Logging: Introduction by Numbers

The story of the woods in the Northwest really is a story of human beings in some ways. That is an anthropocentric comment, but the agents in the forests that have caused the most drastic changes in the last 150 years are humans. The Native Americans impacted the land and the forests some, but not to the degree of the white settlers. In the 1800s as whites moved into the Pacific Northwest, up to 80 percent of western Washington and Oregon forests had reached the age of 80 years or older;[1] that was double the life expectancy of Americans of that same period.[2] Two-thirds of those forests had passed the age of 200 years,[3] meaning those trees were older than the United States of America.

Half of the Pacific Northwest is forested. The region extends from Washington through Idaho, the part of Montana west of the Rocky Mountains, and south into Oregon and Northern California.[4] Old growth and late successional forests (which means the forest is progressing toward old growth status, which can take 150 to 250 years) could originally, before settlers, be found in 54 to 70 percent of the forests of the different areas of the Northwest; by the early 2000s, only 10 to 18 percent of the Northwest forests consisted of late successional and old growth.[5] One has to go looking for old growth; there is no longer a 50-50 chance of accidentally wandering into such stands. 80 percent of that old growth and late successional forest decrease has been from logging since the 1850s. Currently, it is in the national forests that over 80 percent of old growth now lives.[6] Those numbers reflect rapid change in the landscape in a period of less than a century and a half. The trees with birth dates labeled with “Planted in [Year]” signs, typically are noted with a year in the mid or late 1980s: these forests are as young as me.

I rode down the forest roads to understand more about logging. 1073_a1

I reckoned that by doing so, I would learn more about the history, politics, society, economics, and the like of the Northwest, since all of these variables intersect and are part of the story of the woods. I went to a museum, read books, went on a logging and lumber mill tour, talked to people, asked questions. What I discovered was that I could not limit my research into just Washington State, but should look at the Pacific Northwest as a region.

Mentioning to people my inquiry into logging, responses are often from the position I started out in: it’s a shame there is all this logging, look at how it mars the landscape, impacts the environment. Generally, these conversations are usually with urban dwellers whose experience in these forests are recreational outings. Recreational outings, which are sometimes even on timber company land. When one is not actively part of the supply chain, from beginning to end; when one does not work with wood and is not reminded of our foundational dependence on it for our daily living; when the most visible part of the process is the clearcut mountainsides, and the process is otherwise difficult to access unless one is in the industry (for example, I could only find one lumber mill tour in all of Washington) – it is easy to simplify the situation and make critiques.

Hopefully, and intentionally, this and the following pieces on what I discovered exploring Washington through the topic of logging complicate the context of trees, forests and wood and begin to bring into perspective a fuller story of logging.


See the rest of the Logging in the Pacific Northwest project


[1] National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). Environmental issues in Pacific Northwest forest management. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. (Page 70.)

[2] Life Expectancy Graphs. Retrieved October 10, 2014 from University of Oregon, Mapping History Project. http://mappinghistory.uoregon.edu/english/US/US39-01.html.

[3] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 70.

[4] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 22, 72.

[5] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 7, 72.

[6] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 7, 72.