Air Date: Week of March 14, 1997
In the mountain town of Monroe, Oregon, the Hull-Oakes lumber company still runs one of America's last steam powered saw mills. A recent proposal to make this historic site a working museum includes the request for federally-supplied timber for logging at the mill. Terry FitzPatrick reports on reaction to the proposal.
CURWOOD: There's a piece of western history still at work near the mountain town of Monroe, Oregon. The Hull-Oakes lumber company runs one of America's last steam-powered saw mills. The rustic facility was listed last year on the National Register of Historic Places, and its owners are developing a unique proposal to make their mill a working museum with tours and exhibits. There's just one catch: as part of the plan, the company wants the US Congress to guarantee a steady supply of timber from Federal land. As Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports, the proposal has sparked a buzzsaw of complaints.
FITZPATRICK: The Hull-Oakes mill hasn't changed much since it opened in the 1930s. Many of the company's 85 workers still wrestle logs through the saws by hand.
(Buzzsaw continues. Fade to the sound of flames)
FITZPATRICK: In the boiler room a burly man with a pitchfork stokes a hot burning fire with sawdust and bark. Steam generates enough power to run virtually everything inside the plant. Wherever you look there's antique machinery at work. Company spokesman Wayne Giesy points to the oldest equipment with pride.
GIESY: This is a wooden pulley that was built in 1938. It's been on there ever since. So we have a little saying here at Hull-Oakes: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
FITZPATRICK: A steam-powered mill is a dinosaur in today's highly competitive industry, where automated plants now use computers to squeeze every inch of lumber from the Northwest's dwindling supply of Federal timber. But rather than modernizing its facility, the Hull-Oakes company is seeking to turn its aging equipment into an asset. The company volunteered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and is proposing to become a working museum where tourists can see lumber made the old-fashioned way. In return for this public service, says Mr. Giesy, the company wants a guaranteed supply of trees from Federal land for the next 20 years.
GIESY: We are asking for the privilege to buy, at market value, a source of timber that will continue the longevity of this plant. We have an obligation, then, to continue giving free tours, which we always have. We have the obligation to build an interpretive center, where there'd be educational material for the benefit of all people that would come.
FITZPATRICK: Hull-Oakes is a small facility. It saws as much wood in a year as modern mills go through in a month. The company says a dedicated supply of trees would allow it to survive in an era where multinational corporations can easily outbid independent mills at Federal timber auctions. The plan has tentative support from Oregon's governor. However, environmentalists are enraged. Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council feels the proposal is a clever timber grab. He says a museum doesn't need to operate at full industrial capacity.
HEIKEN: Whaling museums exist in Boston, but they aren't working whaling museums. We don't go out there and slaughter whales in order to entertain and educate people about the history of whaling. And we don't have a slavery museum in Atlanta which continues to enslave black people against their will in order to educate people about the history of slavery in America. We simply don't need to continue to log old growth in order to understand and remember Oregon's heritage of logging.
FITZPATRICK: The company disputes that it's after old growth timber, though this claim leaves environmentalists suspicious. The mill is specially tooled to cut extremely large trees. In fact, its hallmark are beams up to 85 feet long used for masts on sailing ships and the ceilings of ski chalets. The proposal has environmentalists so suspicious they've begun to investigate the company's compliance with air and water regulations. Activist Doug Heiken has alleged some serious violations involving a manmade pond used to sort logs when they arrive by truck.
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Heiken claims water from this holding pond is polluting an important watershed for native cutthroat trout.
HEIKEN: The Hull-Oakes log pond sits in the middle of a stream. There's a dam blocking the passage of fish. And they discharge 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
FITZPATRICK: Hull-Oakes has operated the log pond without government permits for more than 17 years. The company calls it an oversight, but environmentalists are asking officials to impose millions in fines and require the mill to clean up the pond or shut it down. This environmental hardball has left Hull-Oakes spokesman Wayne Giesy a bit shellshocked. He says he never expected his museum proposal would touch such a nerve.
GIESY: I had no idea. (Laughs) That as small as we are, that we'd even catch any attention. (Laughs) We're almost national news now. (Laughs) I don't understand it. We're country kids. We still get dirt under our fingernails working, you know. (Laughs)
FITZPATRICK: It's unclear whether the bid for America's first working saw mill museum stands much chance in Congress. The proposal is still being drafted, but Oregon representative Peter DeFazio questions if the plan is fair to other independent mills who are also struggling to survive. And Oregon senator Ron Wyden wants the American Association of Museums to endorse the project before he'll give it support. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.
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