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Log Export History: Mill Jobs Exported

By Edie Butler - Hard Times, Vol. 3, #1, February 1983

Observing the frequent loading of logs on ships, during daily drives past Fields Landing several years ago, aroused in me a strong curiosity about the exporting of logs. At the same time as I was so frequently driving past this docking facility, the expansion of Redwood National Park, and its potential impact on the local lumber mills, was a very big news item and the controversy was evident everywhere in the community. Why, I asked, are these logs being exported, in their raw resource form, from an area where steady employment is already a problem and, if the dire forecasts about the (Redwood) Park expansion are to be believed, there will be a much greater problem in the future? As I raised this question with a wide variety of people over the ensuing months and years, I concluded that the average citizens of Humboldt County has very little understanding of the log exporting matter.

Local Self-Sufficiency

This matter takes on added historical significance when viewed against the backdrop of the economy of this area from the last 1800’s on to the present day. At one time Humboldt County was largely self sufficient and the resources available here were, to a large extent used and manufactured here. Some examples of the diversity of Humboldt County industry are the following businesses which are listed in a 1895-96 Business Directory: Arcata Tannery, Eureka Brewery (with the slogan of “Patronize Home Industry and Call for Eureka Beer”), Eureka Bicycle Factory, Humboldt Mineral Water, Bendixin Shipbuilders, twenty-two creameries, three dairies, twelve milliners and fancy goods, and fifteen shoemakers. [1] A 1902 map of Eureka has a border of pictures of prominent buildings, among which are Jackson’s shirt Factory, Eureka Foundry, and Humboldt Bay Woolen Mills.

Bit by bit these industries have withered and a pattern of exporting of resources and importing of products can be seen. There is no longer a woolen mill to process the wool produced locally. While most fish is processed locally, shrimp is sent to an automated picking plant in Santa Rosa and foreign processing ships buy hake directly from fishing boats.

Hides from local cattle are sent out of the area for tanning. These are but a few examples of this trend. (At this point mention should be made of the many industrious and sincere people who are currently working to reverse this trend and reestablish a broad economic base of small industries. They have had some impact and show promise for the future.)

Local History

Since the 1870’s the logging and milling industries remained and eventually became the all but total basis for the local economy. A recent issue of California reports, “in the late (nineteen) sixties, a forest service survey indicated that loggers were mowing down trees 270% faster than the forest could grow them back.” [2] The results of this overharvesting are being painfully felt and the exporting of any raw resource now takes on greater importance.

The Depression had hit the logging and lumber industries very hard and “in 1931 only three mills were operating in Humboldt County.” [3] In 1941 there were 24 sawmills and the number increased rapidly each year so that in 1946 there were 99, in 1955 there were 262. [4] This was definitely a booming era for the County. “By 1945 the various mills in the county were turning out lumber at top capacity … 1946 saw the beginning of a new cycle in the redwood industry. The big mills were all closed temporarily because of the big strike. This was the signal for the new small operators to come into the region. It was also at this time that the redwood trees had to begin sharing the spotlight with the Douglas Fir. … With the twenty-seven month strike tying up the big mills there was an immense labor pool waiting to be used elsewhere. The first step was the setting up of “pop-gun mills” by local men who were determined to start up in the lumber business on their own. Most of these small mills only operated a short time, but they paved the way for men of larger capital to move in and to keep the new Douglas Fir industry growing. It was at this stage of development that the operators from the Pacific Northwest began to move into the area and to establish the new industry, and thereby they revitalized the entire lumber picture of northwestern California.” [5]

After 1951 the number of mills decreased yearly and in 1956 there were 214 sawmills and in 1960 there were 134. However, the number of board feet milled during the years 1951-1960 generally increased at a significant rate. [6]

In the 1940’s and 1950’s the supply of logs appeared immense and there was a great momentum to the boom occurring at that time. Local milling operations were geared for larger diameter logs and smaller, diameter logs were considered undesirable. For some hardwoods (Madrone, tanoak, pepperwood) there was no domestic market, and foreign markets appeared. In the 1950’s the balance of mill ownership shifted from locally owned to “out of area” firms who bought up mills and timber.

Foreign Ownership

Raymond Flynn, the Humboldt County Assessor, reported that he was not aware of any current foreign ownership of timber land in Humboldt County. [7] He does recall that a Japanese company, West Coast Orient, did own approximately 2,000 acres in the Fieldbrook area from the late 1960’s until the mid1970’s. [8] After they logged the second growth off of it they sold it to Arcata Redwood Co. [9] He went on to say that generally the Japanese do not want to own the timber stands because they are only interested in trees up to 24” diameter. [10] Japanese mills have different milling practices which result in full utilization of each log.

Interviews with two other individuals did not turn up any specific bits of information about foreign ownership of timberlands so the focus of research shifted to identifying the factors which contribute to the exporting of logs. Like so many issues the matter turns out to be quite complex and the amount of relevant information vast. The following is admittedly a mere scratch on the surface of an important and complicated matter.

Log Exports

One frequently heard explanation for wood being exported to Japan in log form is that the Japanese fully utilize the log, wasting nothing, and that milling practices in a U.S. Department of Agriculture 1949 yearbook states the importance of full utilization: “…we have become so desperately dependent upon our forests that failure to get maximum use from the annual timber harvest becomes increasingly vital.” [11] The article goes on to describe numerous ways of full utilization of logs and trees, and takes into account marketing factors. [12] Articles like this one indicate that the “state of the art” in 1949 did provide methods of full utilization of wood products. Japan has put these methods into successful and profit able operation. While Madrone, tanoak, and pepperwood were not being utilized in the U.S., other countries were willing to do so and the export of logs in the post World War II was underway. [13]

“The export of logs represents a raw material export—an unusual occurrence both from an economic and a policy standpoint for a highly developed country like the United States.” [14] The Japanese started a new round of log buying in the 1960’s and increased their orders substantially all through the 1970’s. [15]

Export Policy

Log exporting influences the national economy in several ways. Exporting logs prevents a glut on the market which in turn serves to keep prices higher. Log exports help in the overall balance of trade for imports and exports. When tight lumber market conditions exist in the U.S. the exporting of logs lessens the financial impact on the timber owners. Logging and mill industry workers may become complacent about long range conditions because short range conditions look favorable. When focus is shifted from the impact of log exports on a local economy to the impact on the national economy, the matter takes on its full complexity. This is stated simply by Jay Grunfeld, “The national interest, as usual, is not clear.” [16] Another writer, after examining national objectives and export policies, which included community economic stability, concludes with, “Even this partial array of national objectives is inconsistent. As a result, actions aimed at meeting one set of goals may limit our ability to achieve other goals.” [17]

The literature on this subject makes frequent mention of the relationship between exports and domestic prices. A policy judged good by one interest is judged bad by another interest. One 1973 article sums up a commonly held sentiment simply, “Ban log exports and the high cost of housing will be corrected.” [18] Yet another perspective on the issues is as follows: “Even if log exports were banned, Japan and other nations would purchase logs from other countries and then buy lumber and other products from the lowest-cost supplier, which in most cases, would not be the United States. … The national interest requires more exports to improve the balance of payments. [19]

Since 1977 there have been restrictions, reflecting public concerns over the matter, on the exporting of logs taken from public lands. These restrictions vary from area to area, are different for large corporations (to their advantage) than for independent companies (to their disadvantage) and are oft circumvented by corporations. [20]

Local Jobs

Until quite recently the mill workers in Humboldt County ignored the whole log export matter, for the most part, and were complacent in their present situation and trusting that the future would hold job security for them. This is now changing and exports are being looked at anew. One person expressed the opinion that the exporting of logs from Humboldt County has had a negative impact on the local stud mills. Ten years ago there were between nine and twelve mills in Humboldt County and now one, possibly two, remain. The trees which these mills were buying were getting a higher price from the Japanese and the stud mills could not compete. [21] In as much as the exporting already occurs, if the log exporting stopped there would be a loss of jobs for the Longshoremen and it is evident that this could result in two groups of workers opposing each other. Currently the Longshoremen and the Lumber Production Industrial Workers are working on an agreement for the logs to be semi processed (“squared up”) before export. [22] Some figures on the difference on hours of labor are: 4.7 hours of direct employment per 1,000 board feet for exports, and 12.5 hours of employment per 1,000 board feet for processed logs. [23]

A partial solution to this complex dilemma is occurring at Merill and Ring in Port Angeles. “They are successfully cutting for the Japanese market. These mills, plus several mills owned by the timber giants, have continued operations during the 1980 downturn in U.S. housing construction because they are cutting export orders. This has created employment for loggers, mill workers, truck drivers, longshoremen and port personnel.” [24]

The factors contributing to the export of logs will no doubt continue to come from a variety of sources, as they have in the past, and have differing impacts on a local economy and on the national economy. Humboldt County will continue to feel this impact, even though only 5-10% of the total West Coast log exports leave Humboldt Bay. [25] This research gives the beginnings of a historical perspective, from which to have a more accurate view of a current economic concern.


[1] Business Directory of Humboldt County 1895-6 , Eureka, CA: Editor B. Spenser, Publisher, 1895-96.

[2] William Boly, “Travels in Humboldt”, California, February 1982, 69.
[3] Howard Brett Melendy, “100 Years of Redwood Lumber Industry”, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, 1952), 208.
[4] “Economic Survey of Humboldt County”, CA Eureka Chamber of Commerce and Humboldt County Board of Trade, July, 1960, 30.
[5] Op Cit., 217-18.
[6] “Economic Survey of Humboldt County”, 30.
[7] Raymond Flynn, Humboldt County Assessor, private interview conducted January 21, 1982.
[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.
[11] C. V. Sweet, “Putting Unused Wood to Work”, Trees – The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1949, U.S. Department of Agriculture, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office) 644.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Jim Demulling, Logger, private interview conducted January 26, 1982.
[14] Thomas E Hamilton, “Log Export Policy: Theory vs. Reality”, Journal of Forestry, August 1971, 494.

[15] Florence K Ruderman, Production, Prices, Employment, and Trade in Northwest Forest Industries, Second Quarter 1981, Portland, OR, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station.

[16] Jay Gruenfeld, “Understanding Log Exports”, American Forests, December, 1981, 19.
[17] Hamilton, 496.
[18] Herbert G. Lambert, “Export Controls: Only One Aspect of the Timber / Lumber Supply Problem”, Forest Industries, June, 1973, 36.

[19] Gruenfeld, 16.

[20] Tim Skaggs, President, International Woodworkers of America, Local # 3-98, private interview conducted February 1, 1982.

[21] Flynn, op. cit.

[22] Skaggs, op. cit.
[23] International Woodworkers Of America, “Statement of IWA Before the Senate Committee of Industrial Relations,” (Statement presented at a Public Hearing on the Plant Closure Situation and the Proposed Senate Bill 1494), Redding CA, October 21, 1980, 5-6.

[24] Ibid., 6.

[25] Skaggs, op. cit.

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