Rural Americans want a public lands transfer because they can’t get a public-lands job

A combination of immigration laws, tight federal budgets and divisive politics have turned forestry jobs into little more than low-paid servitude, precluding U.S. citizens from doing the work, writes Hal Herring in FERN’s story with High Country News.

“Tree-planting, like thinning timber, picking cherries or peaches, milking cows, tending strawberries in pesticide-laden fields, and so on, [have all been] declared jobs Americans won’t do,” writes Herring, who planted trees in the West on a forest crew during much of the 1990s. “Manual labor, even skilled manual labor, has become the province of desperate men and women imported from foreign lands.”

Herring argues that both the left and the right are to blame. Republicans, he says have tried to strangle the Forest Service’s budget, making it ever-more difficult to pay the fair price that Americans used to earn and still command for forest jobs. Instead the agency goes with the lowest bid, almost always a contractor who hires foreign workers on H-2B guestworker visas.

But Democrats are equally callous to the plight of rural Americans, many of whom live surrounded by public lands but face high rates of unemployment. It’s those Americans, who could seemingly benefit the most from the country’s national forests who often call the loudest for a public-lands transfer to the states and who are most suspicious of the Forest Service.

Herring explains that it wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, multiple groups were inspired by the Hoedads, a forestry co-operative started in Oregon and named after the long-handled tool used to plant trees. At the time, both the state of Oregon and the federal government had passed laws mandating that clear-cut forests be replanted within a certain number of years, creating “an abundance of work that appealed to a new generation of Oregonians with strong backs and a love of the outdoors.” It was a goldern-era of American forestry, with the Hoedads “each making an average of $100 (or $400 to $500 in 2017 dollars) per day.”

“By 1978, 18 [Hoedad] crews were working in eight states. They set their own working times and conditions, and decided whether they’d be paid by the number of trees planted, by the hour, or some combination of the two. There were all-female crews, and mixed male and female crews, tree-planting competitions, rancor, conflicts and epic parties,” writes Herring.

But today, woods work is poorly paid and mostly done by people who can’t risk complaining. A 2015 study by the Oregon-based Northwest Forest Workers’ Center found that one-third of the workers sampled were afraid to report workplace injuries, and seven out of 51 workers who were injured were later fired.

“We can argue about whether a poor man from Honduras or Mexico, lured here to work on our public lands, is being exploited or being given opportunity, or both, but we cannot escape the fact that the model we have embraced has resulted in lower wages and far fewer opportunities for all the people — of whatever origin or ethnicity — who actually live in the West,” writes Herring.