The Oregonian Magazine, insert to The Oregonian, Portland, OR., June 19,
1938, page 9
This article included several photographs
KLICKITAT, SOUTHERN WASHINGTON MILL TOWN, PLANS FOR FUTURE
By Leverett G. Richards
Staff Writer, The Oregonian
The little town of Klickitat, Wash., is news! It has
about 900 population - but not a soul on relief. It is a timber town, but
built to endure. Unemployment is unknown.
Klickitat is a town of well-painted wooden houses; not one of them vacant, with well-watered lawns, permanent sewers, schools, community hall, hospital a town of happy homes and prosperous, well-fed, well-clothed individuals, most of them rugged.
We found not a soul on relief. The town -- legally it's still a village applied for some of Uncle Sam's funds to help build a community hall. The WFA was glad enough to approve a project. But nary a soul could they find in Klickitat who could honestly plead eligibility. So the towns-men, from Hugo Schmidt, the mill manager, to the humblest truck driver, volunteered their labor to help build the hall.
TOWN BUILT AROUND MILL
Sitting astride the curveting Klickitat is the rock on
which the town is built - a lumber mill, pronounced by federal inspectors
the most modern and efficient in the west. A lumber mill built of concrete
and steel, like a vault, with a great chimney of concrete flying the banner
of commerce and industry - a living plume of smoke.
The big plant, trim and compact, paved throughout with concrete floors and roads, fills the narrow valley from wall to wall, forming a dam to trap the stream which drains the wealth of the hinterland, stretching 50 miles north to the knees of mighty Mount Adams; forming a dam to catch the logs that march out of those hills in endless procession, converting them from trees into lumber and pouring this product on down the valley of the Klickitat, 13 miles to Lyle on the Columbia river, thence to the sea by barge and steamer, or on the rails into the east.
We found a mill where the men work with a will and with rhythm, where the saws cut cleaner, where the carryalls loaded with lumber whiz faster, where it seems that not even the knotholes are wasted. Inspectors told us the J. Neils mill at Klickitat cuts 17 per cent more lumber out of a pine log than the good Lord put there. They call it, quite casually, a 17 per cent "overcut."
You can't buy slab wood from J. Neils mill in Klickitat. There isn't that much waste. The sawyers waste barely enough to furnish hog fuel for the power plant, where electricity is generated to run the mill.
We found about 250 men at work in the mill, which includes dry kilns, planing mill and box factory, at wages well above the union scale. The men have their own union, but the mill has never seen a strike, nor a picket line, and has never been on the unfair list.
AVERAGE INCOME AROUND $1500
The annual payroll is more than $400,000, the average
annual income of the employes about $1500 - plus economic security, for the
mill is built to last.
On what foundation is this industry built? What is back of it? Probably the biggest and best ponderosa pine timber farm in the United States, largely owned by the J. Neils Logging and Lumber company.
On the rugged hills of the Klickitat watershed, an area of 500,000 acres, stands 5,026,000,000 board feet, including some of the finest ponderosa pine in the world, and 1.200,000,000 board feet of Douglas fir. That is nearly one-third of the stand of Pinus ponderosa remaining in the state of Washington and about one-fiftieth of the nation's supply. Oregon and Washington together account for 83,367,283,000 board feet, or roughly one-third of the ponderosa pine remaining in the United States.
CLIMATE PERFECT FOR PONDEROSA
Nowhere in the nation is nature producing ponderosa pine
faster than in the Klickitat country. Only one spot-southwest of Klamath
Falls in Oregon -- produces better quality pine, and there isn't much difference.
The rainfall of the Klickitat are ranging from 20 to 40 inches, the soil
and the sunshine are made to order for production of this mightiest of the
Here stands the world's biggest single ponderosa pine tree, over 200 feet tall, 85 inches in diameter, containing about 20,000 board feet of lumber, enough to build a couple of houses.
On this gift of the gods depends the future of the little town of Klickitat, just as the future of the states of Oregon and Washington depend like-wise, and to almost the same extent, directly and indirectly upon the timber that still stands upon their hills like money in the bank.
When J. Neils went to work in the logging camps of Minnesota 50 years ago, timber was still a nuisance. All winter long the loggers hewed at the forests, cutting everything in sight and burning the rest to make way for farms, roads, saloons, civilization. Starting with his own sawmill at Sauk Rapids, Minn., in 1895, J. Neils helped to cut a reckless swath across the continent.
MOVED TO MONTANA, LATER TO WASHINGTON
By 1924, there was no more "big-time" timber in Minnesota.
In 1910 he came to Libby, Mont., where the Neils Lumber company still operates
mill bigger than the Klickitat plant. In 1917 Neils, still following the
timber westward, came to Klickitat. In 1927 the old mill burned. In 1928
the new one was built.
By that time the Neils clan had seen the handwriting on the horizon. When this timber was gone there would be no more timber.
During the wild days of its youth the nation had looked upon its timber as green gold to be mined and sold. They thought there would always be more. Now the end was in sight. The gold rush days were done. J. Neils, founder of a proud industrial dynasty, died in 1933.
His four sons, Paul, Gerhard, George and Walter, took up the torch where he had dropped it. With the eyes of youth they saw that timber could no longer be "mined." It must be cultivated like a crop. They looked at their 55,000 acres of tall pine as a farm where timber grows forever, if you get a chance, where a good farmer harvests only the ripe "fruit" and leaves the rest to get its growth, meanwhile protecting it from insects, fire and other pests.
And so today they are among the first of the pine mills to undertake a system of "sustained yield cutting," "selective cutting" or planned perpetual production on their own private holdings. By next spring they will have been finished cutting the last of the pine and fir on the plateau west of the Klickitat river, where J. Neils started cutting more than 20 years ago.
RAILROAD BUILT BY FEW MEN
By that time, too, they will have completed the longest
and most difficult private railroad construction job now underway in the
west. The rails, running up along the Klickitat to Glenwood and onto Draper
Springs, will tap a vast new crop of timber running to the knees of Mt. Adams
on the north, the Yakima Indian reservation and Yakima county on the east
and the White Salmon river and a corner of Skamania county on the west.
Typical of the new day and the new way in the Neils operation is the construction of this railroad.
Two men built the grade. Two men, using two machines, a Diesel shovel and a tractor used both as a bulldozer and to haul a trackson trailer handling seven to eight yards of dirt and rock.
No more than a dozen men have been employed on the work at any time since the start in March, 1936. First clearing the right of way, then blasting, for 80 per cent of the 15 miles so far completed through rocks, as heavy a job as many a transcontinental road. The same crew is now laying the rails as the two men complete the 34 miles of grade which will take the logging road around the cowtown of Glenwood and into the shade of Draper Springs, 2½ miles southwest of Glenwood, where the new permanent logging camp will be established in this fall.
By these methods the costs of the $250,000 railway have been kept to a phenomenally lower figure, Walter Rathart, progressive young logging and construction superintendent, noncommittally admitted.
By somewhat the same methods costs have been cut in the logging operations, which help to explain the secret of the company's perpetual prosperity plan. When Rathert came to Klickitat from the Minnesota woods in 1924 he found the old system of "steam logging" still in use.
Draglines, and steam donkeys were used to drag logs out of the woods, smashing and tearing through the tender young trees, uprooting and wasting them. Everything usable was cut. The rest was burned clean to the ground, as required by stupid state laws. It took 115 men to feed the hungry mill its 85,000 to 100,000 board feet of logs each day.
On those lands virtually nothing grows today. Fire kills almost every pine tree, every sapling, every seed. It may be 200 years, even with hand planting of these areas, before the green gold will mature on the hills again.
Rathert stopped that form of sylvan slaughter. He was one of the first to introduce tractors and "skid pans" to drag the logs out of the woods without damage to the remaining trees. The skid pans are "skis" of manganese steel nine feet wide, six feet long, weighing a ton, on which the butt of the log rests while it is hauled behind the tractor to the waiting train.
LOGGED AREAS NOW GREEN
The brush is then piled and burned to save the seedings
and young trees. Those areas today are green with growing timber. In 80 years
or so they will again be ripe for the axe and the saw. What's more, it now
takes only 56 men to turn out 150,000 board feet of logs daily.
But that is not enough. To achieve perpetual production only 40 to 50 per cent of the board feet of timber on each acre can be cut. That means that on an average only two to three trees will be cut on each acre, leaving 80 or more sizeable trees to mature for the next cutting, 30 years hence.
An amateur woodsman cannot tell at glance that a forest has ever been touched when logged by this method. Even when 80 percent of the board feet is cut the forest looks almost untouched when seen from a distance.
To cut only two trees to the acre sounds fantastic. Your skeptical reporter thought Rathert was kidding when he said it. So we put the question to Gerhard Neils, sales manager for the company, and Hugo Schmidt, mill manager, who live at Klickitat and manage the Klickitat operations.
"Can you afford to build a railroad, set up camp, and build cat trails just to log two or three trees to the acre?"
MADE EXPERIMENT WITH SYSTEM
"We don't know the answer to that question yet, not
accurately, "parried Gerhard Neils. "We made a little experiment last fall,
but we haven't got final figures on it yet."
Nevertheless the company will boldly embark on the plan of "harvesting and forming" its remaining timber, starting next spring. In the Glenwood area that company owns enough land and timber to supply the mill's average appetite of a little more than 30,000,000 board feet of timber each year for the next 12 years or so at the rate of two or three trees to the acre. Then what?
We put that question to K.P. Cecil, able supervisor of the nearby Columbia national forest. "We have some splendid pine in that district, ripe and ready to cut by the selective method, and is has long been the policy of the forest service to encourage the sustained yield method of cutting to preserve our timber wealth for posterity and for perpetual prosperity. But the forest service holdings are so small as to be unimportant to the Neils plan. We can't give them much help, maybe a cut of a year or two.
LAWS HAMPER FOREST MEN
"What's more, we are hampered by antiquated laws. We
might want to sell our timber to the operator who will cut it with care and
with an eye to the future and the security of his employee and the community.
But under the present laws we have to sell to the highest bidder. If his
bid were a half cent low we might have to sell to some grass-hopper mill
operator who would cut everything in sight, burn the rest, go broke in two
years and leave as a monument to his unthinking operations another tomb town
of abandoned buildings and unemployed armies of loggers such as marked the
frail of the timber operator's throughout the east and into the west."
We climbed into the car and Mr. Cecil, a man of action and impulse, forthwith guided us over a maze of narrow roads, through the cathedral quiet of the tall clean pine woods to Draper Springs, the terminus of the new railway line.
There we found professor Walter H. Meyer, his assistant, Walter R. Austin, and this class of 37 students in forestry management of the college of forestry, University of Washington. For the past three years they have been digging their way through snow and mud to camp under the panoply of pines for seven weeks each spring to study practical problems of forest management in the woods and logging camps of the J. Neils Company.
"Perpetual production?" echoed Professor Meyer, "It's not only a possibility, but a necessity, if you and your sons are to work and eat in the years to come.
"We have completed the third year of intensive study of the 500,000 acres of this economic unit you call the Klickitat country. We find by actual measurement that perpetual production, perpetual prosperity, can be achieved on only half of the 5,000,000,000 board feet of pine in the unit, or about 200,000 acres of timber land.
"But there is not that much land in private hands. The Neils brothers have bought all they could. But when it they have harvested the ripe timber on that land they must have more land and more timber. They can get a little from the forest service.
"For the rest they must rely on the Indian service in the Yakima reservation and the state of Washington department of forestry, which holds about 77,000 acres of the finest timber land here."
SAYS FUTURE DEPENDS ON LAW REVISION
And what of the future of this New "forever plan" at
"That all depends on revision of the laws to permit co-operation between the various owners in management of timber resources," says Supervisor Cecil of the nearby Columbia Forest.
Senator McNary of Oregon has introduced in Congress a bill providing such revision, known as the McNary-Doxey bill. This and similar projected aides to the new science of timber farming are tremendously important to the economic future of Oregon and Washington.
Editor's Note: The operations of the Neils Logging company are representative of the problems confronting the pine mills of Oregon and Washington in their efforts to follow a new policy of preservation of the pine crop for the prosperity of posterity. What is said here does not necessarily apply to the logging of fir, which in many ways is quite a different industry, confronted by different problems.
© Jeffrey L. Elmer