Drop in demand for wood hurting logging industry


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NASHWAUK, Minn. -- Scott Pittack grew up in a logging family and has made his living in the woods.

But as he climbed down from a timber harvester at the end of a winding road in the hills, the forest behind him aflame with October color, he admitted he has his doubts about the business.

Nowadays, the industry that's hiring on the west end of Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, where Mr. Pittack has been cutting down trees for more than two decades, is taconite, not logging.

In the past 18 months, Mr. Pittack's six-man operation has lost two truck drivers to mineral companies.

"I don't blame them guys for going to the mines," Mr. Pittack said. "There's some days it looks pretty appealing to me."

Lumberjacks are the foot soldiers of the forest industries, and in recent years they've been pounded on two sides. Not only have more than a hundred U.S. paper mills shut down in little more than a decade, as demand for paper declines in the Western world, but also the collapse of the American housing market eliminated demand for building products made from trees.

In the past 10 years, 22,500 jobs in logging have disappeared in the United States, a 32 percent decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As mills have closed, loggers have found themselves in a dogfight to find customers and turn a profit.

"The mill closures are a tough blow no matter where you're at in the state, because it all has a ripple effect," said Dale Erickson, 57, a second-generation logger based east of Baudette, Minn. "It's tough right now."

Modern logging involves large machines that look like tractors, with climate-controlled cabs. Many loggers use joysticks and computer monitors to cut down, de-branch and in some models immediately chop the logs to length.

Mr. Pittack, 44, swung his $550,000 cut-to-length harvester into action one day this fall. It's a John Deere tractor with tracks and what looks like a giant steel fist on the end of an arm.

The fist seized the base of an aspen tree and gave it a quick shake. A chainsaw whipped out and hacked the tree off at the base. The fist tipped the tree over and traveled the length of the trunk, shaving off branches with fixed steel blades. Then it cut three logs to length and dropped them in a pile on the ground. It all took about 20 seconds.

Mr. Pittack keeps a handheld chainsaw inside the harvester in case a tree's branches are too big for the machine, but he rarely uses it.

His niche is harvesting diverse sections of the forest and sorting the logs for different customers. What had been a stand of 60-foot-tall trees -- much of it aspen -- had become a debris-strewn meadow.

The elm and red pine were spared for the sake of birds; the other trees were cut and stacked by type and quality next to a road Mr. Pittack built, ready to go when there was enough to justify a trip to a mill. Mr. Pittack's drivers hauled timber from the stand to four mills.

"You have to do it because you can't market everything to one mill," he said. "This day and age, that's the name of the game."

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