The Working-Class Loggers Who Saved an Old-Growth Forest

Often cast as villains in the Northwest’s environmental battles, timber workers have a connection to the forest that goes far beyond jobs.

Steven C. Beda

Timber workers with the Madera Sugar Pine Company pose for a photo in Madera County, California in 1914. Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book Strong Winds and Widow Makers: Workers, Nature, and Environmental Conflict in Pacific Northwest Timber Country by Steven C. Beda. Copyright 2023 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

Dave Luoma, Don Zapp, and Dave Morrison had never seen anything like it. It was just past noon on May 29, 1990, and the three British Columbian loggers had wandered into a twenty-five-acre grove of inconceivably large trees hidden on the northern bank of Vancouver Island’s White River. Every major species of Northwest conifer was here — western red cedar, spruce, and Douglas fir — and most were so tall that their tops disappeared into the hanging mists above, making this entire place feel as if it belonged as much to the heavens as it did the Earth. The tallest trees gave off a sweet scent and were covered in thick, almost ironlike bark speckled with the bluish-green hues of forest lichens, which Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison knew were all signs of exceptional age. The largest conifers on the northern coast of Vancouver Island typically grow to a height of about 150 feet, with an occasional specimen reaching 200 feet. Many trees in this grove stretched more than 250 feet into the air, and the largest would later be measured at more than 285 feet tall.

The only thing more remarkable than the size of the timber was that until Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison discovered it, no one knew this grove existed. Or, at the very least, it wasn’t identified on any maps or catalogued in any land surveys, despite the fact that all the surrounding woods had been intensely logged during the preceding century. Foresters and wildlife biologists would later hypothesize that the grove’s secrecy was a product of the same topographic and geographic conditions that allowed its trees to grow so tall. The grove sits in a small depression carved out by the nearby river that shielded its trees from winds — and human eyes — for centuries. 

The provincial government owned the land, and companies owned the rights to the lumber. But, really, these forests belonged to the people in ways not so easily documented on land deeds.

The grove was so well hidden that it wasn’t even visible from the nearest ridgeline to the west, which is where Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison had started their workday. Theirs wasn’t a job for the faint-hearted. From the moment they tightened the laces on their caulks (pronounced corks”) — metal-studded boots that give loggers traction as they scurry over slippery logs — workers like Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison were surrounded by danger. The chief tools of their trade were massive chainsaws powered by howling two-stroke engines that could and sometimes did rip through a man’s flesh as effortlessly as the densest lumber. Most of the trees they felled weighed several hundred tons and crashed to earth with the power of a wrecking ball hitting a concrete slab, sending detritus flying at high speeds in all directions. Death also came from above. Fellers’ saws sent vibrations rippling up trees that loosened dead branches and sent them plummeting earthward. The full-brimmed, aluminum helmets timber workers wore protected them from all but the largest falling branches — tellingly called widow makers” in the loggers’ lexicon — even if those same helmets trapped the scream of their saws and led to premature hearing loss. Over the years, state occupational-safety agencies tried to encourage timber workers to adopt more-protective clothing. But workers often resisted. Every new piece of gear hindered movement, making it difficult to nimbly dip, dive, and duck out of danger’s way. In the industrial woods of the Pacific Northwest, life and death were often a matter of rapid movements made in the most fleeting of seconds. There were the quick, and there were the dead. 

The work was downright violent. Many environmentalists of this era also saw violence when they looked at logging, but violence of a different sort, directed less at workers’ bodies and more at the forests. Most of the trees that loggers like Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison fell had been growing for centuries. They’d been saplings when Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, the original inhabitants of this part of the island, traded furs with British merchants in the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost of Fort Victoria in the early nineteenth century. As the saplings aged, they bore witness to the history that unfolded: the displacement of those Indigenous peoples by white settlers who carved farms and homesteads into the land in the later nineteenth century, and then the displacement of those settlers by industrial lumbermen who built logging camps and mills atop the farms in the early twentieth century. For many environmentalists, old-growth forests were more valuable if left standing, rather than felled, milled, and transformed into construction lumber. 

For men like Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison, things were more complicated. Many environmentalists of the late twentieth century came from the urban middle class, and the homes where they lived and buildings where they worked were made from the very lumber that men like the three fellers cut. Environmentalists may have scorned the labor of timber workers but reaped its rewards all the same. Environmentalists often failed to appreciate the economics of the rural towns where timber workers lived, as well. Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison came from Sayward, a small community tucked into a coastal inlet, right where the Salmon River spills into the churning tides of Johnstone Strait. Like nearly every logging town from southern Oregon to upcoast British Columbia, just about everyone in Sayward worked in the timber industry, and those who didn’t ran stores or shops or worked in a service sector that relied on the spending of timber workers. If someone in a town like Sayward couldn’t make peace with harvesting old-growth timber, then they didn’t eat, and neither did their family. Preservation was for people bestowed with the privileges of geography and class. 

These were the realities of life and labor in the late twentieth-century Northwest woods. And yet, when Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison discovered the grove roughly halfway through their workday, they didn’t even have to talk amongst themselves before they knew what they were going to do. As soon as we walked back in there and saw that stand,” Zapp later said, we just couldn’t do it. That was it, right then and there.” After spending an hour wandering the elk trails that wound through the stand, the men hoisted their saws on their shoulders, checked that the laces on their boots were still tight, and began ascending the muddy slope to their pickup waiting on the ridgeline above. They intended to return to town, tell their employer about the grove, and then say in no uncertain terms that they refused to cut it. 

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The men sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the cab of their pickup, quietly contemplating the possible repercussions of their actions as they headed back to town. Years later, Zapp would remember the tension in the moment, saying, It was kind of a big risk,” which is an understatement if there ever was one. Their employer, the Kelsey Bay Division of the Bloedel Donovan Lumber Company, was in the business of harvesting lumber, not preserving it. If Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison refused to cut the stand, then they’d likely be discharged and replaced by fellers less plagued by sentimentality. The three men were risking pensions and seniority they’d earned through years of hard labor, and most of all, they were risking good jobs in a social and economic climate where good jobs were hard to come by. 

Across the Northwest, logging operations were shutting down, and sawmills were closing. The sounds of industrial labor and economic stability that had once filled the air of the rural Northwest — the shriek of mill whistles calling people to work, the rumble of trucks ferrying freshly cut timber out of the woods — evaporated into the ether and were replaced by the far more somber tones of rural economic decline: shop owners boarding up their failed businesses, the desperate sighs of workers being handed pink slips, and the cold hum of neon signs in the windows of payday lenders. No one could say what was causing all this, exactly. Fluctuations in the global marketplace, tariffs and trade disputes, capital flight, and new environmental regulations — these and dozens more causes were cited as the source of the rural Northwest’s economic woes. Whatever the exact reasons for the crisis, the fact remained that this was simply no time for the men to be risking their jobs. 

But Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison also knew something about their community that perhaps gave them cause for at least guarded optimism. A fierce independence runs through the culture of the rural Northwest. People here have long voiced a distrust of government, environmentalists, tourists, and big companies and corporations most of all. It’s a culture born of their relationship to the forest. It’s where many of them worked, yes, but also where they hunted, fished, and found an escape from the challenges of that work. They’d long cared for and stewarded these woods, and they often didn’t take well to outsiders — any outsiders — telling them how to manage what they rightfully saw as their own. True, the provincial government owned the land, and companies owned the rights to the lumber. But, really, these forests belonged to the people in ways not so easily documented on land deeds.

Across history, people from timber-working communities have defended wilderness as vociferously as they’ve fought for their jobs.

And, indeed, no sooner had Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison returned to town than the community of loggers and millworkers in Sayward rallied to their side. Their union, Local 363 of the International Woodworkers of America-Canada, promptly issued a statement saying that no union timber worker would cut the stand, either, and that any disciplinary action taken against Luoma, Zapp, or Morrison would be promptly challenged. A few days later, several people from Sayward packed up tents and sleeping bags and set up a small camp in the grove, vowing to stay there until they knew the stand was safe. 

In the end, Bloedel Donovan acquiesced and relinquished its harvest rights to the grove. Six years later, the British Columbia Parks Department made the stand a protected wilderness area. Today, it’s known as White River Provincial Park, and a sign at the head of a trail that winds through the grove tells the story of the three fellers who recognized the intrinsic values of the impressive stand of old growth and refused to fall any of the trees.”

It’s a modest sign, one that’s likely missed by most visitors to the park, many of whom come from the region’s more affluent and urban cores. The sign competes with a much larger, more pervasive narrative, one that asserts the Northwest’s rural working class is fundamentally opposed to wilderness, harvest restrictions, or anything else that might threaten their jobs. The origins of this narrative are many, but they were most certainly engrained into the broader public consciousness because of events that, ironically enough, were ongoing at the very moment Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison wandered into the grove. On the other side of the forty-ninth parallel, the line of latitude separating the American and Canadian Northwests, environmentalists were calling on state and federal land managers to significantly restrict logging to preserve the old-growth habitat of the winsome northern spotted owl. Timber workers responded that their towns and communities could not economically survive harvest reductions. They called on the same land managers to increase the allowable cut and spend less time worrying about a diminutive bird and more time worrying about struggling rural people. 

The press called it the timber wars. It’s a hyperbolic name, to be certain, but one that accurately captured the anger and intensity of the moment: the shouting in public hearings; the dozens, if not hundreds, of lawsuits and countersuits filed by environmental organizations and timber-industry representatives; the spikes driven into trees by radical environmentalists; and the disruptive rallies organized by timber workers. Every war needs heroes and villains, and because most journalists covering the story came from the urban middle class, they ascribed these roles in ways that reflected the implicit biases of their geographic and socioeconomic station. Environmentalists were cast as the protagonists, valiantly fighting to preserve what remained of the beauty and biodiversity of the Northwest’s forests. Rural timber workers were cast as the antagonists, too narrowly focused on protecting their own jobs and too invested in an outmoded frontier mentality to realize that their world of resource extraction was disappearing, and no amount of shouting at public hearings could change that.

The story journalists told became a popular narrative because it was an easy narrative, one of convenient moral certitude and simple dichotomies that glossed over the complexities of forest ecologies and the realities of work and life in the rural Northwest. The narrative remained pervasive, even as the timber wars came to an end in the mid-1990s, and has continued to echo through contemporary popular culture, land-use policy, journalism, and a good deal of academic literature. No simple sign at the head of a small trail in an out-of-the-way wilderness area is up to the task of taking on all that. 

Yet, Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison’s story reveals that this popular narrative, for all its ubiquity, obscures the more complex relationship rural working people have long had with the Northwest’s forests. Work is certainly part of that relationship, and the politics of the rural Northwest have often pivoted around work. But it’s a relationship that can’t solely be understood through work. Hunting, fishing, foraging, and recreation have done as much as industrial wage labor to shape how working people from the Northwest woods have known, used, and valued the forests. The forest has also had less-tangible but no less-important meanings in their lives. It’s been central to their understandings of home and community and directed the course of their labor activism. Across history, people from timber-working communities have worried about forest flora and fauna as often as they’ve worried about their own economic security, and they’ve defended wilderness as vociferously as they’ve fought for their jobs. 

When Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison decided to leave that grove standing, they described it as a spur of the moment decision — as Zapp later explained, it just seemed like the right thing to do.” But the three fellers’ actions were also connected to an ethic of forest stewardship that has long been central to the identity, culture, and politics of the people who’ve lived and worked in the Northwest woods. Understanding that culture may help us better manage the forests and avoid the sorts of bitter land-use conflicts that beset the region in Luoma, Zapp, and Morrison’s era and continue to do so today.

Steven C. Beda is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon.

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