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Profile of a Logging Family
By Leif Enger
November 16, 1998
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Part of Our State, Our Forests

A century ago, 30,000 loggers were at work in the Minnesota woods. Today there are fewer than a thousand, using high-tech machines to supply the state's multi-billion dollar wood-products industry. And technology's not the only big change in the woods since 1900 - the economy and politics of logging are different, too.

LOGGING ISN'T THE JOB IT USED TO BE. In the early 40s, Charley Walsh ran a steam-powered sawmill near Park Rapids. World War II had caused a burst of demand for wood and the jack pine forests were busy with loggers. Charley was struggling to keep up.

Dick Walsh: Somehow his arm got caught in one of the belts, and it jerked him up - actually it jerked his arm off. It was, I believe, about 1943. Kinda gruesome.

It was the sort of accident, says his son Dick Walsh, that often befell sawmill operators in those days. More remarkable was his father's reaction to it. He quit sawmilling, and started logging - not exactly a retreat from hard labor.

Dick Walsh: I never knew my dad when he had two arms, but I never saw him as being crippled. He could do about anything. He could swing an axe and he could throw pulpwood with the one arm that he had.
Walsh Family Album

View images from the Walsh
photo album.

Dick followed his father into the logging trade. Now two of Dick's four sons work with him and are taking over the business. In their office in the rolling forestland of Hubbard County hang old photographs of lumber camps where Charley worked, of horsedrawn sleds stacked high with logs. The men in the pictures look tough - and proud of their work. Dick Walsh would fit right in.

Dick Walsh: When we started out we had a small John Deere crawler with a knuckle-boom loader on it. With a trailer, we could pull a cord and a half out of the woods with that... at that time it was a lot simpler. It was just a lot of hard work. You didn't get rich at it, you just made a living and kept the wolf away from the door. This day and age it's a lot more complicated. More government controls. More people lookin' over your shoulder.

Walsh, now serving a two-year-term as president of the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, lists things his father never had to deal with - like activists going in on a site and chaining themselves to trees. Or, more commonly, rules mandating wooded buffer-strips beside roads and streams. While environmental regulations have forced more care and efficiency in the field, Walsh is a little touchy about the image of loggers he says has been perpetuated. He says in movies and on TV news, loggers are always rapacious industrialists, forever killing what others want to hug.

Dick Walsh: I have a niece - of course, born and raised in St. Paul - who thinks logging is terrible. Ha ha ha - but that's not unusual. They know what they have seen on television. Sound bites and such. Pictures of clear-cuts in the mountains, this type of thing. They're not gonna stop using wood - they just don't want it harvested in their back yard.

A few miles north, Robin Walsh, Dick's son - is preparing to thin a stand of jack pine. A Ponsee harvester warms up at forest's edge. The Ponsee resembles a road grader, except with wide, distended tires, and a long robotic arm instead of a blade. Robin's 26. He loves his work.

Robin Walsh: My dad's been in it his whole life, and I grew up around it. I remember he used to take us along, me and my brother, and if he knew he was gonna get stuck he'd bring us along to push him with his little cat. So you know, we been running equipment since we were 6, 7 years old.

Robin Walsh represents both the advances made in logging, and the challenges the industry faces. Yes, the Ponsee is a high-tech marvel; it's safe, clean, quiet, and engineered so carefully, it puts less weight-per-inch on the ground than a man walking. On the other hand, the Walshes make payments on this $400,000 machine because - Robin says - regulations and tightening profit margins make it almost necessary to have the latest and the best.

Robin Walsh: You can use these machines when it's wet, it doesn't cut the ground up. You're not compacting the soil, that's a big deal... if you're on a state or county job, if you're running ruts more than six inches deep, they can come out and shut you down until it dries up. I mean some of the regulations are kind of foolish.

The cab of the Ponsee is roomy, with a swivel seat, shatterproof glass, and dashboard lit by sundry electronics. If Luke Skywalker were a logger, he'd have one of these.

Robin Walsh: Everything's computerized. It keeps track of all the wood I cut. There's actually a paper printout - prints out what you process each day, by species and length and everything....

Robin Walsh steers into the woods - a fairly young stand of jack pine on state land. The Ponsee's hydraulic arm reaches 30 feet in any direction. It slices trees off at the base, trims away branches, and cuts the logs to any length you want. All this, as fast as slicing bologna in your kitchen.

Robin Walsh: What I try to do is leave all the nicer, bigger trees, and I take the small stuff, the crooked stuff. When I'm done in here it should look like a park....

The jack pine are destined for a stud mill in Bemidji; the leftover slash will be chipped and sold for paper pulp. Robin can cut and limb 60 cords of wood in one day - as much as his dad used to cut in three months with a chainsaw.

Even so, Robin believes political and economic pressures may get in the way of his own son someday running the business. In recent years state and federal governments have reduced the timber they're putting up for sale. Loggers now buy many more trees from private landowners and at much higher cost. New equipment makes the job safe and efficient, but is prohibitively expensive. In the 1990s, the Walshes say, logging is still a tough business - as tough, in some ways, as when it was one guy, with one arm, out in the woods by himself.