PAT NEAL: The logging capital of the world

The Native Americans were the first to log the Olympic Peninsula. They cut the Western Red Cedar. Every part of the cedar tree, from its roots to the branches, was used by Native Americans before the days of European contact.

The aromatic wood was split into boards for cedar plank houses. Cedar logs were carved into canoes. Cedar bark was used for clothing. Cedar roots were weaved into baskets. Cedar limbs were dried and twisted into rope. Cedar buds, bark and roots were used as medicines and in ceremonial rituals.

When the first European homesteaders settled here, they used split cedar to build their houses and barns. If cedar was not available, the Sitka spruce could be used.

With the outbreak of WWI, spruce was in demand for use in airplane construction. The Hoh River pioneers split cants from spruce logs and floated them down to the mouth of the river, where the courageous Captain Hanks sailed them through the surf to a mill in Aberdeen — until he mentioned patching his ship with linoleum and was never heard from again.

By the 1920s, a process was discovered to make pulp out of hemlock, previously considered a weed tree. At about the same time, a glue was invented that perfected the manufacture of plywood. With the coming of WWII, logging increased to meet the higher demand for timber. Diesel replaced steam power. The chainsaw replaced the crosscut saw or “misery whip.”

In the 1950s, the state Department of Natural Resources began selling 40-acre timber sales on the Peninsula. The Columbus Day storm of 1962 created a huge supply of downed timber that overwhelmed domestic sawmills.

Coincidentally, the Japanese post-war economy had rebounded to the point where they were buying and exporting raw logs from the West Coast of the United States.

The 1960s were a time of the biggest timber sales of up to 25 million board feet. Japanese log buyers were competing with one another for some of the most beautiful, tight grained, knot-free wood in the world.

By the 1970s, Forks became the self-proclaimed, “Logging Capital of the World.”

As the old-growth rainforest of hemlock, cedar and spruce was cut, it was replaced by the Douglas fir. These fir trees grew fast, up to four feet taller, adding inches in diameter every year.

Unfortunately, many of these fir trees could not adapt to their new home in the rainforest. They grew crooked trunks with three or four tops, spike knots and other defects that made inferior lumber.

At the time, the red alder was considered a weed. In an effort to eliminate the alder and anything else that would compete with the Douglas fir, the herbicide 2-4-D was sprayed from helicopters all across the Olympic Peninsula.

These days, alder is used for furniture, making it more valuable than fir.

Ironically, a June 10, 2021, PDN article reported that state Commissioner of Lands Hilary Franz was hiring a director to find alder logs to keep hardwood mills operating.

By the 1980s, the Japanese recession had cooled the log market.

Environmental restrictions designed to protect the spotted owl, marbled murrelet and bull trout stopped the harvest of old-growth timber.

Logging communities all across the Pacific Northwest were devastated. Loggers had to either move away or reinvent themselves as prison guards or anything else that would pay the bills.

Multi-national timber companies began looking for ways to divest themselves from environmentally sensitive areas they couldn’t log — paving the way for yet another change in the ownership of the Hoh River.

Next week, “I’m from a non-profit corporation. I’m here to help.”


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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