Fort Bragg resident David Hope, Sr., is 96 years old and has spent nearly the whole of his professional life in the timber business, almost all of it in Mendocino County after he moved to Willits with his wife and three kids in 1953. Today he lives in a house just north of downtown Fort Bragg down a short dirt road off Pudding Creek. The leafy green of its rustic exterior opens into a kind of mini-Versailles, complete with a coffered ceiling and chandeliers. He uses a walker and walks and talks slowly though his memory is sharp. We sat around his dining room table adjacent to a professional-looking open kitchen with windows looking out on his garden.
His son, David Hope, Jr., joined us. He is himself a registered professional forester and certified erosion and sediment control specialist who has worked for the State, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and many other organizations. As families do, he and his father backstopped each other and occasionally quibbled affectionately over the finer points of their shared past.
Hope, Sr., was born in Santa Cruz in 1922 and said, looking back, that Santa Cruz and Mendocino County were similar in some ways. About Santa Cruz, he said, “They cleared a lot of land in the flats and turned it into chicken farms after the old-growth timber was gone.” A lot like the flats in Mendo, he thinks, minus the chicken farms. Hope joined the Coast Guard during the Second World War and was in the Bay Area during the 1944 Port Chicago Naval Magazine Port disaster in eastern Contra Costa County, when 320 sailors and civilians were killed and 390 injured in an explosion while loading munitions onto a cargo vessel bound for the Pacific Theater. Most of the dead and injured were black and the explosion and subsequent inquiry were pivotal in the desegregation of the U.S. Navy near the end of the war. Hope said he was lucky he wasn’t there when it happened. “I was in San Francisco sound asleep,” he said.
After the war Hope went to San Jose State on the GI Bill before transferring to U.C. Berkeley to finish up his degree in forestry in 1950. After that he moved to Oroville in Butte County to work for the National Wood Treating Company for two years. “My job was to go out and scout out areas where trees could be turned into poles,” he said. “There was a new process called Chemonite; we treated utility poles.” Chemonite, described in a brochure produced by Chemonite ACZA (ACZA stands for ammoniacal copper zinc arsenate) claims that the chemical process has been “safely and successfully used since the 1940s in commercial and industrial operations” to pressure treat wood to prevent both above-ground and underwater deterioration. The process involves cutting slits into the lumber before putting it into metal cylinders, depressurizing it, then filling it with the chemical solution before repressurizing it. Chemonite is used in some formula today but its earlier manufacturing site in Oroville was declared a Superfund Site on the National Priorities List in 1984. The property has changed hands several times since Hope worked there but is still monitored today for soil and groundwater contamination from the chemicals used to treat the wood. According to news reports, some residents nearest the 200-acre site still drink bottled water.
After leaving Oroville Hope moved to Willits in 1953, where he stayed for the rest of his working life. His son, David Hope Jr., said that his mom put her foot down. “My mom didn’t like to travel so she made him put his roots down in Willits,” he said. The first year in Willits, Hope taught forestry at Willits High School as a temporary, uncredentialed teacher. “There was a shortage of teachers so anybody with a college degree could get a professional position,” he said. This lasted a year until he ran afoul of some forest industry honchos. “I needed something to occupy the kids and they needed some kind of display for a fair,” he said. He explained that since he had concerns about the local water quality he had his students collect water samples in jars from a local stream. The water was silty and turbid and sediment settled ominously in the bottom of the jars. “The forestry companies did not want to display that, after logging, the streams were all muddy,” he said. “They took me aside and said ‘Get rid of the display.’” Hope’s son said that his dad was blackballed after that. “The fair organizers told him to move the display and get the hell out. Nobody wanted to hire somebody from Berkeley who wanted to tell them how to do their business.”
Hope then worked at a lot of little things. “I bounced around Willits and did mostly bookkeeping,” he said. “It was boring.” Next, in 1965, Hope got on with the county as a timber appraiser, explaining that taxes were based on how much timber you had on your land. “I didn’t work long enough to get much of a pension and retired from the county in 1972,” he said. Hope’s son said his dad was his usual outspoken self during his years with the county. “He advised them of regulations and butted heads with the farmers,” he said. Finally…at long last, Hope became his own boss as an independent consultant, helping individuals with their timber harvesting. “I’m proud that when I started consulting I was able to convince some people to not take everything,” he said.
All of these experiences shaped Hope’s philosophy of timber management and the forests. “They cut a lot of trees down, they were geared up to just come in and haul off all the timber they could get,” he said. “I don’t know that they still realize what is best for the forest.” He said that the gentle art of persuasion came hard to him. “I always had trouble meeting people and convincing them what I believed in,” he said. “I couldn’t always see the results but I kept at it.” He said that it might take two or three visits to get his points across. “It’s like learning a new language. You just kinda ease into it, go slow. Then you talk about somethin’ else…then you come back…then you finally agree,” he said.
Logging has always been hard, dangerous work. In 2016 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, per capita, a worker in America was more likely to die on the job logging than in any other industry. At 135.9 deaths per 100,000 workers, loggers were almost two-and-a-half times more at risk than the second most dangerous job: fishing, at 86 fatalities per 100,000. And though the pay has come up some in recent years, it’s still no way to get rich. Salary.com pegs the average logger’s salary at $37,410 per year though there is considerable difference in pay between logging jobs: as much as $20.49 per hour ($42,610/year) for fallers to $16.67 an hour ($34,670/year) for logging equipment operators to $16.28 per hour ($33,870/year) for all other logging workers - with no union benefits, then or now.
“No unions, minimum wage is all they got,” Hope recalled from his years in the business. “There was always a lot of alcohol and violence and very low pay, with no safety regulations whatsoever. They just ignored OSHA.”
His son, David Hope Jr., worked as a logger in the county for four years in the mid-1970s. He’s now a Registered Professional Forester and a Certified Professional Erosion and Sediment Control Specialist. Until recently he was Senior Supervising Environmental Scientist for the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa. “It was very dangerous and loggers ran the show,” he said. “Some who came from the Ozarks hated the forest, hated every minute they were there, their lives were miserable and going nowhere. It’s a horrible way to make a living.”
So why haven’t unions gotten a toehold in the logging industry? While the creeks of West Virginia and Kentucky were running red with the blood of striking coal miners and auto workers were walking off the line to get clubbed over the head by thugs hired by the big automakers during the great organizing movements of the 1930s, it was business as usual for loggers, who still worked under the paternal control of the logging companies and a handful of families who logged from generation to generation. And today unions themselves have fallen into disfavor. Though a recent Pew Research Center study found that just over half of Americans say they support the idea of unions, union membership fell to just 14.7% of the American workforce in 2018, down nearly a percentage point from just the year before. The reasons for this decline are hotly debated, but this ambivalence is undoubtedly a factor; no corporation will offer you union representation, you have to go out and fight for it.
Both David Hope and his son believe that the regulation of the state’s forests has to be rethought from the ground up, that the existing layer-upon-layer of confusing laws on the books today are impossible to understand and therefore frequently ignored. Asked what he would change if he could wave a magic wand, Hope said, “I’d get rid of all the laws and start again, try to get some decent legislation. There are so many different things that affect the forest.”
His son, David Hope Jr., agreed. “They’re run by the industry, which is why they’re so difficult to understand,” he said. “You need to start over with what we know to be successful: less regulation, but easy to understand and enforce. Streamline the permitting process.” As a final recommendation he emphasized the critical importance of selective logging to the health of the forest. “Selective logging makes the forest healthier and increases diversity. It’s a very complex system. With clear cutting they’re not forests anymore. They’re farms…like corn.”