smaller forms of capitalism in which workers and bosses saw themselves as allied, antilogging and antirural sentiment expressed by environmentalists like Brower helped formalize that alliance. Indeed, employers, like the workers they employed, saw in the spotted owl something of a coordinated attack on rural Oregon. “I am being put out of business by a surrogate species and the goddamn environmentalists know it,” said a sawmill owner from Oakridge, Oregon. “The spotted owl is absurd—it's a damn ploy to stop cutting trees.” This alliance was evident in more than just rhetoric. It was also abundantly visible in foot-long sections of canary-yellow ribbons that proliferated throughout the rural Northwest in the late 1980s. They were everywhere: tied to trees lining rural highways, fluttering from antennas of pickups and logging trucks, waving from the welcome signs on the outskirts of towns, and dangling from the awnings of small businesses on rural main streets. “When people ask me what the yellow ribbons mean,” wrote one timber worker, “I tell them they are symbols of the industry's campaign against the enemy: It is the flag for what it portrays as a struggle to maintain a rural life-style and support an army of honest, hard-working middle Americans.” The worker's use of “our industry” and “the enemy” are both instructive, indications of how the spotted owl conflict drew workers and bosses closer together than ever before through their collective opposition to the environmental movement.28
Those yellow ribbons were the official symbol of the Yellow Ribbon Coalition, a group started by James Peterson and Bob Sagle. Peterson, the publisher of a small, Oregon-based timber trade journal, and Sagle, an independent contract logger, believed that the political system's unwillingness to pay attention to rural voices had everything to do with the fact that they were, well, rural—spread out in small communities, isolated from centers of power, out of sight and out of mind of politicians and urbanites alike. In the spring of 1988, Sagle and Peterson sought to change this and organized the Silver Fire Roundup, a meeting of those negatively affected by the spotted owl, to be held at the Josephine County Fairgrounds in southern Oregon. They asked everyone showing up to wear yellow ribbons, like the ones many Americans displayed roughly ten years earlier when the Iranian government detained several American embassy officials. Loggers, like American diplomats, they said, were being held hostage by a foreign government. Preceding the roundup, logger Gregg Miller hiked I-5 from Grants Pass to Eugene, a roughly 138-mile journey, tying yellow ribbons to posts to help guide out-of-staters to the fairgrounds. Miller's efforts helped popularize the ribbon as a symbol of rural outrage, and on August 27, 1988, the day of the roundup, most of the roughly three thousand people who showed up did so with yellow ribbons pinned to their shirts. The symbol spread, and within a few months much of rural Oregon was awash in yellow. But while the Yellow Ribbon Coalition had a solid story of grassroots activism behind it, it also benefited significantly from employer support. Some companies paid the fifteen-dollar membership fee for their entire workforces and then gave workers paid leave to attend the group's rallies and functions. Late in 1988, the Western Public Lands Coalition (WPLC), a nonprofit started by Bill Garnell, a former Oregon congressman who became famous during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the early 1980s when he called on the federal government to turn control of all public lands over to the states, funneled tens of thousands of dollars he had raised from mining and energy companies to the Yellow Ribbon Coalition. By April 1989, eleven county governments of Oregon, four members of the state's congressional delegation, and too many lumber companies to count had signed on as supporters.29
Journalists covering the spotted owl conflict had trouble making sense of the Yellow Ribbon Coalition, never quite sure if they should characterize it as a bottom-up workers’ movement or top-down employers’ movement. One of those was Allan Galper, an undergraduate writing for the Harvard Crimson. Even though he was much younger and less seasoned than some of the journalists covering the so-called Timber Wars, Galper grappled most directly with the complex questions of class and representation. During a 1992 journey to the Northwest woods, Galper noticed that many small businesses displayed signs reading “We Support the Timber Industry” right next to signs that read “Tie a Yellow Ribbon for the Working Man,” leading him to wonder whether the yellow ribbons he saw everywhere represented labor or capital. Galper ultimately concluded that workers had capitulated to their employers. The yellow ribbons, he said, were a clear indication that “timber company executives are no dummies,” that they know how to manipulate workers and direct their frustrations to anti-environmentalist ends. Many environmentalists argued the same, seeing the yellow ribbons as evidence that workers were “pawns” of their employers. What both Galper and the environmentalists failed to understand was the history of timber country: the storied radical unions of the past—whose leaders, quite likely, would have rejected the yellow ribbons—represented just one working-class political tradition in the Northwest woods, and that tradition had long ceased to function. Indeed, workers hadn't sold out to their employers any more than those employers had manipulated workers. Both shared a common identity and, in the spotted owl conflict era, a seething rage that easily trumped any class divisions.30
And in 1989, as a result of Dwyer's injunction, that rage finally boiled over. That year, newspapers across the country reported that a tavern in Coburg, Oregon, had placed “pickled spotted owl eggs,” “roasted spotted owl,” and “spotted owl stew” on its menu (though diners ordering any of the above would have, in fact, been served chicken). Time reported on loggers who had hung a dead spotted owl swathed in yellow ribbons from a fence post. In the Sierra Club magazine, Sallie Tisdale wrote, “Spotted owls have been shot, crucified, hung and their corpses mailed to various people perceived as environmentalists.” Trucks started sporting bumper stickers that read, “I Like Spotted Owls . . . Fried,” and “Save a Logger, Eat an Owl.” Some members of the Yellow Ribbon Coalition began a campaign to ban from schools Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, a parable about the decline of forests. And the Forest Service decided to forgo participating in Portland's annual Rose Festival Parade after the agency received death threats aimed at the actor who was going to appear in a Woodsy Owl costume next to Smokey the Bear.31
These small signs of anger and larger threats of violence were prelude to the massive rallies and logging truck convoys organized by the Yellow Ribbon Coalition. Called the Yellow Ribbon Express, the first took place in Olympia, Washington, on February 28, 1989, and then became a regular occurrence in large cities, state capitals, and smaller rural towns from northern California all the way to western Montana. The largest Yellow Ribbon Express started on May 6, 1989, when logging trucks met in Grants Pass, Oregon, and set out on a two-thousand-mile journey through timber towns, all the way to Missoula, Montana. Several hundred logging trucks joined a convoy that ended up stretching for miles. In small rural towns they were greeted by cheers and people waving yellow ribbons, and in larger cities they were greeted by counterprotesters hurling rocks. The convoy stopped in Eugene, and several hundred loggers and their families rallied downtown. One of those convoy members and protesters was a logging truck driver named Dave Snyder, and he explained the purpose of the event to the local press. “If we lose the timber industry, it will affect everybody,” he said. “With the convoy, something this big, drawing this much attention, we hope people will take notice of what we're doing and what the downfall is going to be if the timber industry is reduced.”32
Ultimately, though, the large convoys and rallies were signs of the Yellow Ribbon Coalition's weakness, not its strength, and the ineffectiveness of the sort of coalition it represented. The spotted owl conflict really played out in the courts, in a terrain the environmental movement was more suited to win. Although many of the large environmental organizations involved in the conflict rhetorically positioned themselves as David to the timber industry's Goliath, most looked and behaved a lot like the big corporations they criticized. In 1990, the ten largest environmental organizations had a combined budget of more than $250 million. In 1988, the National Wildlife Federation took in more than $60 million in donations, and its president received an annual salary of $200,000. The spotted owl played a significant role in this economic growth. Whatever you think about the owl and what it represented for working people, you have to admit one thing: it's damn adorable. Plastering the owl's image on merchandise or mailings seeking donations allowed environmental groups to rake in millions of dollars from donors willing to open their wallets to protect a cute and charismatic species. All this money allowed the environmental movement to afford teams of high-priced lawyers. The large timber companies had high-priced lawyers, too, but they steered relatively clear of the conflict. Listing the owl as a threatened species would mostly end logging on public, but not private, lands. Thus, many larger companies secretly welcomed an endangered species listing because it would potentially boost the price of private timber. The WPLC was willing to funnel some money to the Yellow Ribbon Coalition, but more in the interest of fanning the flames of the Sagebrush Rebellion than in addressing the economic problems of rural communities. This left small independent contract loggers, owner-operator truck drivers, smaller sawmill owners, and their workers to fight the battle on their own, and all they could do was stand outside courtrooms and scream, literally and figuratively excluded from the process.33
That shouting did become louder, and the Yellow Ribbon Coalition's convoys larger and more frequent in 1990, when the FWS finally agreed to list the owl as a threatened species, and again in 1991, when Dwyer issued a second injunction blocking timber sales until the agency developed a management plan. And that shouting did attract attention, as David Snyder had hoped, though likely not with the consequences he wanted. Throughout early 1992, then–Arkansas governor Bill Clinton made several stops in the Northwest in his campaign to become president. Clinton promised to bring an end to the Timber Wars and reach a compromise that satisfied the timber industry and environmentalists alike. When he won the election later that year, he did take immediate action, as promised, but hardly in a way that appeased everyone. Late in 1994, the Clinton administration enacted the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), a new set of public forest management policies that prohibited harvests on roughly 88 percent of public lands across the spotted owl's range. The NWFP did allocate some money for social services and job retraining, but most of these programs suffered much the same fate of other welfare and social spending programs in the Clinton administration, which is to say they were underfunded and poorly administered and did little to address the economic problems of the rural Northwest. The convoys and rallies continued after the NWFP was implemented, but by the late 1990s most in timber country had conceded defeat.34
Employment in Oregon's timber industry plummeted after the NWFP, falling from roughly seventy thousand in 1988 to fifty thousand in 1995. Whether or not the spotted owl and NWFP were directly responsible for this decline was, and remains, a matter of contention. Some tie declining employment figures directly to preservation efforts. Others argue it was mechanization and capital flight, more than the owl, that did the industry in. What is clear is that public land harvests in Oregon declined significantly as a result of the NWFP, falling from 4,575 mfbm in 1998 to 621 mfbm in 1998. As a result, many rural counties in the state permanently lost the money they had been collecting from their share of timber sales payments, and this had disastrous social and economic effects. Like most other states, Oregon administers social services through county governments. Thus, services for seniors, alcohol and drug treatment, child protection, mental health, and public health have all faced significant cuts in once timber-dependent rural communities, even as caseloads have skyrocketed in response to high unemployment rates. Politicians from both political parties have been unwilling to direct federal money toward replacing the funds lost from timber sales, so rural Oregon's social and economic problems have only gotten worse. In 2007, budget shortfalls forced southern Oregon's Jackson County to close all fifteen of its public libraries, leading one county commissioner to lament that local government could no longer provide “what normal American citizens would expect in a First World nation.”35
Oregon's timber industry has largely survived by transitioning back to private lands, mostly harvesting lumber on small-to-medium-sized industrial tree farms. Yet, with an annual harvest of less than 4,000 mbfm, that industry is significantly smaller than it once was. Many in present-day rural Oregon survive on tourism and its low-paying service sector jobs. Adding insult to injury is the fact that, although harvests have significantly decreased, environmental activism aimed at shutting down what little logging still occurs has not. Since the spotted owl was ESA listed in 1990, environmentalists have sought and won endangered species listings for several additional species, all of which have reduced timber harvests. Earth First! is no longer active in the Northwest woods, but other groups made in its image, like the Earth Liberation Front and Cascadia Forest Defenders, continue to employ divisive and direct-action tactics targeting loggers.
Few of these conflicts garnered the attention or reached the divisiveness of the spotted owl conflict. But in 2019, debates over the future of Oregon's timber industry and forests moved to a new terrain—climate change legislation—that marked a new era of conflict. The opening salvo came early in the year when Oregon lawmakers introduced HB 2020, a bill mandating a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions (HB 2020 was the precursor to SB 1530, discussed at the beginning of this article). Rural communities quickly argued that the bill would increase fuel taxes and force many small, independent contract loggers and truck drivers out of business. Anti–HB 2020 grumbling began online. Then, at some point, someone tagged a Twitter post with #TimberUnity. The hashtag quickly caught on and was used tens of thousands of times by February. In March, several sawmill companies donated funds to help turn online resentment into a more formal movement, and by the end of the month Timber Unity had formally filed paperwork to incorporate as a nonprofit organization; opened a small office in Vernonia, Oregon; elected board members and a president; and began to claim it represented more than twenty thousand members.36
What happened next became national news. In the fall of 2019, Timber Unity organized its first rally and convoy in Salem to oppose HB 2020. Emboldened by the rally, representatives in the state's Republican minority who opposed cap-and-trade fled Salem, denying the House the quorum it needed to move the bill for a vote. Governor Kate Brown threatened to mobilize the state police and, if necessary, forcibly return the Republicans to the capitol. In response, the Oregon III%ers, a far-right and heavily armed militia active across the state, vowed to defend the Republican House members. Fearing violence, Brown withdrew her threat, and HB 2020 effectively died.37
As the support Timber Unity received from Oregon's militia movement strongly suggests, the group's popularity likely has as much to do with the timber industry's resistance to cap-and-trade as it does the broader rise of far-right political movements. That rise has been particularly steep, and disconcerting, in Oregon. Despite the state's reputation as a bastion of progressivism, several white supremacist and militia movements are active across the state, particularly in the ranching communities of eastern Oregon. Oregon's far right grew in 2016, following both the election of Donald Trump and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed, right-wing militants, both of which attracted more followers to the Timber Unity movement. At the same time, there's also no denying that Timber Unity is a product of Oregon timber country's history. The group's large convoys recall the Yellow Ribbon Express of thirty years prior, and signs bearing the group's symbol—green trees on a white background—now stand in rural communities where yellow ribbons once flew. In fact, a handful of Timber Unity's members and core activists are veterans of the spotted owl conflict.
One of those is Mike Pihil, Timber Unity's president. Pihil began logging in the late 1970s, while still in high school, then started his own independent contract logging outfit in the mid-1980s. Though it happened more than three decades ago, the spotted owl still weighs heavily on Pihil's mind. He nearly lost his business when timber sales were canceled, and he struggled for years following the NWFP. He sees the lingering effects of the NWFP nearly every day in his hometown of Vernonia and other small logging towns where he organizes for Timber Unity. “It destroyed our town,” he says. “They're ghost towns now.” For Pihil as for many others in contemporary rural Oregon, the cap-and-trade bill is evidence of the same indifference to rural Oregon that shaped the spotted owl conflict. “Cap and trade will just be another nail in our coffin. We don't matter to them,” he said, speaking of the state's politicians.38
Yet Pihil doesn't like making comparisons between Timber Unity and the Yellow Ribbon Coalition for one reason: “We lost,” he says of the latter group. Pihil further believes that Timber Unity has been more successful than the Yellow Ribbon Coalition ever was, and he credits his group for the defeat of HB 2020. Though a victory in that battle, in the end, Timber Unity may well lose the war—a war that the Northwest has been losing for the past five decades. Following its first convoy and rally in 2019, Timber Unity issued several policy statements and press releases pointing to ways the state government could curtail carbon emissions and economically protect small timber companies. Each and every one of these suggestions was resoundingly ignored when the state legislature reintroduced cap-and-trade in the form of SB 1530, suggesting that many of the state's politicians are no more interested in hearing from rural, working communities today than they were during the spotted owl conflict.39
What will become of SB 1530 is, as of this writing, unclear. Fearing a repeat of the volatility surrounding HB 2020, lawmakers, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, “hit pause” on SB 1530 in late February 2020 to allow time for more debate and discussion. Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 infections began to spike in Oregon, as they did throughout much of the rest of the world, and the state's politicians turned their attention to the pandemic. Oregon then experienced some of its most devastating wildfires, again diverting the lawmakers’ attention.40
It is also unclear what will become of Timber Unity. While the group is widely popular throughout much of rural Oregon, some supporters worry that it's doing as much harm as good. One of those is Payton Smith, who works at Roseburg Lumber's headquarters in Springfield. On the one hand, Smith sees a great deal of promise in Timber Unity. “I think that it is incredible the way all these people have been able to organize via social media and come together to make some change,” she said. “I see ‘Timber Unity’ stickers and signs everywhere and almost all of my Facebook friends have the little ‘Timber Unity’ filter on their social medial profiles.” On the other hand, Smith worries that Timber Unity is too divisive and that its large rallies may push Oregon into a conflict from which it will never recover. “You have to be willing to sit down and have a civil conversation,” she said. “Climate change has [impacted] and will continue to impact this industry, which is why we should be at the forefront of fighting it. Timber Unity should be working with legislators to come up with bills that will both benefit the environment and our industry” (pers. comm., February 8, 2020).
Smith's use of the category “our industry” is once again instructive, a sign that whatever may lie in Oregon timber country's future—whether it descends into another conflict, as she fears, or is able to find a voice in the political system, as she hopes—it will all play out on a social terrain that's been shaped by fifty years of environmental changes and conflicts. That's fifty years in which organized labor went into decline, independent contracting became the dominant form of labor relations, and debates over owls and forests convinced many in Oregon's timber-dependent communities that the greatest social divides weren't between labor and capital but between country and city, between those who saw dignity in the work of logging and those who derided it as a vestige of the resource extraction past. It's easy to be skeptical of this more populist rendering of class identity and be nostalgic for a past filled with Wobblies and the industrial unionism of the CIO. But the reality is, that was only ever one tradition of working-class politics and identity in the Northwest woods, and only by understanding the second tradition—the workers who rejected organized labor, partnered with employers, and who articulated populist ideas of working-class identity—can we grasp the variances and complexities of working-class identity in American labor history and make sense of movements like Timber Unity today.
Perhaps no single person in Oregon timber country embodies these complexities more than Smith. She hails from Coos Bay, and her grandfather was once president of the town's local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Today her grandmother still tells stories about the times Harry Bridges, famed president of the ILWU, stayed at their house as he traveled the coast on union business. Several of Smith's cousins work on Coos Bay's docks and count themselves as loyal IWLU members. By contrast, her father owns a small sawmill just outside town—a mill that has been a target of IWLU activism and the subject of a contentious National Labor Relations Board case that divided Smith's family, if not much of Coos Bay. In many ways, Smith straddles the old and new worlds of work and identity in the Northwest. Her family is equal parts working class and employing class. She's a middle-class salaried employee working for what has become one of the state's larger lumber companies and living in the environmentalist mecca of Eugene, yet she identifies more as a rural kid from a logging town. She attended the University of Oregon and fit in well enough with most of her peers from Portland's affluent suburbs, yet she counts kids she knew in high school—kids whose parents worked in the timber industry, some of them for her father—as her closest friends. She celebrates Timber Unity at the same time she finds its connection to the far right troubling. Like many young people, she believes that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the world, yet like many in the rural Northwest she believes that addressing that threat involves supporting the timber industry.41
Asked if she thinks of herself more as the daughter of a mill owner or more as a kid from hardscrabble Coos Bay, Smith pauses for a long time. Normally loquacious and articulate, she stumbles looking for an answer. “Both, I guess,” she finally says, before quickly adding, “I just don't know.” Indeed, it's never been a question with a straightforward answer.42
“Common working folks” quote from Timber Unity, “Shared Values, One Voice,” online (https://www.timberunity.com), accessed March 18, 2020. Descriptions and quotes from February 6, 2020, convoy and rally from author's notes, based on direct observation.
For information on employer support of Timber Unity, see Whitney Woodworth, “Timber Unity Returns to Salem: 1,000-Truck Convoy, Rally Target Carbon Cap-and-Trade Bill,” Statesman Journal (Salem, OR), February 6, 2020; Ted Sickinger, “Timber Unity Members Protest Cap-and-Trade Climate Bill with Convoy, Rally in Salem,” The Oregonian (Portland), February 6, 2020. For polling data on Oregon cap-and-trade legislation, see Steve Law, “Poll: Oregon Voters Inclined to Support Cap and Invest,” Portland Tribune, January 24, 2019.
There's a rich historiography on radicalism in the Northwest woods, going back to the 1960s, if not before. For some recent works, see Goings, Barnes, and Snider, The Red Coast; Loomis, Empire of Timber; and Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity.”
Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart; Perkins, Hillbilly Hellraisers; Caldemeyer, Union Renegades; Roll, Poor Man's Fortune.
Don Holmquist, “Letters to the Editor,” Industrial Woodworker, December 12, 1954. On the IWW in the Northwest, see Loomis, Empire of Timber, 18–88. On the economic structure of the industry and the IWA's forestry campaigns, see Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity,” 51–83, 177–208. For a broader history of the IWA, see Lembcke and Tattam, One Union in Wood.
Felt, Gyppo Logger, 23. Independent contracting has only received scant attention from historians. Among the few studies to discuss contract logging are Prudham, “Downsizing Nature”; Robbins, Hard Times in Paradise, 110–15; Carroll, Community and the Northwest Logger, 39–40, 69–70.
On the term gyppo see Walls, introduction to Felt, Gyppo Logger, 10. On number of contract loggers in the Northwest woods see Prudham, “Downsizing Nature,” 146.
Jerry Phillips, as quoted in Robbins, Hard Times in Paradise, 111. On USFS postwar forestry policy, see Hirt, Conspiracy of Optimism.
“The Green Boom for Forest Products,” Business Week, May 25, 1974; “Southern Story Told to Region 3 Members,” International Woodworker, April 21, 1976.
Robbins, Hard Times in Paradise, 168. Employment data from Employment Division, Oregon Covered Employment: 1977, and Employment Division, Oregon Covered Employment: 1980.
“L-P to Tillamook: We Don't Owe You a Thing,” International Woodworker, May 27, 1983; “Region 3 Will Seek Protection from Plant Closures in Contract Talks,” International Woodworker, February 29, 1980; “Pacific Northwest Employers Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Wages, Benefits,” International Woodworker, April 21, 1986. See also Marcus Widenor, “Diverging Patterns: Labor in the Pacific Northwest Wood Products Industry,” Industrial Relations 34, no. 3 (July 1995): 441–63.
Dick Gilkison, interview by author, Cottage Grove, OR, December 30, 2019.
Gary Carter interview in Brown, In Timber Country, 99; Chuck Carter interview in Brown, In Timber Country, 106. On Roseburg Lumber, see “Kenneth W. Ford,” Roseburg Woodsman, special ed., 1998, 2–15.
On IWA membership figures, see Region 3, “Delegate Handbook, 1981–2,” box 54, Records of the International Woodworkers of America, Special Collections, University of Oregon—Eugene. On IWA-IAM merger, see Peter Sleeth, “Woodworkers Union Takes Vote on Merger,” Oregonian, January 26, 1994.
Oregon economic data from Josh Lehner, “Historical Look at Oregon's Wood Product Industry,” January 23, 2012, Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, https://oregoneconomicanalysis.com/2012/01/23/historical-look-at-oregons-wood-product-industry/. On Oregon's World War II economy and changing environmental attitudes, see McCurdy, “Upstream Influence,” 240–359.
Tom McCall, quoted in Robert Caun, “Racial Aspect Seen in Growth Control,” Evening News, Newburgh, NY, July 6, 1973, 2. On McCall and Oregon's land-use policies, see McCurdy, “Upstream Influence,” 240–359.
Satterfield, “Pawns, Victims, or Heroes,” 73, 74, 77; Yaffee, The Wisdom of the Spotted Owl, 180. On the late twentieth-century environmental movement, see Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside.
Andy Kerr, interview by author, Ashland, OR, August 1, 2018.
“Mark Keiser: A Timber Faller Talks about Tree Spikes,” Evergreen, July 1988. On the history of Earth First! see Woodhouse, The Ecocentrists.
On Judi Bari and the IWW, see Bari, Timber Wars, 264–84.
Art and Paul Downing interview in Brown, In Timber Country, 269, 262.
For a more complete history of the spotted owl conflict, see Yaffee, The Wisdom of the Spotted Owl.
Sandra Schukar, “Save Children,” Democrat Herald, May 18, 1989; Bruce Thiel, Letter to the Editor, The Oregonian, June 4, 1989. On the timber sale payment sharing system, see Anderson, “The Western, Rural Rustbelt.”
Cherie Girod, as quoted in Chase, In a Dark Wood, 284.
Robert Heilman, The Oregonian, May 3, 1989; Lee, “Moral Exclusion and Rural Poverty,” attachment D; Cowie, Stayin’ Alive; David Brower, as quoted in Shadegg, comments in Joint Hearing on the Sierra Club's Proposal, 59.
Lisa Strykcer, “Owls a Symbol in Great Debate,” Register-Guard, Eugene, OR, April 9, 1989; Yellow Ribbon Coalition, guest editorial, “Ribbon Symbolizes Solidarity,” Humboldt Beacon and Fortuna Advance, August 24, 1988.
On the history of the Yellow Ribbon Coalition, see Chase, In a Dark Wood, 272–87. On industry support for the Yellow Ribbon Coalition, see Ramos, “Wise Use in the West.”
Allan S. Galper, “The Killing Fields,” Harvard Crimson, September 18, 1992; Bari, Timber Wars, 13; Satterfield, “Pawns, Victims, or Heroes,” 73.
“Loggers Stage Their Own Protests,” Register Guard, May 6, 1989.
On the finances of environmental groups, see Gifford, “Inside the Environmental Groups”; Lancaster, “The Environmentalist as Insider.”
Andrews and Kutara, Oregon's Timber Harvests; Ted Sickinger, “Financial Crisis Hits Hard at the County Level,” Oregonian, December 3, 2010. On the social consequences of the NWFP, see Anderson, “The Western, Rural Rustbelt.”
David Brock Smith, “HB 2020 Will Devastate Oregon Families, Communities and Businesses,” Salem Statesman-Journal, February 15, 2019, https://www.statesmanjournal.com; Mike Pihil, interview by author, Albany, OR, January 15, 2020.
Ted Sickinger, “Oregon Senate Republican Walkout: What Do They Want?,” The Oregonian, June 21, 2019; Nigel Jaquiss, “Loggers Rallied against Climate Bill in Salem Today,” Willamette Week, June 27, 2019.
Pihil interview. On Timber Unity's alternate proposals, see Megan Allison, “Timber Unity Proposes Alternative to Cap-and-Trade,” KATU News, February 10, 2020, https://www.aktu.com.
Dirk VanderHart, “Oregon Democrats Will Hit Pause on Cap-and-Trade Bill for More Hearings,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, February 17, 2020, https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-cap-and-trade-bill-democrat-lawmakers-hit-pause-more-hearings/.
Payton Smith, interview by author, Springfield, OR, December 4, 2020.
Payton Smith interview.