A look at Whatcom County's logging past, present

INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Forestry has been an important industry in Whatcom County since before it was even officially a county. It's...

Photos by Josh Durias | www.joshdurias.com

Before Whatcom County was known for its raspberries or scenic attractions, it was known for its timber. Timber helped put Whatcom County on the map.

To be fair, the whole state of Washington is known for vast tracts of timber. More than 40 percent of land in the state is designated as timberland.

Logging isn’t as prevalent as it once was and the industry itself has changed a lot over the years, but for places like Whatcom County, timber is still a part of the local culture. There is no better place to witness this than at the Deming Logging Show.

Every year on the second weekend of June, a small, devoted community of forestry workers comes together to eat, talk shop and participate in various feats of skill. The two-day show attracts hundreds of spectators and more than 120 contestants who chop, cut, climb, splice and saw logs with a blend of modern tools and time-honored techniques.

“I just enjoy seeing all the people there,” said Bob Larsen, a local timber cutter and the show’s grandstand announcer. “It’s an industry that is somewhat close-knit, even if we don’t see each other often. We all know how dangerous it is and you kind of have a common bond over that. You have a respect for each other.”

Larsen has been working in the woods since he was 18 and has seen new machines and new technology change the way timber is cut.

“A lot of the jobs are still the same, but it has become more mechanized,” he said. “A lot of the cutting of the trees is done by machine now. That’s probably one of the biggest changes that has happened in the length of time that I’ve been working in the woods.”

The last sawmill

The 1920s were the boom years for the local timber industry. At that time, there were 75 sawmills operating in Whatcom County, producing more than 340 million board feet a year. (A board foot is the industry standard measurement of a board 1 foot long, 1 foot wide and 1 inch thick.)

For softwoods such as Douglas fir, western red cedar and western hemlock, Whatcom County has just one remaining sawmill: Great Western Lumber in Everson. There are other sawmills that recut rough lumber to finished sizes, but Great Western is the last operation that works with whole logs.

“We’ve been the last sawmill for at least 25 years, and probably a lot longer than that,” owner Gerry Millman said.

Over the years, Millman has seen automation change the way the sawmill runs. Laser-guided saws can now measure boards down to a thousandth of an inch. Efficiencies of scale have allowed the big sawmills to get bigger and forced the smaller sawmills to find a niche, Millman said.

For Great Western Lumber, that niche is structural lumber and high-quality pieces for export. With 75 employees, the sawmill produces about 30 million board feet per year.

“By comparision we are a very small sawmill. The average sawmill probably produces five to 10 times the volume we do,” Millman said.

Half of what Great Western Lumber produces is bound for export, mostly to Asia, Millman said.

“Today’s market is extremely challenging just because the demand for lumber is very low,” he said.

The boom years

This isn’t the first time the timber industry has been on hard times. After the boom years of the 1920s, the industry was hit hard by the Great Depression and didn’t recover until the 1970s. The industry saw its highest employment in 1978, with more than 55,500 people statewide logging and manufacturing forest products, according the Employment Security Department.

These days, however, few people are able to say they work in the timber industry. In 2010, forestry and logging in Whatcom County employed about 300 people and the state as a whole employed just 4,000.

Bill Westergreen, owner of A.L.R.T Corporation in Everson, is proud to be one of few remaining loggers in Whatcom County. His company is also one of the largest employers of loggers, with about 65 employees and an additional 40 full-time subcontractors when things get busy.

The industry has always been highly competitive, Westergreen said, and it has become more so as the amount of timber harvesting allowed has declined over the years due to government regulation.

“Since 1990, I can think of 20 or so businesses that haven’t made it in Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish,” Westergreen said.

State employment data shows exactly what Westergreen has witnessed: the number of Washington forestry firms in 1978 was 2,207; by 2008 the number of firms shrank by more than half to 1,023.

In order to make it, A.L.R.T offers a variety of service including contract logging, construction of logging roads, and trucking. During the average year, the company builds 25 miles of logging roads and logs about 60 million board feet of timber, or roughly 1,200 truckloads of logs per month.

Despite all the changes in the timber industry, Westergreen said he counts himself lucky to work in the woods every day.

“It’s more of a lifestyle than anything else,” Westergreen said. “It’s always been more than a job.”

Larsen, the logging show grandstand announcer, echoed that sentiment. At 60 years old, he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon and he still enjoys the physical nature of the job.

“It keeps me in good shape,” Larsen said. “It’s a job that I really like even though it’s hard work.”

Deming Logging Show

When: June 11-12

Where: Deming Logging Show fairgrounds, 3295 Cedarville Road

The Deming Logging Show is a nonprofit organization that started in 1962 as a way to raise money to help a local injured logger and his family. That first year, about 800 people paid $1 to see the show and the money went to the injured logger. Last year, the show raised more than $20,000.

“It’s a great community event. It’s one of the main events for our whole communtiy, especially in the Deming area,” said grandstand announcer Bob Larsen.

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