Log­gers hurt­ing as wood de­mand falls

In the past 10 years, 22,500 log­ging jobs in U.S. have dis­ap­peared.

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - Byadam Belz Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bune

NASH­WAUK, MINN. — Scott Pit­tack grew up in a log­ging fam­ily and has made his liv­ing in the woods.

But as he climbed down from a tim­ber har­vester at the end of a wind­ing road in the hills, he ad­mit­ted he has his doubts about the busi­ness.

Nowa­days, the in­dus­try that’s hir­ing on the west end of Min­nesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, where Pit­tack has been cut­ting down trees for more than two decades, is ta­conite, not log­ging.

In the past 18 months, Pit­tack’s six-man op­er­a­tion has lost two truck drivers to min­eral com­pa­nies.

“I don’t blame them guys for go­ing to the mines,” Pit­tack said. “There’s some days it looks pretty ap­peal­ing to me.”

Lum­ber­jacks are the foot sol­diers of the for­est in­dus­tries, and in re­cent years they’ve been pounded on two sides. Not only have more than a hun­dred U.S. pa­per mills shut down in lit­tle more than a decade, as de­mand for pa­per de­clines in the West­ern world, but the col­lapse of the Amer­i­can hous­ing mar­ket elim­i­nated de­mand for build­ing prod­ucts made from trees.

In the past 10 years, 22,500 jobs in log­ging have dis­ap­peared in the United States, a 32 per­cent de­cline, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics.

As mills have closed, log­gers have found them­selves in a dog­fight to find cus­tomers and turn a profit.

“The mill clo­sures are a tough blow no mat­ter where you’re at in the state, be­cause it all has a rip­ple ef­fect,” said Dale Erick­son, 57, a sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion log­ger based east of Baudette, Minn. “It’s tough right now.”

Mod­ern log­ging in­volves large machines that look like trac­tors, with cli­mate-con­trolled cabs.

Many log­gers use joy­sticks and com­puter mon­i­tors to cut down, de-branch and in some models im­me­di­ately chop the logs to length.

Erick­son, the log­ger from Baudette, grew up on a farm where the prairie meets the woods just be­low the Cana­dian bor­der.

It was a thriv­ing Scan­di­na­vian co­op­er­a­tive where three large fam­i­lies raised wheat and grass seed in the sum­mer.

In the win­ter, when they weren’t milk­ing cows, the men drove into the snowy for­est to cut down trees for the pa­per mill in In­ter­na­tional Falls, Minn.

The mill is still there to­day, a steel blue col­lec­tion of ware­houses and tow­ers that looks across the Rainy River to­ward Canada. The mill is still the Erick­son fam­ily’s big­gest cus­tomer.

But log­gers like him are be­com­ing rare. Startup costs for the busi­ness to­day eas­ily sur­pass $1 mil­lion.

RICHARD SENNOT / MCT

Scott Pit­tack op­er­ates a tree har­vester in Good­land, Minn. Log­gers have been hit from two sides: Clos­ing pa­per mills be­cause of less de­mand for pa­per and the hous­ing mar­ket bust.

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