Andy Kerr is an unending source of amazement for me.
We've never been formally introduced, but I have long admired his mastery of six-second sound bites - pithy little phrases that you can never forget, no matter how hard you try.
The smoke had not yet cleared from the month-long 1987 Silver Fire when Andy announced from on high that "Not one black stick" of timber would be harvested because salvaging fire killed timber was "like mugging a burn victim."
Actually, it's more like denying a skin graft to a burn victim. But never mind.
My recollection is that about half the volume of timber lost in the 200,000 acre conflagration was eventually salvaged, but not without a political deal struck by the late Mark Hatfield, Oregon's senior U.S. Senator at the time.
What I've always found so interesting about Andy's often outrageous one-liners is that they rarely contain a shred of truth. But the press has always loved quoting him. I have no idea if they take him seriously, but I can tell you that the bigger the tale he tells, the more widely he is quoted. I think he knows this because he's always trying to outdo himself. He obviously loves the sound of his own voice.
But now and then, Andy says things that are so morally and ethically repugnant that someone needs to take him to the woodshed. That someone would be me.
Last Wednesday, May 1, the Grants Pass Daily Courier, published an essay Andy wrote titled "Sawmills must adapt to stay relevant." I don't know if the headline was his doing or if someone on the Courier's news desk wrote it, but it hardly matters. What matters is that Andy's casual acquaintance with the truth be exposed for - shall we say - its shortcomings.
Kerr's column is a response to the tragic closure of Rough and Ready Lumber Company at Cave Junction, about 30 miles southwest of Grants Pass. His tone was so over the top - and inappropriate - that I could not help but wonder what he was trying to hide. Andy always has something to hide. Has he been playing with matches? In a manner of speaking, yes - for years.
The Krauss family's sudden decision to button up its 91-year-old operation is an enormous shock to Josephine County's once robust timber economy. Eighty-five families will lose their paychecks. We can only wonder how they are doing and how they are preparing for face their uncertain futures. When I moved to Grants Pass in 1970, there were a dozen lumber and plywood lumber mills in the area. Now there are none in a county that is more than 80 percent timbered. What happened? I'll explain.
Rough and Ready Lumber was a poster child for western Oregon's post-World War II sawmillingindustry. It provided steady employment for four generations of Illinois Valley families. Grandfathers, fathers, sons, uncles and cousins worked there, often at the same time. If memory serves me correctly the mill operated continuously, even during the Great Depression. That it survived and prospered for so long bears witness to a family that put community first and its own financial interests second.
I knew the second Krauss generation very well. Lew, Fred and John were the sons of Rough and Ready's co-founder Lew Krauss, Sr. Only John - the youngest of the brothers - survives. Lew and Fred both died several years ago. Lew's daughter, Jennifer, and her husband, Link Phillippi, have been running the iconic company for at least 10 years. I rarely see them, but I have watched them from afar and know how heartbreaking the decision to throw in the towel must have been.
My roots in the sawmilling industry go back more than 100 years. In my lifetime, I've known maybe a hundred sawmill owners. Not one of them had an ounce of quit in him. Although many of them were friends who did business with one another on a handshake, they were also fierce competitors. To the depths of their souls, they all believed theirs would be the last sawmill on earth. If you do not have blind faith in your own ability to survive in the unforgiving world of sawmilling, you have no damned business owning a saw mill. Trust me: it is one of the riskiest businesses on earth. And yet my lumbermen friends who made it big have always been quick to remind me that the secret to their success rested not in blindly accepting risk but in learning how to manage it.
You can put the Krauss family near the top of sawmilling's success column. They were always quieter than many of their rivals, but only a damned fool would have ever underestimated the Krauss brothers resolve. Where business was concerned, they had the hearts of lions - and ice-water ran in their veins.
Like their western Oregon peers, Rough and Ready's growth was driven by three factors: the post-war homebuilding boom, technological advancements in log sawing and a generous supply of federal timber. Only a handful of deep-pocketed lumbermen owned their own timber in western Oregon. Most bought their logs from the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Credit the Truman Administration for recognizing that the West's vast and untapped federal forests represented a peacetime economic dividend of unprecedented size and potential.
Although the federal timber supply was central to the expansion of western Oregon's timber industry for more than 50 years, the role played by advancing technology is one of the least understood. During the spotted owl wars, some 25 years ago, Andy Kerr generated a lot of press with two conflicting story lines. The first was that western Oregon's sawmills were technological dinosaurs that could not compete against their more modern rivals - so what the hell, let's just gently shove them over a cliff. No one will miss them anyway. The second was that environmental litigation by Kerr and his allies was not the cause of thousands of job losses. The blame rested with heartless captains of industry who were investing in labor-saving technologies. So what if a few old dinosaurs that chose not to replace men with machines went out of business. They were doomed anyway. No one will miss them.
The truth was - and still is - that advancing wood processing technologies have created more jobs and products than they ever eliminated. It is the nature of industry in a capitalist society - and the reason why western Oregon's sawmilling industry is still the most advanced in the world, and the reason why Oregon remains the nation's leading lumber manufacturer.
This brings me to Andy's blame-the-victim screed. There are no "inefficient" sawmills in Oregon. To be sure, they don't all produce lumber at the same speed. Nor do they all manufacture the same products. Some, Rough and Ready included, dominated niche markets for high quality doors, casings, windows and cabinets. For years, one of the Krauss family's largest customers was Anderson Window. I remember seeing beautiful ponderosa pine marked for shipment to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
Rough and Ready Lumber was never a high production mill. I don't believe the company ever owned a gang saw. Those are deployed in mills that produce studs used in homebuilding. Speed is everything if you are in the stud business, and gang saws spit out studs so fast it is difficult to count them. But if you are sawing for grade you use high-strain band saws that slice logs from one end to the other. Every time the log passes through the saw blade, the sawyer gets a fresh look at wood inside the log. If he [or she] sees high grade wood that wasn't expected, they can override the computer and saw visually. Hence the phrase: "sawing for grade." Rough and Ready sawed for grade, and its products were highly prized in the rarified market for top quality dimension lumber. How else to explain still vital customer relationships that began in the early hours after the end of World War II?
For reasons of his own - fundraising being the chief one - Andy continues to beat his old growth drum. He thus accuses Rough and Ready of not retooling its mill so that it could handle smaller logs. He knows the company never stopped modernizing, but he can't bring himself to tell the truth. It isn't in him.
What is true is that Rough and Ready relied on a steady diet of logs 20 to 24 inches in diameter on the butt. This is hardly old growth. It is a tree 50 to 80 years old, depending on where it grows in western Oregon. So called "old growth" starts at 48 inches and goes up from there. Some old growth logs barely fit on the eight-foot-wide bunks on log trucks. In western Oregon and Washington, some 14,000 square miles of federally owned old growth have been set aside in no harvest reserves - forever.
Andy knows this too, but there is no money in admitting that you've won the war. Better to continue wandering the battlefield bayonetting the wounded - a painful phrasing coined by Jack Ward Thomas, who was named Forest Service Chief not long after federal government granted threated species listing to the northern spotted owl in June of 1990. It was a political decision for which no independent, peer-reviewed science yet exists.
By my count, there are still four sawmills in western Oregon that buy old growth logs - not from the federal government, which no longer sells them - but from private and tribal timber sources in British Columbia, western Oregon, western Washington and northern California. These small, family-owned mills cut appearance grade Douglas-fir, principally for high end markets. Think the Hollywood crowd that pays Andy's bills.
I remember the day a Sun Valley, Idaho builder showed up unannounced at a friend's sawmill on a Friday afternoon with a goose-neck trailer behind his pickup. He was in a bind. The architect had made a mistake, the starlet was mad as hell and he needed some appearance grade timbers yesterday. Could my friend fill his order? He'd wait. Eight hours later - the logs handpicked from three decks- he was on his way back to Sun Valley with a trailer-load of fine grain timbers cut to the architect's new specifications. Now that's customer service writ large. And, no, it wasn't Rough and Ready. It was the Herbert Lumber Company in neighboring Douglas County.
The federal lands from which Rough and Ready was buying its timber are the so-called "matrix lands," which were designated for timber production in the never implemented 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. Why hasn't the plan ever been implemented? Because environmentalists who agreed to the matrix land designations - Andy and his friends - never intended to honor their commitment. Nor have they kept any other promise they ever made. They continue to appeal and litigate most timber sales in hopes of stopping all management activity on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. They're close.
Under the 1984 plan, which was negotiated by President Clinton, a 1.1 billion board foot annual harvest was promised - an 80 percent reduction from the previous 10 year harvesting average. The plan has yet to yield 900 million board feet a year. The high - 810 million feet - was recorded in Fiscal 1997. The low - 122 million feet - was recorded in Fiscal 2000. Bear in mind the forests in question grow about 100 times this much wood annually. Not quite, but close enough for government work.
Word is that about one-third of Rough and Ready's annual log usage is tied up in timber sale appeals filed by Andy's friends. Again, these are sales on matrix lands designated for timber production. Andy's friends could not care less. They have lawyers and lawyer's kids to feed, and thanks to the Equal Access to Justice Act, those lawyers and their kids are eating very well on the taxpayer's nickel.
Andy has always enjoyed telling lumbermen how they should run their businesses, and his Daily Courier epistle is no exception. He pontificates ad nauseam about how the Krauss family should have deployed its capital differently in their very successful 91-year-old business. This despite the fact that he has never met a payroll in his entire life - unless we count his years working "in the public interest," which is code for sucking off taxpayers or anyone else gullible enough to believe his bullshit stories.
I suspect that Link and Jennifer Krauss Phillippi would love to keep their mill going for another 91 years. And they could if there was any semblance of stability or predictability in the federal government's once robust timber sale program. You should know that the national forest closest to Rough and Ready's mill are growing about one billion board feet annually. Link and Jennifer need about 25 million feet - or about four percent of annual growth. Hardly an "unsustainable harvest."
But there isn't much chance for a return to stability or predictability so long as Andy's friends continue to appeal and litigate every move the Forest Service and the BLM make, which brings me to the most astonishing statement of many Andy makes in his latest diatribe.
"Most conservationists support increasing the amount of commercially profitable restoration thinning in moist forest plantations and degraded dry forests," he writes. "In fact, federal logging levels could increase 44 percent in the Northwest Forest Plan area for well over the next two decades - with the blessing of most conservationists?"
Most conservationists? This is Andy's classic good cop, bad cop bait and switch routine. It is a whole lot of hot air designed to deflect the public's attention from you know who. But Andy's word parsing begs a question: If federal harvest levels could be magically increased by 44 percent, thereby enabling restoration projects Andy and his friends endorse, why haven't "conservationists" made it happen?
The answer is that Andy and his sue happy pals aren't the real problem. The real problem is a gutless Congress that created an unholy legal mess that it now refuses to clean it up, despite three decades of economic and environmental losses that run into the billions of dollars.
Oregon's senior U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, who chairs the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, could fix this mess in a phone call. You would think that the senior senator from the nation's leading lumber producing state would want to lead his state's lumber families to higher ground, but he hasn't done it yet, despite Andy's confident report that "Wyden - like most conservation organizations - wants to increase federal logging levels."
Well Senator, if "most conservation organizations" support your desire to boost federal harvest levels what's the hold up? Surely the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee can find a way to control the fringe groups that are mocking you and your well-intended conservationist friends, Andy notwithstanding.