Loggers hurting as wood demand falls
In the past 10 years, 22,500 logging jobs in U.S. have disappeared.
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.
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.