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Voices from the woods.

For woodsworkers, the wages are low, the ethnic issues complicated, and their definition of community forestry tough to reconcile.

On a drizzly day in early fall, Bill Knight sets up his back-of-the-van buying station along a wide stretch of Washington state's Highway 706. He listens for the sound of a decelerating engine, signaling his first customer of the afternoon.

"The Caucasians come in first, and later on the Asian customers come in until after dark," he says, readying scales to weigh the rectangular plastic baskets he'll set in sight of the road, a signal that he's open for business.

Knight's customers are selling bright orange chanterelle mushrooms they've gathered in the surrounding, conifer-blanketed mountains. The ones he buys eventually will reach a European clientele. Later in the season, high-priced matsutake mushrooms will be sold in Japanese holiday markets.

These nontimber fores-products harvesters, and their counterparts who do contracted forest work such as tree planting and streamside restoration, are part of a large, but heretofore silent segment of the forest-products business. Although exact counts are difficult because of workers' suspicions and unscrupulous bosses' efforts to skew counts to avoid taxes and liability, woodsworkers number in the tens of thousands in the western states alone. Their numbers - as well as concerns about their working conditions - are growing. And this, in turn, is raising questions about how best to protect the affected ecosystems.

Buyers like Knight and the harvesters that sell to them follow seasonal crops across California, Oregon, and Washington. "Local" harvesters work within an hour or two of home; others are willing to travel much farther. Some mushroom pickers, for example, spend weeks camping in central Oregon at the largest and longest matsutake "pick," south of Bend.

Most of the Southeast Asian harvesters in Knight's buying region come from Tacoma and Seattle, which are within one to four hours of Washington's best sites for nontimber forest products. As the fall mushroom season peaks and the holiday season approaches, the floral greens business accelerates. Collectors bring in pickup loads of evergreen boughs, salal, huckleberry greens, and other products gathered through "brush picking" in public and private woods. European-Americans, Native Americans, and a growing Latino community join Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong, Mien, and Vietnamese harvesters, laboring in what has become a billion-dollar business.

Misperceptions

Forestry has traditionally been perceived as a "white" profession, and Victor Benavides from the Centro Cultural, a Latino community support organization in Oregon, and Juan Mendoza, a coordinator in the Oregon Reforestation Cooperative, laugh at a portrait of a blonde tree planter displayed at 1996's Seventh American Forest Congress. They know from personal experience that most of the reforestation workforce has black hair and brown skin and that the calls back and forth across Pacific Northwest mountainsides mostly will be in Spanish. Mendoza notes that Latinos make up at least 85 percent of contracted "service" workers. These nontimber forest workers do the hard physical labor - tree planting, pruning, thinning, slash-piling, streamside restoration, and a hundred other jobs that constitute little-recognized but routine tasks of forest management.

Why choose this type of work? Many nontimber forest workers of every ethnic group prefer to work in the forest, even if other employment is available. Some go out of desperation, seeking niches where visible marks of poverty or a lack of English skills will not count against someone willing to work long, arduous days. In my neighborhood, the European-American cedar bough harvesters count on the holiday trade to boost their low annual income.

Ranachith "Ronnie" Yimsut, a Deschutes National Forest employee and himself a refugee from the violence of the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia during the 1970s, notes, "Many Southeast Asians who came as refugees can't find decent jobs in the city that pay enough wages to sustain a family. Here in the woods they don't have to have fluent English or highly developed skills."

For decades, labor-based contract work and commercial nontimber forest-products harvesting were considered marginal operations, usually involving what professionals considered "marginal" people - poor, immigrants, or non-European-Americans. Searching for the cheapest way to get the job done, public and private-land managers structured contracts as single-task, temporary, contingent labor, generally awarded to the lowest bidder.

Working in remote sites, traveling frequently, and with minimal oversight by federal or private industrial landowners, contract crews too often work under conditions that range from marginal to abysmal, comparable with the worst historical abuses of farm labor. Over time, an experienced, productive worker may find a semi-permanent place on a high-end crew, develop a reputation for good work, and receive better treatment. For most, though, going into this work is risky. It pays off well for some but leaves others paying kickbacks to the contractor or abandoned in the woods with no ride and no pay.

Unlike contract workers, who can form employer-employee relationships, harvesters are considered self-employed. Many enthusiastically embrace this independence. "We want to live in the forest and not have to move to the city to get work," says Christina Johnson, a cooperative member of Trinity Alps Botanicals, a California business specializing in wild medicinal herbs.

For others, independence comes at a price. Despite working in company-dictated conditions like traditional employees, harvesters are labeled self-employed and not afforded job-related benefits.

Ecosystems can suffer, though, when the harvesters' need for money combines with companies and distant markets that profit from a high flow of nontimber forest products. Yet, the connection between harvesting's impact and the final wholesale or consumer market is rarely acknowledged. It is a system driven by market demand. Companies will strive to meet demand as long as it exists. Pickers will continue to pick as long as companies direct their buyers to buy.

With western Washington's humid forests and mild temperatures, floral greens regenerate rapidly, and harvesters from all ethnic groups could be part of an ecologically sustainable trade there. Instead, the market-driven system has resulted in overcrowded woods and competition so intense it leads to product theft on gated lands; greedy, dishonest go-betweens that direct unknowing harvesters to pick on private land; and explosive ethnic tensions and turf wars. Further complicating the situation are multiple language barriers and bilingual intermediaries who may or may not honestly represent workers' interests.

Local Work for Local Workers

Among the goals of the community-based forestry movement has been local employment for local workers. That became more crucial as the flow of timber off public lands declined in the Pacific Northwest and forest communities began looking for other avenues of employment. But the programs targeted at displaced European-American timber workers taught skills the Latino workforce - local and migrant - already possessed or had long sought to acquire.

Mendoza, who worked hard to initiate the unique Latino-majority Willamette Valley Restoration Demonstration Project in the federally supported Jobs-In-The-Woods program, says, "Latinos have been given all the 'no-brainer' jobs. Public and private forest managers will need a multi-skill workforce to carry out restoration work, but they are dragging their feet in training Latinos, even though we are the majority of the people doing the bulk of the contract work since the early 1960s."

Several initiatives are underway to address these problems. One pairs Trinity Alps Botanicals with a network of European-American commercial "wildcrafters," Native American traditional gatherers, the Forest Service, private landowners, and nonprofit community development organizations. Despite widely conflicting perspectives, they are attempting to create a model protocol for nontimber forest-product harvesting.

Since 1994, the Jefferson Center, a nonprofit in southwest Oregon, has convened forums at which contract workers and harvesters speak as equals. Meetings are held in three languages simultaneously, breaking a prior communication barrier.

In what has grown into a three-state West Coast contract worker and harvester network, participants have identified central issues that include: fair access to training and work, ecosystem sustainability, participation in monitoring and training design, and a stop to the practice of pitting one ethnic group competitively against another, resulting in lower wages and revenues for all workers. Representatives from the network participate in regional, mixed-stakeholder collaborative groups, such as the Lead Partnership Group in northern California.

As ecosystem management is implemented, the focus on nontimber forest work will increase, escalating the competition for forest-floor employment. The question for community-based forestry - founded on the concept of geographical ecosystems and fair access for small business - is this: How to include the historically entwined concerns of local and non-local workers, whose wage rates and working conditions are determined by competing forces within a multiple-state forest economy rather than by local initiatives.

Forest workers may best protect their interests by choosing to work together as advocates for local and nonlocal worker interests in an effort that is occupationally based but sensitive to local ecosystems and the economic concerns of community-based forestry.

Well after dark, a tired and hungry Bill Knight closes his mushroom-packed van and prepares to drive two hours to the collection station, where the chanterelles will be minimally processed, then airlifted overseas. Knight says the long days and often-low pay are a necessary part of a business he loves. "The independence and being in the woods are the important parts to me."

Whatever form of community-based forestry is devised, local communities and economics are an inextricable part of the global system. Communities are but one link in a chain that is formed by local ecosystems, a multicultural workforce, and overseas markets. The challenge is to involve communities with local forests while recognizing that, in our multicultural society with its complicated history of ethnic and labor relations, we must seek a form of forest management that ensures all have fair and just access to participation.

Beverly Brown is coordinator of the Jefferson Center in southwest Oregon, which works with nontimber forest workers. Her book, In Timber Country, was published in 1995 by Temple University Press.
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Title Annotation:woodsworkers
Author:Brown, Beverly
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:1622
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