Young loggers bring promise to the forestry industry

2014-08-08 Ashley Bach

If you're looking for signs that the future of the forestry industry is in good hands, look no further than Billy Zimmerman.

The 25-year-old from Rainier, Ore., just across the Columbia River from Washington, recently started his own logging company, according to a recent story in the Longview Daily News. It's no secret that the forestry industry is aging, and experts say that industry leaders of the future will need to be experts in social media and perhaps even be fluent in Chinese. But more than anything, the industry needs young people like Zimmerman who are willing to commit to the business at a young age.

What helped Zimmerman is like so many people in the industry, forestry is in his blood. He grew up on a tree farm in Rainier on property that his great-grandfather bought in the 1920s.

“I’m a country boy through and through," (Zimmerman said.) I love being outside and in the woods. I love the deer and the elk. I love being able to run equipment, and I love when I get to smell sawdust from the trees.”

Lots of loggers love the woods, of course, but 25-year-old Zimmerman is scarce commodity in the forests these days. In March, the former Rainier High School star athlete launched his own independent logging company, Zimmerman Logging LLC, a rare startup in an industry that has seen a sharp decline in loggers and independent “gyppo” contractors in recent years.

“There’s not a lot of gyppo loggers anymore. I went into this knowing it’s a difficult industry to stay in and keep alive in, but I like the challenge of trying to accomplish a job with the few tools we have,” Zimmerman said last week.

Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers Inc., said the logging workforce is aging and needs young entrepreneurs like Zimmerman.

“Having young people come into the industry is exciting, and there’s a great opportunity for them. People around the world use wood products every day. ... A young person’s timing could not have been any better,” Geisinger said.

Zimmerman said his 3-man company, which includes his father, has plenty of work to go around. They have jobs lined up for months.

“Sometimes this feels like it’s not real. The picture in my head actually came true. I can’t get a big head about it now. I want to become the top contractor logger in the area. That’s my dream, and I have a long way to go to get there.”

Robert Eide is another sign that the future of the industry is bright. The 33-year-old logger from Vernonia, Ore., was profiled this week in the Oregonian as part of the paper's coverage of the annual Vernonia Friendship Jamboree & Logging Show.

Eide's day job is working for his uncle's company, Gwin & Sons Logging.

He sharpens his saws every day. He can't let his mind get dull, either.

Logger Robert Eide has to push himself to stay focused mentally and physically in an environment where nothing is ever the same, he said.

He spoke through a wide grin, clad in a blue-and-white striped shirt, black suspenders, muddied jeans and crusty brown boots.

"Every day is a challenge out in the woods," Eide said. "Every tree is different, every bump in the log is different."

But he also competes in several logging shows each year, using his logging experience to enliven the crowd during the competitions and to sharpen his skills.

"I feel like I'm good at what I do," Eide said, "but my satisfaction is not winning. It's to entertain, whether it's a flawless cut or a silly mistake."

Winning itself is a combination of skills and tools. Shows have loggers such as Eide, who don't specifically practice because their daily jobs give them new experience all the time. But they also have some participants for whom logging is just a hobby, and practice in the backyard might be in the cards during the weeks leading up to a big competition, Eide said.

Often, these hobbyists can afford higher quality saws and equipment, which give them a metal edge in the competition. Eide and other working-class loggers can balance this out with the advantage of living and breathing the sport, he said.

...Safety in competitions is no different than in the woods, Eide said: Keep the saw away from the body. As a new logger, Eide had to think about this more, but now it's second nature, he said. He's not afraid of his saw anymore.

In competitions, he sometimes reminds himself to slow down and be patient, to keep his head level and clear, to focus on his cut instead of how many people are watching. But usually, he just gets up and goes, he said.

He likened it to golf, for him: If it gets too stressful, he's done.

Tiffany Howell may not work as a professional logger, but her involvement in the Vernonia logging show demonstrates that she has the skills to flourish.

One of few women in a male-dominated tradition, Howell, 23, doesn't get "why more chicks don't try it." Sunday was her second logging competition. Her first was the day before, in Astoria, and she won third place. She started the practice about two years ago when her boyfriend, a longtime logger, let her have at some lumber with one of his saws. Instantly, something clicked. She sawed and sawed.

"We ran out of wood," Howell said.

Saturday in Astoria, one man made a rude comment after one of Howell's events.

"Not bad for a girl," she recalled him saying.

It felt good when others immediately booed him. It felt great when she ended up outperforming him, she said.