Hard Work and Compromises: An American Experience
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
I enjoyed a great childhood in The United States’ Pacific Northwest not far from Portland, Oregon. My small idyllic German-inspired hometown of White Salmon, Washington is nestled between Mt. Adams’ and Mt. Hood’s breathtaking snowcapped volcanic peaks. My days consisted of hunting, sports and cutting firewood or building range fences. Friends and I could often be spotted walking down the street toward the mountains with an array of armaments by our sides. Rain or shine, we hiked, hunted and engaged in general mayhem from early morning until well into late evening. Our community wasn’t wealthy, but most would say it was comfortable and people had what they needed and a little extra.
The timber industry from which my dad and nearly every other family either directly or indirectly earned their living is what gave our community its comfortable existence. Timber was still king when I was old enough to pay attention, but my parents told of the booming 70’s and early 80’s when there was a logging truck on every corner and timber mills operated at full tilt. My parents had sold their New York dairy farm and moved west to join the “Timber rush.”
The sale of my parent’s dairy allowed them to make a down payment on a small house in the middle of town and buy a small ownership share in the Stevenson Co-Ply timber mill. My dad worked the night shift seven days a week so he could keep his family of seven in shoes and cereal. We had what we needed for most of my childhood thanks to timber and my parent’s incredible strength and perseverance.
Much of the timber that our area mills depended on came from logging the national forests that surround our community. The US forest service would auction off plots of forest land then the winning bidder would bring in a crew to clear-cut the area. Large barren square patches dotted every Pacific Northwest mountain vista for as far as the eye could see.
These trees would make their way down out of the mountains and into mountainous timber stacks tens of feet high. Vast pieces of heavy yellow equipment that operated like massive forklifts ranged the log yard unloading trucks in just one lift. These log piles would then be processed through the mill to produce lumber and plywood that is then shipped out by rail and truck to national and international customers.
Most nonlocals would pass these clear-cut sections of the forest and the mills they supported and see nothing but just another industrial process playing out in an otherwise incredibly beautiful setting. We locals saw something very different. We saw a great way of life that allowed people to work with their hands, often outside and provide a good experience for their families. We saw the fingerprints left by generations before us who undertook the often dangerous and grueling work necessary to build an industry capable of meeting our nation’s growing lumber needs. Millions of Northwest families enjoyed a good life because of the vision and sacrifices of those who had gone before.
No one spent more time out in these forests than we locals. We worked, hiked, hunted and fished all over these mountains on beautiful sunny Pacific Northwest days as well as on those far too frequent cold and rainy days. Our experience and enjoyment weren’t disturbed when we came across a clear-cut area. On the contrary, these spots of open ground were where deer and elk could be spotted in the early morning or late evening. There is also a no better place to unpack a sandwich after a long hike and take in a breathtaking view than a cleared spot in an otherwise dense forest canopy.
My idyllic small town continued to enjoy relative prosperity until the 90’s when timber experienced a significant downturn. I was still too young to appreciate most of the reasons why the timber industry started to decline, but outsiders drove the most prominent reason. America’s endangered species act and the little known Spotted Owl were co-opted by what we assumed were California expats fleeing their state’s high cost of living for the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The Spotted Owl is a small creature that supposedly can only live in old growth forests, yet locals will tell you that these little birds aren’t that particular about their accommodations. We were convinced that these outsiders had merely co-opted the Spotted Owl and the Endangered Species Act to protect the national forests that they valued as their outdoor recreation utopia.
The national forest lands were soon tied up in the courts as environmentalists, and the timber industry fought over how each envisioned our national forest’s future. We locals, by contrast, saw these court battles as a fight over our destinies and livelihoods. We protested against the Spotted Owl and the impact its designation as an endangered species would have on our community. We wore small yellow ribbons on our clothes and displayed them in store windows to show our support. There were also more than a few references to spotted owls as a substitute for wood derived toilet paper.
I remember the time we joined hundreds of fellow Stevenson Co-Ply families for a protest rally that staged in our mill’s entrance area. Our signature float was massive logging trucks all well adorned with yellow ribbons. That protest rally sticks in my memory as the point in which our family’s fortunes turned for the worse and our secure future came unmoored. Dad’s wages were cut during this time as Stevenson Co-Ply fought for survival. It took a few years but ultimately dad was laid off, and Stevenson Co-Ply shuttered. The once vaunted mill ownership share my parents had entrusted with securing their future was now worthless. Dad started attending a paid government retraining classes down at the town’s recently closed hardware store more to pay the bills than to learn typing skills. Mom had also started working so that we could stay afloat.
I recall a lot about our family’s fall from our always tenuous yet somehow secure White Salmon existence, but nothing stands out more than the visible yet unspoken fears my parents weathered. The time when their hard-scrabbled life of raising a large family was supposed to give way to a time of greater security with less stress saw anything but. My dad who only had ever known dairy farming and timber millwork were suddenly being guided to build his third reality from behind a government retraining program’s keyboard. Anyone who has ever seen my dad’s leathered sausage-like fingers would tell you that he wasn’t destined for a computer-based career. A man who had worked seven days a week for my entire childhood to make sure his family had what it needed now worried every day about meeting our most basic needs.
Our family was fortunate in that we kids were reaching high school age as this downturn took hold. I spent my sophomore year away from home as a Rotary High School Exchange Student to the Philippines then left for the Navy a year after returning. My parents and siblings closed out our time as White Salmon residents and all found their way to Southern Idaho. Dad once again worked in agriculture and mom drove the school bus until their retirement many years later. The Lampman clan did eventually land on its feet, but that experience of losing our security and way of life will always be our shared journey’s most challenging time. I don’t know what percentage of our timber industry’s decline can be attributed to the Endangered Species Act, the Spotted Owl and displaced Californians but I know that it is impossible for me to ever be an impartial arbitrator of the Pacific Northwest’s 1990’s timber decline.
I am now close enough in age and circumstance to my dad of those years to have some appreciation for what he faced. That said, my understanding of dad’s position is limited to the fact that I now have a son and am acquainted with life’s financial, emotional and day to day stresses. I can in no way relate to the experience of a father of five who has just lost only the second job he had ever known. A parent has no greater fear than being unable to take care of his or her family. That fear played out on mom and dad’s faces for several years though never through their words.
My hometown is unfortunately no longer the small yet vibrant community that my siblings, friends and I once enjoyed. My dad worked on a factory floor over twenty years ago for a wage that today's economy still covets. It is impossible to imagine a job in today’s White Salmon area economy that would allow parents with my mom and dad’s work experience and education to raise five kids independent of significant government assistance. Most of White Salmon’s new and sometimes spectacular homes are built on beautiful hillsides while town proper has seen little in the way of reinvestment and reinvigoration. Our town’s charming German architecture inspired character is still there for those who know where to look, but this little community needs to regain the vitality that once defined its proud past.
I come from a place where people worked hard often under dangerous conditions to deliver the resources necessary to grow an aspiring and ambitious young country. They made good livings and were proud of the quality of life they were able to provide for their family. Today I sit behind a keyboard, not unlike the one my dad sat behind in his government retraining program. I live in a big American city where nearly all of the resources I count on come from a store shelf or delivery driver. I no longer witness raw materials being delivered to one end of a mill and finished products shipped from the other end. This isolation that defines most Americans’ existence means that we lack an appreciation for the hard work and compromises that go into making our modern life possible. We want abundant and affordable goods yet don’t want to know how the forests are cut.
Much of what I write about in this blog has the implicit consequence of upending long-established industries in a way that often cause temporary or permanent job loss for families like the 1990’s Lampman clan. I am stuck between my own childhood experience and a desire to see a future in which we better protect family health. We can’t lose sight of the sacrifices generations of men and women have made and continue to build as we work toward establishing more sustainable and responsible resource management practices.
Mark’s Author’s Notes:
- I wanted this post to come directly from the long-dormant memories of that teenage me, so I purposely did not research the Pacific Northwest’s timber economy or the spotted owl controversy. I wanted to write from the perspective of that young man who was trying to process what was happening to his otherwise idyllic upbringing.
- I enjoyed writing this post as doing so took me back to so many great times growing up in a great small town with equally beautiful people. It can be challenging to think about all the worry and uncertainty that surrounded some of those times, but our family and many like it persevered and came through on the other end a little stronger.
- This post is the byproduct of my attempt to write about a different yet related topic. Stay tuned for a future post that will be relevant this story.