by Buck Meloy, 2015
Back in the 1970s, many loggers lived in the woods on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. I was there, too, gillnetting summers out of Neah Bay. When I had enough time between fishing openings to get both sleep and a change of scenery before the next opener, I joined another fisherman in his old Ford to visit friends in those woods, not far from Forks.
The young couple, Chuck and Lisa, lived near the end of a dirt road in a modest trailer surrounded by second growth forest, close to the older forests that were the object of most of the logging in the region. Chuck’s best friend Harley, and his wife Helen, were also there, slugging down beers to celebrate the end of a good week. The trees had dropped cleanly, no hang-ups or injuries or mishaps. And they had managed to keep the pace expected by the outfit they felled trees for. We had brought more beer, so we were their friends, too.
The guys took pride in their work. It required skill, a large ration of stamina, and deep knowledge of trees, wood, saws, machinery, and the laws of physics. They knew their stuff, and they were at the top of their game.
Like fishermen, the fortunes of loggers ran hot and cold, usually due to the outside forces of timber price, weather, health, and luck. The forces had been good to them this summer, and they were happy – with their income, their relationships, and their lives. There was an undercurrent I could feel, though, that slowly came out through the beer and the mutual understanding of the similarity of each others’ lifestyles.
Chuck recalled a not-long-ago day in the woods: “Lisa and Helen had just driven out to bring us lunch and a fresh chain. Right there behind the stump we decided to sit on was the biggest fir I had ever seen. It was hidden before because we were still clearing the timber and brush in front of it. Harley and I grabbed our saws and ‘vroom!, vroom!, vroom!’, we was going to bring that mutha down!” Beer sloshed from Lisa's glass as she and Helen piped right up: “No way! That tree was on the other side of the cut line. It was supposed to live forever and we were never going to let you guys touch it!” It was not the first time the story had been told, and it fired up a lot of banter and laughter in the trailer. Everyone was just kind of kidding, and a truce brought us back to more beer and stories.
__ A month ago, forty-two years later, I stumbled on a poem titled Yesterday that jerked my memory back to that evening in the woods. An Olympic Peninsula man I don’t know, Gary Lemons, wrote it. Here’s an excerpt:
The last log truck rolled down from the blue hills
Empty as the driver’s pocket, chokers rattling,
Bed shifting, booms folded down and chained.
. . . .
[later in a tavern, the driver said--]
“they’re all gone, every damn one of them.
Even though I hauled my share of them
I never saw it coming. Not an old tree left on private
Land and damn few on public. Must be how
Indians felt when the last buffalo was skinned.
Nothing left but to crawl off and die.”
Could what happened to our logging friends repeat itself in our fisheries? Could we find ourselves with nets and hooks coming up empty time after time? Yes, it could -- In the face of changing climates and periodic bad fisheries management, especially on the Columbia River, it surely could.
But we are committed to preserving the health of our resources not only for ourselves and our children and families, but also for all those who buy and eat wild fish. Thankfully, the bad management practices of the past are now almost entirely things of the past. No more fish traps, no more huge fleets chasing small resources, and no more unlimited opportunity to fish on limited populations.
Yet other dark worries exist: the impacts of ocean acidification and global warming become increasingly important. Pollution has weakened or eliminated aquatic species which once provided employment and food for many. Salmon netpen aquaculture in the migratory paths of wild salmon has been shown to be killing millions of juvenile salmon in British Columbia alone every year.
And, you have no doubt heard the oinking of those who would like to eliminate commercial fishing as though it were the villain. They would have you believe that we rapacious fishermen are chasing the last tree, and that if sport fishermen were allowed to catch all the salmon instead, there would be nothing to worry about -- as though substituting one kind of fisherman for another is a conservation measure. .
It also fails to consider the elimination thousands of jobs in fishing, and processing, and transportation, and marketing -- and the public’s loss of access to high quality fish.
Perhaps more importantly, removing commercial fishermen from the formula removes those who are the most motivated to protect the resources, who have the voice and knowledge to do so, and who provide access to millions of pounds a year of healthful fish for the public at large. No commercial fish harvest -- no fish in the markets.
In short, we are at the mercy of two powerful forces: Nature and Politics. There is little that we can do about Mother Nature, whose vagaries and unpredictability regularly confound us. But we can and must always work to assure that our politicians will seek to do the right things. Please choose carefully whom you vote for and support, and hold their feet to the fire if they won’t or can’t do the right things.