DeBraie retires

The end of an era

 

Bill Coons

Jerry DeBriae Logging, the largest private employer in Wahkiakum County, is ending its logging operations. Founded by Jerry DeBriae in 1967, DeBriae Logging employed over 130 people at its peak around the end of the millennia. Soon there will be a half dozen employees and they won't be engaged in logging.

Asked about the decision to close, Jerry DeBriae said "There's no work". He and his son, Jerry Jr., decided to pull the plug around the end of last year. "We just decided it was time." An auction of their logging equipment was held on April 17th. Their last logging contract is wrapping up this week.

Dan Cothren knows logging in Wahkiakum County. He grew up in Crown Zellerbach's Family Camp located up the Elochoman River valley near where he currently resides. He went to work in the woods straight out of high school. Dan worked various jobs for Crown and then was a timber faller for 38 years. But changes were afoot, mechanization was coming, "A machine was taking care of six or seven cutters. I saw the writing on the wall and got into politics." Mr. Cothren has been a Wahkiakum County Commissioner since 2001. He says that he is going to seek one more term this year.

About 35 to 40 people were laid off from DeBriae's. When asked if people have found jobs, Cothren opined "You have to have that trade with running a machine and be good at running that machine before you can be picked up. But you're gonna travel, you're out of the county. A lot of these folks, you know, it's gonna be unemployment for a while because of the market. I mean there's still nobody hardly working. We've got one contractor working on this side now where we should have three or four." According to Cothren, the current situation in our county's timber industry is due to macro-economics and events beyond our borders. "A big mill in Japan burnt down last year." Weyerhauser then started supplying their mills here instead of taking wood from timber companies such as Hancock or Lewis & Clark. "They're supplying their mills because you don't have that market overseas. So, you don't have a pulp market. The mills have an overabundance of wood sitting around in their yards. When I go to Raymond and look at their mill it's pretty packed." But what about lumber? Isn't there demand there? "Interest rates are high. Transportation costs, that's probably your biggest player. When Inslee put that carbon tax on fuel... Look at what the price of diesel is. The mills aren't paying that amount of money, you got your logging costs, you got your transportation cost, you got interest cost." High interest rates mean people can't afford to buy residential housing, and housing construction drives demand for lumber in sufficient volume to keep the mills busy. "If you do not have an export market, you do not have a domestic market. It's like a domino effect. There is no work."

DeBriae Logging's closure isn't the first major upheaval in the local timber industry. Crown Zellerbach was purchased by British financier Sir James Goldsmith in 1985. Cothren recalls "It's like a family, Crown. They treated you good. People went to work for contractors (like DeBriae). They had a buy-out. A lot of them retired. I think my dad retired. And some guys went to Alaska." Thirty years ago, many houses in our county had signs in front of them reading "This family supported by timber dollars." What was the reason people here felt the need to make that statement? Dan explained "It was a spotted owl thing. And it was also where we got the Northwest Forest Plan. Clinton came here, down in Portland, and we got the spotted owl and the murrelet was involved in it too. Well, that locked up a bunch of the Federal stuff and we got affected here because we had owl circles. The markets were kind of screwed up then too."

There were tough times in 2007 to 2009 too as Jerry remembers, "08, 09 was horrible. In fact, we shut down for four months. But I was gonna be in the same situation here now. I told my son, why should we spend another million dollars to keep things going? Let's just get out and you go down to the port and take care of that. I finally convinced him. It took a while." So now Jerry Jr. is running the log-ship loading operation at the Port of Astoria. They'll build some roads here and there. There's a rock pit to run. Jerry has made his mark here in a lot of other ways. He developed Monroe Acres, the first subdivision in Wahkiakum County, and Alger Creek Heights. He bought the land for the parking lot of Heritage Bible Church. His greatest gift to the community was the Town of Cathlamet's Fire Hall. He built and donated the facility in 2006-2008. "That was a big project, I think I put in a million four ($1.4M) in that. They got a good place. Now it would never happen otherwise."

Some of his investments paid off like the chipper that was located in the sorting yard on Elochoman Slough. Dan Cothren says of Jerry, "He was a smart logger. He invested his money wisely. But the big thing was the chipper. When they put the chipper in here, they made some big money." This was in the nineties. Logs would come in and get chipped. The chips were loaded onto barges and taken to the Wauna paper mill. Not all of Jerry's investments paid off. He bought the restaurant, located where Maria's Place is today, in 1998. When asked what was one of his worst investments, Jerry said, "The restaurant, probably. But I always said at least they can't throw me out!"

 

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