Christmas fuels the 'bough industry' in Washington

 

When my parents were first married, my father wanted to name their newly created logging company "Moonscape Logging." Thankfully, my mother nixed that idea, although it was an apt description of the clear-cutting that happened on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in the '70s and '80s. Once logs were taken out of the forest, whatever remained got burned. Burning an old-growth clear-cut got rid of slash — the tangle of worthless leftover branches that makes replanting difficult.

Nowadays, loggers still burn small piles of slash but leave most of the branches on the ground, where they help replenish the soil and provide homes for animals. But these days, an ever-increasing demand for holiday decorations is changing that, too, and my father is tickled to find that he can effortlessly make money by selling branches he used to sweat to get rid of.

This year, my family's Christmas bonus arrived in October, when Guillermo, a Mexican immigrant, contacted my dad and arranged to harvest cedar boughs off the property. The next day, Guillermo's crew went to work. The crew was made up of six to eight people, all immigrants, who smiled toothy smiles and waved as we drove past.

Occasionally we'd hear them speaking to one another in Spanish as they worked in the woods surrounding the house. One of them would climb a cedar tree, sometimes going as high as 100 feet without a safety rope, all the while carrying a machete to hack off the tree's branches. At the base of the tree, other workers sorted through the fallen branches, removing the fragrant tips and tying them into bundles. They stacked the neat bundles of greenery, ready to be made into holiday swags, in the wide spot where my father used to pile logs. Every few days a giant truck would come and haul off a load of cedar boughs.

Soon, all up and down my parents' driveway, you could see partially shaven cedar trees, their trunks prickly with stubby branches, their tops green and weepy. The harvesters leave the top third of the branches, enough so that the tree suffers only temporary ill effects from its haircut.

There's good money for everyone involved in the "bough industry," which, at the harvesting phase of it, is underground and everywhere in the forests. My dad earned 5 cents for every pound of cedar greenery taken off the property. Amazingly, that's as much as he gets for every pound of raw cedar log he sells to a nearby mill.

Guillermo, who was the crew's foreman and agent, also earned 5 cents a pound, for a total of about $5,000. The workers earned 13 cents for every pound they picked, which, according to Guillermo, works out to about $250 or $300 a day. That may be good money, but it's a long, cold day of work and dangerous for the tree-climbers. We received 36 inches of rain in November, the woods were soaking wet and temperatures dropped below freezing. Guillermo told my dad he sometimes keeps his crew warm by doling out shots of tequila.

About a month into their work on my dad's property, the crew left to harvest boughs from a 40-acre forest before it was clear-cut. They were in a hurry to get that job done before the trees were felled, and before the Christmas market dried up. They returned on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to finish up cedar trees in my parents' front yard. It was the first time they'd worked in sight of the house. One of the men climbed into the tree while the other five people, including one woman and — unusually — a child, worked around its base. My mom's mini-dachshunds, upset about seeing strangers working so close to the house, went through periodic, maniacal barking fits.

I'd come over to help my mom clean before a holiday party, but we ended up spending most of our time sitting on the couch, reading through the magazines we were preparing to recycle, and drinking tea. After about four hours of working alongside the adults, the child, who looked about 8 years old, began making as much noise as the dogs. His crying was eerie and wailing. His mother and the other workers ignored him. The noise caught our attention while we wondered what to do. The dogs grew silent, and for a while my mother and I watched the kid, sprawled out in the middle of the driveway, bawling his misery and boredom to the trees.

Lissa James is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a former intern for the paper who now lives in Lilliwaup, Washington.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]