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
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...