A LOGGER’S STORY
My name is Donald Walker Jr.
For 30 years, I was an Oregon logger. I have been out of work since August 1989, when the company I worked for closed out its operation near Oakridge, where my wife and I live.
Times have been pretty tough since then, though I think we have been luckier than many woodworkers. We still have our home where we raised our children. Many younger loggers, with small children at home, have lost everything as a result of the spotted owl controversy that has tied Congress in knots.
Faith and Hope
My wife has an office job with the same company I worked for, but she had to accept a transfer to another office, a four-hour drive from home. Now we see each other only on weekends.
It gets pretty lonely here without her, but our faith in God has kept us strong, and we continue to hope for better days when we can be together again like a family should be.
After I lost my job I took courses at a local community college, thinking that I might be able to make a new start in life. I figured my best hope was to learn enough to start some sort of small business that was related to my 30 years of woods experience.
I took welding, some small business classes and a couple of courses in an inter-personal communications class!
Community college helped me a lot personally, but starting over when you are 55 years old isn’t easy. Since 1989 the only work I’ve been able to find is as a part-time caretaker on some private timberland near here.
I’ve also worked seasonally as a yew bark collector for an outfit that has a contract with a big drug company that is searching for a cure for cancer. They think Taxol, which comes from yew bark, might be a miracle cancer cure.
I also work on the family tree farm, and that is the other part of this story.
My dad and my granddad bought this farm in 1932. Our family has been logging it for 60 years. We’ve planted as we’ve gone along, or converted the land to fields where we graze a few cattle.
Our land was burned badly in a fire in 1912, so we don’t have any old growth timber Oregon is famous for. None of our trees are more than 80 years old. One of the hopes I have held on to since I lost my job is that I could supplement our income by continuing to manage our tree farm as my father and grandfather did for so many years. But it doesn’t look like this is going to pan out either.
Last November, I received a letter from an outfit called the Forest Conservation Council telling me that if I cut any more timber on our land it would sue me for violating the Endangered Species Act, which protects spotted owls, and makes it a crime to tamper with their habitat.
I have never seen a spotted owl on our place, and I have never met anyone from the Forest Conservation Council. So far as I know, it’s never been on our farm. But I do have a typewritten, single-spaced four-page letter from their lawyer saying that what we have been doing on our tree farm for sixty years is no longer legal.
I might have felt a little bit better about the letter if they had offered to buy the land, or at least pay the taxes, which we have also been paying for 60 years. But they didn’t and I guess I’m not surprised. From what I’ve read about these people, they don’t believe in private property rights.
About 200 Oregon tree farmers got the same letter I got. There are actually more tree farmers in Oregon, but for some reason we were singled out. It got me to thinking about how what has happened to us could happen to any private property owner. In fact, the newspapers are filled with stories like ours. It’s happening to people all over the United States.
There is even a Supreme Court case now, involving a fellow in South Carolina who paid almost a million dollars for a couple of beach front lots he has been told he can’t build on because somebody thinks the land should be left to nature.
A lot of reporters have visited our place since we got our letter from the Forest Conservation Council. I think they’re impressed with the beauty of our farm, but I’m afraid they don’t grasp the significance of what is happening to us, or to other private property landowners across the country. Do they understand that the right of ownership of private property is fundamental to our democracy? I don’t think so. I think they are too busy collecting what are called six-second sound bites, and that is not something I am very good at.
Some people say we should cut down all our trees now, while we still can, before the Forest Conservation Council letter becomes a court case. But we don’t want to. We’re conservationists. This tree farm is our home, and the trees are a part of our way of life. We work with nature to grow a crop the nation needs. The crop is wood. It puts food on our tables.
Bankruptcies and Lawsuits
In 26 years of married life, we have never been late on a bill we owed. The pressure on us now is hard to describe. My wife won’t even read a newspaper anymore, because it’s filled with stories about loggers losing everything, and preservationists filing more lawsuits.
Where does it all end? Do people count anymore? Do private property rights still have any meaning in America? Who will compensate us for our loss? The public? The Forest Conservation Council? So far, I haven’t heard from anyone except the property tax collector.
The problem isn’t the owl, or even old growth for that matter. The problem is an out-of -control preservationist movement that doesn’t care about people or their rights.
Our tree farm is our last hope. It is worth fighting for, and I intend to fight for it every way I know how.
I originally published this back in 1992 when I called Donald to ask him for permission to print his letter. It has been printed in a number of publications across America. During the phone call he told me one of the people who received the letter has now been taken to court and the trial is pending.
Donald is trying to raise enough money to start a mushroom farm on “his” property. The tree farm is 630 acres with 200 of it reserved as the tree farm. He also has about 25 acres reserved for Christmas trees.
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