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Boom: Logging begins anew

A worker unloads a log truck in Gilchrist for stacking in the mill yard. The logs are salvaged from areas burned during the Davis fire in 2003.

Published December 19, 2004


Loaded log trucks headed to mills near and far ...

Men in pickup trucks stacked with chain saws and fuel containers ...

The sound of ringing cash registers ...

In northern Klamath County, it's like the 1970s and '80s all over again.

The industry that created the side-by-side communities of Gilchrist and Crescent and kept the region content for decades is undergoing a revival. Logging companies are scurrying to harvest timberland damaged by the 2003 Davis fire.

The 21,181-acre fire began June 28, 2003, in dense lodgepole pine near Davis Lake and forced the evacuation of the Wickiup Acres Subdivision. Forest Service officials said it killed more than 80 percent of the trees in lodgepole stands.

Four salvage sales are removing about 48 million board feet of lodgepole and ponderosa pine, white and Douglas fir, sugar pine and other tree species. Two more salvage sales, for another 25 million board feet, go up for bid in January.

In the woods are 140 to 160 fallers, helicopter pilots, equipment operators, log truck drivers, mechanics and support staff. Some crew members live nearby. Others are from elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and even more distant states, including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, so they stay in motels, RV parks or even camp near logging sites.

The boom is running late into the year, and snow, rain and fog have occasionally stalled operations. Once the inevitable serious snows fall, a snowpack in excess of 4 feet will end logging until next spring.

In addition, several environmental groups are attempting to stop cutting, which they claim is overharvesting burned areas and leaving behind too few snags. A hearing was held earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Eugene but no ruling has been made.

Requirements vary, but at least 15 percent of the standing timber must be left, with anywhere from five to 12 snags per acre. No trees with a diameter greater than 36 inches can be cut. Trees with any green needles, even if they are dying, cannot be harvested.

Officials with the Deschutes National Forest's Crescent Ranger District, however, say the sales are following stiff environmental guidelines.

"We're getting really nice results on the ground," says Crescent District Ranger Phil Cruz. "The crews are doing excellent work."

Sales administrator Linda Fitzer said she visits nearly every day the logging sites that are just miles from the side-by-side communities of Gilchrist and Crescent. He said the harvest is serving multiple purposes: clearing the forest of dead trees, which could create fire hazards; creating a healthy forest; and stimulating the economically slumbering region of 1,500 people.

Fitzer said the trees are steadily decaying. "Next year would be the last year we feel we could get any (economic) value from it," she said.

The trees are trucked to the Gilchrist mill and, farther away, to mills in Prairie City, John Day, the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and, soon, Weed.

Among the mills converting fire-scarred trees to lumber is Interfor Pacific, the new owner of the former Crown-Pacific mill in Gilchrist.

"It's unfortunate it burned, but you have to have it logged. We want to get the most out of those logs," said John Ernst, Interfor's log procurement general manager. "It's nice to be able to buy them right here. When the sales came up, it was a community concern - 'Are we going to be able to get those sales?' "

Interfor did, outbidding others for two sales. Because of the short distance to its two logging sales, Interfor is receiving about 100 loads, or 550,000 to 570,000 board feet, daily. Along with providing jobs at the Gilchrist mill, which operates two shifts a day and has 150 employees, Ernst believes the four sales are helping the local economy.

"The community is seeing the economic benefits, whether at RV parks or motels. They're buying at the grocery stores and restaurants," Ernst said.

Brian Koch, owner of the Mohawk Restaurant in Crescent, agrees.

"Our business is up. This time of year is a tough time of year, and it's been nice. Our bar business has picked up. They frequent the dining room quite a bit, too," said Koch. He said the favorite menu items include tri-tip steaks and prime rib.

"These guys are staying weeks at a time," said Patricia Evinger, who owns and operates the eight-room Crescent Motel with her husband, Elmer. "For recreation they just kind of hang out. They work from dawn to dusk, so they're pretty tired. And pretty dirty."

Erick Schlect says business at his Gilchrist Video has "definitely improved. We've got some loggers that have added accounts. Every little bit helps. Any growth is a positive."

Although several Gilchrist and Crescent business owners said the sales have had little effect, Crescent RV Park owner Georgie Bonner said the business is at its capacity.

"Usually we might have four or five permanent people and now we've got 25," Bonner said. "It's been great."

Dan Tommila, a logger for Croman Corp., is among the crews at Bonner's RV park. His 28-foot-long trailer is parked alongside rigs owned by other crew members. To save on expenses, he and three others car-pool. He's usually up about 5:30 a.m. and ready to begin work at daybreak. Fallers work for seven hours, quitting at 2 p.m.

"I've been traveling with these outfits for the six years," Tommila said. "Life, it ain't bad. It depends on how you look at it. These outfits pay the best," about $265 a day. "We're kind of like a small family. Just looking for the best pay with the benefits. An outfit that will treat you good."

After work he does his "homework" - sharpening saw blades, refilling gas containers and drying his boots. He and the other loggers hang around or drive to grocery stores in La Pine and "look for the cheapest fuel."

"We'll go out. Eat. Visit the bar. Have a few beers," Tommila said. "Everywhere we go I expect they see the impact. We're not going to drive too far to get groceries or buy dinner."

Cash registers are ringing, pickups are filled with loggers and their gear, log trucks are emerging from the woods stacked with logs. Until it goes bust, logging is booming in the woods and communities of northern Klamath County.






Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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