Tree Planters
The mighty Hoedads, back for a 30-year reunion, recall their grand experiment.
By Lois Wadsworth

In the late 1960s, future five-term Lane County Commissioner Jerry Rust returned from India as a Peace Corps volunteer. He and John Sundquist, whose River's Turn Farm has practiced organic farming since 1983, found work together planting trees for Weyerhaeuser in the forests near Eugene. They made about $25 a day. Rust said he realized that despite the difficulty of the job and the low pay, it was more exciting than any work he'd done before because "you had more control over your destiny."

With other like-minded individuals who worked in the woods, they realized that real economic control lay in bidding and contracting with government and private industries for tree-planting jobs themselves. These early efforts resulted in a labor crew of workers later known as Cougar Mountain. The concept of the crew as an independent unit would later define the de-centralized power of the Hoedads, the organization they started in 1971.

At that time, tree planters were held in contempt by the rest of the forest industry  "the lowest of the low," as former Hoedads president Rust said. Irresponsible contractors hired Skid Row bums to stuff, burn and bury seedlings. "Hoedads swept all that away in one year," Rust said. "We improved the quality of survival of the trees we planted," he said, up from maybe 10 percent to 90 percent. And the Hoedads' "work ethic and honesty" came together with the availability of better tree stock and the Forest Service's higher standards to improve conditions.

Tree planter checking seedlings.
Setting up a forest worker's cooperative broke new ground, demanding skilled decisions that had to be learned on the job, just as the techniques for efficient tree planting evolved from practices learned on the muddy, steep slopes of regional forests. Sundquist called it "trial by error" but noted that the process "demonstrated that people could work cooperatively." Meanwhile, Hoedads attracted what Rust called "some of the most intelligent, idealistic and articulate people you'd ever meet."

One was the late Edd Wemple, who celebrated the Hoedads' "opportunity to make our own mistakes," as Rick Herson of Oregon Woods, an international reforestation and forestry business, recalled. Wemple was the quintessential Hoedad, serving in the organization for many years before going on to support Rust's electoral campaigns; to work tirelessly against the proliferation of nuclear power plants in the region; to organize and help found the Emerald People's Utility District; and to advocate for public power statewide.

In the introduction to reunion organizer and bookseller Hal Hartzell's book on the Hoedads, Birth of a Cooperative (Hulogos'i Communications, 1987), Stevens Van Strum wrote that Hoedads was "a case where worker ownership and democratic management did succeed in the free enterprise system, and in a very competitive labor market rife with transgressions against the worker."

But as labor and anti-racism activist and teacher Roscoe Caron noted, Hoedads hit its economic stride in the years after Hartzell's book ended. "In 1978-'79 Hoedads had about 13 crews, so many that some broke off and became independent of Hoedads," Caron said. "We created our own competitors and nurtured them." Hoedads was able to expand because of what was happening in the woods, Caron said. "The loggers were going full-tilt; it was the gung-ho timber industry's heyday. We were planting what they hadn't planted in the 1950s and '60s, the backlog. Hoedads were in the right place at the right time."

The cooperative survived its youth, transforming itself into a lean network of decentralized crews working with a central Hoedads Council made up of representatives from each group. It thrived until contract work in the forests disappeared in the mid-1980s, an era of economic depression with massive unemployment. "Lane County lost 10,000 people in the early '80s," Caron said.

Many people still in Eugene and others who have moved away or died shared experiences then that shaped their lives. They also left a living legacy for those who've come after  Hoedads' history of participatory democracy, the creation of a diverse workplace in the forest, the environmental movements Hoedads helped, the opportunity to learn useful business skills the cooperative provided, and its practice of giving back to the larger community.

Participatory Democracy
Many young people who came together during the Hoedads' early days held values forged in the idealism of the 1960s, values that helped them become good at what Rust called "participatory self-management." As a hardy vessel, the cooperative contained fiercely independent individuals who learned to live and work together in the field and to manage the collective's expanding business. Some of the stormiest meetings in the history of the organization took place in Grower's Market, site of the Hoedads office, and later at the WOW Hall.

"We started off with bad meetings," Gerry Mackie said. Formerly a member of the Cheap Thrills Hoedad crew, he's now a research fellow in political theory at Australian National University in Canberra. "They were free-form, too long and based on consensus decisions. It took a while to develop structure: an agenda, time limits, rules of order and majority decisions. We aren't taught democracy in school; it's learned."

Mackie's interest in Hoedads' turbulent evolution toward a model of workplace democracy was sharpened in graduate school at UO, where he wrote an economic analysis of the rise and fall of the Hoedads published in the journal, Politics and Society. "The Hoedads worked either because 1) it was made up of democratically oriented people or because 2) it was a transformative experience," Mackie said about the analysis. "If I hadn't had this experience, I wouldn't be the person I am. Learning democracy transforms ordinary people into people who practice democracy."

Roscoe Caron also said Hoedads was "a significantly formative experience in my life. It taught me about democracy  a rugged democracy as real as mud and sweat. This was down and dirty democracy  advancing ideas, making up and breaking up. We should have sold tickets to those meetings in the WOW Hall," Caron said with a laugh.

"Your opinion had worth," Rick Herson said. "We learned how to have a group sense and feel empowered and independent within structure." A big area of disagreement was whether people should be paid for the number of trees they planted  by the piece  or if all workers be paid equally  by the share.

"We struggled with the issue for seven or eight years," Herson said. "In the end I clearly understood that the real value was in the asking of the question. I understood that it can't be answered, and that it doesn't need to be."

James Shapland, of the Mudshark crew, said, "Everyone got to have their say. You had to participate in meetings," he said. "The politics of living in a group was the closest to a college education I ever got. Now I'm a trade union steam-fitter. Trade unions are highly democratic. We made the decision to negotiate our contracts just once a year, which I learned from Hoedads."

Caron recalled that one of Eugene's real characters, an old Wobbly who called himself Stupid, taught the Hoedads how to hold meetings. "Stupid felt at home with the Hoedads," Caron said, without irony. "Folk singer Utah Phillips stopped by the Hoedads' office after Stupid died and took his ashes back to the Wobbly National Museum in Chicago."

"Hoedad meetings were interminable," Sundquist noted, "but we showed that we could design a whole program cooperatively." The last word on meetings goes to Mackie: "I went to a Hoedad reunion meeting last night. It just went click! click! click!," he said with pride and satisfaction.

A Diverse Workplace
The Hoedads decided early on to include women in the labor crews and to work toward 50-50 parity. Although there were laws on the books, gender-based integration of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wasn't practiced in the woods. Hoedads broke down that barrier.

Caron said Hoedads taught him about "working shoulder-to-shoulder with women. We were the shock troops of that revolution within the forest sector of the U.S. government."

Eugene City Councilor Bonnie Bettman described an image "burned into her brain" of "planting slopes so steep I didn't have to bend down to plant. I could just brace myself on one knee against the slope and plant." Calling her Hoedads experience "positive, galvanizing," what Bettman saw when she looked at the mountains around her changed her life. "There was utter devastation on the clearcut slopes all around us. That's when I committed to being part of the solution."

Betsy Hartzell, then married to Edd Wemple, recalls wanting to be as strong as everybody else on her first day as a tree planter. "I strapped these huge mudball trees around my waist," she said. "I was appalled. I could hardly lift my leg over a log. I waddled. It was a hard, hard first day, but I did it."

Back in camp after a day of planting.
But Hartzell, the late Sidney Rust and Julia Herson had their first babies during this era. They lived in the woods with their husbands part of the time, but child care kept them off the slopes. The same issues for these women came up as in other movements of the time, Hartzell said, but because they were with men so engrossed in the Hoedads, they took more traditional roles to keep their families together. Betsy tree-planted with her husband, Hal, when their kids were older. "In the middle of a clearcut, planting a tree is a spiritual act," she said. "Doing it over and over is healing."

Jerry Rust honored the first women who worked in the woods. "I learned the management of natural resources from Hoedads," he said. "But I also learned about human resources: the importance of equality for women workers and ethnic diversity." The Hoedads brought the first Hispanic crews to plant the woods, he noted.

Jennifer Nelson saw "a lot of strong, independent women tree planters" in the 1980s Hoedads, but she thought some USFS inspectors were "uncomfortable with women on the crews." Nelson, a homemaker married to James Shapland, whom she met in Hoedads, said some inspectors "treated women differently than men." Nelson planted trees for two years and also did saw work (pre-commercial thinning) and unit clean-up (creating slash piles).

"The spirit of cooperation is still in my personal life," Thumb crew member Henry Schmald said. He said he's a "house person"  his wife works, and he takes care of their home. Hoedads taught him "the lessons of living together, working out problems, taking care of each other, staying together and crying together," he said, an understanding that's helped him create a community among his neighbors. "Hoedads changed my life," Schmald said. "I came out of a seriously Republican family."

Related Environmental Movements
Based on their on-the-ground experience in the forests, Hoedads aided the fledgling anti-herbicide and anti-pesticide movements, helped change forestry practices and helped save the yew tree for recovery of its taxol, now used in fighting breast cancer.

An early environmental problem Hoedads encountered was Thiram, a white chemical in a latex base sprayed on trees to keep deer away. Thiram's a component of antabuse, a drug given to alcoholics to make them sick if they drink. Caron said that Thiram also sickened Hoedad crews who had to plant large numbers of the doctored seedlings.

Hal Hartzell reports in his book that Hoedads Council "discussed Thiram at every meeting," eventually deciding they wanted a ban on it. He also quotes from Hoedad Joe Earp's letter to the (then) Eugene Register-Guard describing Earp's symptoms  "headache, dizziness, fatigue and loss of effectiveness"  after planting 60,000 seedlings treated with the chemical. Earp also "lodged complaints with the USFS, BLM, EPA, State Health Department and others." Some forests agreed not to use Thiram-treated seedlings on Hoedad bid sites, but Hoedads noted enforcement was sketchy.

The second environmental hazard Hoedads discovered was the herbicides sprayed on vegetation in the forest, broadcast by helicopter into "the industrial forest war zone," as Caron called it. "Then we would go into the area and find residue in the soil." Caron cited other people who were also aware of the dangers of 2,4,5-T (the notorious Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War), activists such as Norma Grier (also a Hoedad), Fred Miller of the Five Rivers area (Coast Range), and Carol Van Strum and Paul Merrill, who documented that ducks and children got sick after spraying. Coastal residents reported contamination of their household water supplies by herbicide-releasing helicopters flying over their farms. "We had to fight the whole agricultural/academic (OSU)/government complex," Caron said.

Grier, now head of Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), said Hoedads were instrumental in starting the organization. "Hoedads exposed to pesticides in the clearcuts had pesticide residue in their blood," Grier said. "The evidence led to the exposure of 2,4,5-T. Hoedads devoted their pay from a day of work to support NCAP in the early days."

Grier also noted that "Gerry Mackie wrote an affidavit used in court against the Siuslaw National Forest in the Oregon Coast Range asking for alternatives to herbicides. That legal victory was key to building momentum." She said Hoedads went out and cleared brush without herbicides to show it could be done and testified before Congress when Rep. Jim Weaver held hearings on the matter. "NCAP's roots go back to the hard work of dozens of Hoedad workers," she said, admiringly.

Crummy hazards.
John Sundquist recalls that Hoedads worked with Starflower, a women's trucking co-op, on the forest spray plans that Hoedads helped support. "We showed that seedlings didn't need to be sprayed," he said. "We saw people who'd gotten sick from working with sprayed trees." Sundquist referred to what he called OSU's "windshield science," disgust clear in his voice. "There were dioxins in sediments in the coastal Five Rivers after units were sprayed, but we heard from OSU scientists that they wanted to buy surplus Agent Orange," he said. The message isn't lost on this Hoedad turned organic farmer. "Now my neighbors' [farms and orchards] are chemically dependent, which hurts their long-term base of support. We don't have to re-invent agriculture," he said.

Hoedads also discovered that the yew tree, which was routinely left as debris after a clearcut, had other uses. In his book on Hoedads, Hartzell wrote that yew wood was prized by Native Americans for making strong bows. While there was no commercial market for the yew, "its hard red and white wood is good for making furniture or sculpting. ... Oregon farmers know that yew-wood fence posts last more than a lifetime," he wrote.

But with the discovery of taxol, a naturally occurring constituent that's used to treat breast cancer, commercial applications have endangered the yew. Rust now serves on the Board of Directors of the Native Yew Conservation Council, an organization he started in 1990 to protect the yew and other medicinal plants and to utilize natural vegetation. Now working with the Chinese through an alliance formed on the Internet, Rust said, "The Chinese are raising tens of millions of taxol-yielding yew trees, primarily for taxol but also for ecological reforestation projects." By the time the Olympics roll around, Rust predicts the boulevards of China's big cities will be lined with yew trees.

Business Skills
Another lasting legacy of the Hoedads is the many people who learned how to run a business while they were there. Grier's story may be typical:

"When I showed up at Hoedads office in Grower's Market, it was this big, de-centralized concern. They were running a big business, with a dozen crews and hundreds of people," she said. To work you had to form a crew or join an existing crew. When her crew asked who would like to serve on the bidding committee, Grier volunteered. It meant going to Eugene for once-a-week meetings where she combed through BLM and Forest Service contracts. "I got training on how to make good decisions," Grier said. "I'm so grateful for the opportunities I had to learn how to run a business, to gain the basic skills. I was in my 20s. My management skills came from those experiences."

Likewise, Councilor Bettman's first experience in policy making came as her crew's representative to Hoedads Council, and she learned to take initiative when she and another newcomer formed a crew called Different Strokes. "We were a cooperative crew," Bettman said. "We worked for shares and lived in big army tents. Hoedad crews had to be very responsible. We had to maintain our own vehicles and camp sites, gather wood, cook for ourselves. The risk of injury required people to be very careful, very thoughtful. The personal accountability issue was really important to me." Bettman planted until she was six months pregnant and then worked in the office another three months.

Herson, whose forestry work takes him to Asia and other places, also learned business skills from the Hoedads. "I learned my forestry, which became my life career," Herson said. "In the international forestry I practice now I get asked all the time, 'Where did you get your Ph.D.?' I learned from keeping my eyes open in the woods. My evolution has been based on that. And I still bark at forestry managers as I did in the old days, only now I know more than they do because I'm older."

Giving Back to the Community
One reason for the Hoedads' reunion this weekend, which is filled with private parties for the possibly 500 of some 3,000 former workers who may come to Eugene, is linked to the group's long-term philanthropy to other community organizations. In flush times, the Hoedads helped start and keep businesses alive, local co-ops such as Starflower (now defunct), NCAP, NEDCO and the WOW Hall.

Hoedads started a foundation some four or five years ago when SAIF settled a class action lawsuit over money illegally taken from worker's wages. "Hoedads got a large hunk of money and started trying to find people who were entitled to refunds," interim Foundation Board member Jennifer Nelson said. (Other board members are Henry Schmald, Roscoe Caron and Burt Rekher.) Many people contacted wanted to leave their money in the account, which the board opened with McKenzie River Gathering. The board started discussing what to do with the money, and now it hopes the larger body assembling this weekend will contribute their ideas.

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