Death by a thousand cuts

Pacific Northwest corporate history began with timber, and with the demise of Weyerhaeuser it's a fast-fading cultural heritage.
Crosscut archive image.

Loggers in Grays Harbor County, Wash., date unknown. (University of Washington)

Pacific Northwest corporate history began with timber, and with the demise of Weyerhaeuser it's a fast-fading cultural heritage.

"Weyerhaeuser cuts take a painful toll," screamed the banner headline this week in The Seattle Times. That splash was accompanied by a large photo of a now-former employee of what used to be a forest products giant loading boxes of personal items into his car after receiving his pink slip.

While nothing can compare to the pain of getting fired from a job — in my years as an executive search consultant, I called it the "Royal Order of the Boot" — there is yet pain in watching the company's current machinations. Like the fellow in the photograph, one of 1,500 in this current go around, I'm also a member of the Weyerhaeuser chapter of the Royal Order.

In 1981, I was called into my boss's office at the company's massive Longview, Wash., manufacturing complex for a little talking-to. It was about my attitude and all the trouble I seemed to keep causing with the unions representing company employees.

"Kid, you're nice, but not here," my boss said. "Frankly, you scare the hell out of us." Harshly put, perhaps, but the labor relations office where I worked wasn't known for compassion. Nor, in my then relative youth, did I particularly care, which was my bad, not the company's. It was then I realized that I wasn't cut out to be a corporate guy.

Since then, it's been onward and upward — well, sideways at least. But that's another story.

This story, and it's a sad one, is about watching one more giant figure of the Pacific Northwest shrink into a shadow of its former self.

Decades before there was a Microsoft or a Starbucks, Boeing and Weyerhaeuser represented the business of Seattle and Washington. When Boeing beat feet to Chicago a few years ago, the big "W" was left as perhaps the only game in metro Puget Sound with deep and multi-generational roots — not just fathers and sons, but grand and great grandfathers who had handed jobs down from one to the other.

Founded in 1900 by German immigrant Friedrich Weyerhaeuser, the company grew from holdings of nearly a million acres of Washington Douglas fir timberlands to become an international player in solid wood production, the pulp and paper industry, real estate, rail and freighter transportation (two company vessels were torpedoed and sunk during World War II), and a myriad of industries.

Nothing beats the romance of the woods, and Weyerhaeuser was a huge part of that. Grainy photos of loggers with two-man crosscut saws standing next to old growth timber can be seen in every museum in town. The colorful and descriptive nomenclature of logging resonates with unique symbolism: Bull of the woods, choker setter, whistlepunk, and a term first coined in Seattle, but soon to be part of the national vocabulary, Skid Row or Skid Road.

Somehow, "techie" or "barista" lack the same cultural or emotional impact. And I suspect that neither wear black woolen long johns that go days or even weeks without a wash.

Trees growing on the land and the products made from them are, as much as anything can be, what the Bible calls in Psalm 24 "the fullness of the earth." For more than 100 years out of that fullness, Weyerhaeuser and kindred forest products companies literally built scores of communities, paid for schools from the proceeds of logging on state-owned land, and created thousands of good paying jobs. They left an indelible cultural stamp on the Pacific Northwest, affecting even those who don't know the difference between a couch (pronounced "cooch") from a dandy on a papermachine, or what it means to work the hoot-owl shift.

Only in a company like Weyerhaeuser could you see executives in $1,000 suits all sitting around a conference table spitting snoose into Styrofoam cups. Old habits born in the woods don't die hard — they don't die at all.

Over the years, Weyerhaeuser was in the fish-farming and grass-seed businesses, manufactured private label baby diapers and adult incontinent products, and became a major national player in real estate, home construction, and residential mortgages. Of these, only its interests in Puget Sound-area residential developer Quadrant remain.

During the late 1980s, throughout the 1990s, and into the new millennium, Weyerhaeuser, like its competitors Georgia-Pacific (once Portland-based, now headquartered in Atlanta) and International Paper, had to make a choice: aggressively grow or be taken over by an aggressively growing company. By choosing the former, Weyerhaeuser embarked upon an acquisition and construction program that was impressive by any standard.

The company acquired familiar names such as Vancouver, B.C.-based MacMillan Bloedel and Portland-based Willamette Industries, two Northwest iconic companies in their own right. It also built new facilities such as a then state-of-the art paper mill in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that, for a time, operated as a quasi-independent entity called Cedar River Paper.

The Cedar River operation was looked at as a model for the future. Manufacturing packaging products out of recycled paper, it featured a mill design and concept — referred to in the industry as a "mini-mill" — tailor made to a raw material not of trees but trash. The mill's paper machine was precision crafted to turn out exactly the amount of product needed, not an ounce more nor an ounce less. Minimal waste, the least amount of energy necessary to get the job done, and a product that was the product of recycling — the only thing lacking were Birkenstock safety shoes.

How green was that valley?

Small, non-union, and team concept-based, it cherry-picked the industry for the best and brightest technical and operations people, salaried and hourly, it could find.

Now, once-crown jewel Cedar River is just another paper mill, owned not by Weyerhaeuser but by industry behemoth International Paper.

And the properties acquired from MacBlo, Willamette, and others? In large measure, gone, sold off, or shut down, never to be seen again.

Starting a few years ago, Weyerhaeuser began spinning off assets. Always committed to focusing only on businesses in which it could be a major player, it now shifted to getting out of many of those businesses altogether. Its printing and writing-grade paper operations became, in a complex trade, part of Canadian-based Domtar Industries.

And just last week, in perhaps the biggest blow of all, Weyerhaeuser closed on the sale of its packaging business to IP. Some 114 facilities, including paper mills, carton plants, and recycling centers, were sold for $6 billion. Besides Cedar River, included among them was another mill Weyerhaeuser built from scratch decades ago, a large complex in Valliant, Okla. Was that part of the Sonics deal?

It's a little like selling off members of your own family. And that ticket to out here just got voided.

With the I-P sale, of the company's approximately 38,000 world-wide employees, some 14,000 or 37 percent of them are now gone in one fell swoop. This cut was used in large measure to justify the cuts at Weyerhaeuser's Federal Way, Wash., headquarters — the hanging garden of Babylon you see driving southbound on Interstate 5 — and other company locations.

What's left of the company represents more of what old Friedrich Weyerhaeuser founded over a century ago: land and trees.

Wall Street effectively made the decision that it will no longer measure the value of Weyerhaeuser by what it makes but, rather, by what it owns. After all, God's not making any more land, and those trees do take a while to grow.

Still, the fact decisions now are made by MBAs who've never set foot off a carpet and on to the forest duff — not by forestry or paper science and engineering grads or old bulls from the woods or mills, most of whom are missing one or more fingers popped off in papermachine nips or sawmill accidents — is sad.

Of course, it's a business we're talking about, and businesses do need to make money to survive. But Weyerhaeuser is also a part of the culture.

As a Weyerhaeuser alum, that culture means a lot to me. I mark the changes both for what is lost in terms of necessary connections to our roots but also what they mean for today and tomorrow. It's no secret that additional change is in the offing at Weyerhaeuser, so the only question is, what's next to go? I sure hope it's not the name — it took me a long time to learn to spell it correctly.

I still have my Weyerhaeuser hardhat and the battered old briefcase all salaried employees used to receive when they were hired. In the garage, up with the transmission fluid and motor oil, there's an old Folgers' can filled with Mount St. Helens ash dumped on my first-ever brand new car down in Longview during the second eruption of the volcano in 1980. And rolled up somewhere are schematic drawings of Weyerhaeuser's Longview complex, purportedly once the largest manufacturing facility in the U.S. in terms of surface area.

So it's not like I don't have some souvenirs and mementos. But there are those who have nothing, or don't even realize the significance of what seems like the passing of the Weyerhaeuser Co. from the giant it was to the vestige it is now. Too bad — it's their loss too.

Maybe it's not a literal death, but wholesale change like this from what once was to what is now, in John Donne's words, "diminishes me."

Another bit of why this place was special is gone. Bummer!


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors