The forestry world lost a giant last week. William D. “Bill” Hagenstein died September 4 in Portland, Oregon at age 99. Apart from his mentor, Bill Greeley, no one in American history did more to help advance forestry’s great cause than Bill. I know this because I have every speech and article he ever wrote; also all of his congressional testimony plus maybe forty hours of recorded interviews.
We were friends for 42 years.
When Bill asked me to write the foreword to Corks and Suspenders, his autobiography, I wrote that he was America’s greatest living forester.
He telephoned me a day or two later and said, “You have to change that.” To which I said, “Why, you are America’s greatest living forester.”
“Goddammit,” he said, “You have to change that.”
I changed it to something forgettable and mused about a story he’d told me years ago about a very funny incident that occurred in the old West Coast Lumbermen’s Association office in downtown Seattle, only weeks after Greeley hired him in June of 1941. He needed a forest engineer on staff who was tough enough to handle cantankerous loggers.
Although Bill was only 26 at the time, he was definitely tough enough. He stood six-feet-four and was strong as an ox. If a bonus was needed [it wasn’t] it was that Bill could cuss a blue streak in a booming voice you could hear a block away. Having worked in mines in my own youth, I thought nothing of it. But the pious Greeley found it offensive and was soon fining Bill a nickel a word whenever he turned the air blue around his desk. On the day in question, Bill had gone to the woods to check on a logging job.
“Where’s Bill,” someone asked. Greeley, who surely knew where his young charge had gone, laconically replied that he’d “gone out for another bushel of goddammits.”
Bill loved the story, and he loved Greeley, who became his surrogate father over the years that they knew one another. But in the 42 years that I knew Bill, I never heard him swear in the presence of a woman. He was a gentleman’s gentleman, and every bit as pious as Greeley.
Bill was also one of the most humble men I’ve ever met, which is why he could not bear the thought of me saying that he was forestry’s greatest living forester. But he was, not in the sense that he tended trees every day, though he did have an impressive arboretum at his house, but in the sense that he defended those who tend trees every day. He was fierce.
I first saw Bill in action in 1971, the year before we met. I had driven to Coos Bay, Oregon to watch him defend clearcutting in a debate against Brock Evans, who was at the time working for the Sierra Club in Seattle. I was then a reporter for the Grants Pass Daily Courier. Frankly, I would not have made the three hour drive to Coos Bay had I not been working on an in-depth series of articles concerning forests and forestry in the Douglas-fir region.
It is my recollection that the late Wayne Morse, Oregon’s most colorful U.S. Senator, moderated the debate. By the time I arrived, the immense Southwest Oregon Community College gymnasium was already jammed to the rafters with loggers and foresters accompanied by their wives and children. They had come to watch their hero slay the dragon. I had no idea what to expect, but the air was electric with excitement. It was quite a scene. Somewhere around here, I still have the audio tapes.
To his credit, Evans held his own, but he was no match for Bill’s photographic memory or his encyclopedic knowledge of forestry. He had personally known the previous generation’s giants:
Thornton Munger, who set up the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Range and Experiment Station; Phil Weyerhaeuser, who set his namesake company on its remarkable journey in tree farming; Leo Isaac, whose Research Paper No. 16 pretty much settled the clearcutting debate in 1956; George Drake, who was the Simpson Logging Company’s logging engineer for many years; Ed Stamm, who has been Crown Zellerbach’s logging manager for many years; and, of course, Greeley, the Forest Service’s third Chief and, in my mind, its greatest.
Bill was the last man alive who had witnessed the historic formation of America’s Tree Farm System. There were three meetings. On September 4, 1941, the Joint Committee on Forest Conservation acted on Greeley’s recommendation that WCLA and the Pacific Northwest Loggers Association establish a tree nursery on a 40-acre tract at Nisqually, Washington. The following month, the Committee met again to recommend that the National Lumber Manufacturer’s Association serve as standard bearer for the Tree Farm System. Then, on January 20, 1942, the Committee met for a third time to certify the nation’s first tree farms. Bill look the minutes of that meeting. Certificate No. 1 went to the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company for its 120,000-acre Clemons Tree Farm near Montesano, Washington.
In one of our many long conversations, Bill told me how he and Greeley had driven down to Nisqually in Greeley’s old sedan on a lovely spring day in 1947. With Bill behind the wheel, Greeley had time to think about all that had happened after he left the Forest Service in 1928. No living American had done more for forestry than Greeley, though he was always quick to gently remind others that it had taken a lot of work by a lot of people to convince skeptical lumbermen to invest in tree farming.
“I envy you, Bill,” Greeley said out of the blue, his gaze fixed on a distant stand of timber.
“Why,” Bill replied in wonderment.
“Because you will live long enough to see our national forests managed in a way that insures that there will always be an abundant source of timber for our great country.”
In his professional life, Bill Hagenstein spoke publicly about forestry’s great promise 770 times, once for every 10 days that he worked for WCLA and, later, the Industrial Forestry Association, a WCLA spin-off which he ran for 33 years before his 1980 retirement. We first met in in his cluttered office in the old Neighbors of Woodcraft Building at 1410 S.W. Morrison in Portland in April of 1972.
Although neither of us knew it at the time, Bill was to become both my inspiration and a guiding force in my professional life. Over the years, I was his house guest many times. He had lost both of his wives, Ruth and Jean, to cancer, and he craved the companionship of those he knew and trusted.
I counted myself among the fortunate few who knew him well enough to know that, despite his towering success, he never got over the untimely deaths of the “girls” he loved or the loss of his widowed mother, Jennie; and he gave them credit for “whatever has been good about my life.”
One evening, over Old Bushmills, the only Irish whiskey he enjoyed, I asked him if he could describe his life to me in a single sentence.
“I preached the Gospel of Forestry,” he replied without hesitation.
He sure as hell did, I thought to myself. When he spoke, you knew you were standing in the shadow of forestry’s finest hours.
Then, after a long silence, I asked what I’d really come to ask of my 95-year-old friend.
“Bill, how would you like to be remembered,” I said.
I guess my question took him by surprise because he paused for a moment to consider his answer, which was something I’d never seen him do before. And I must admit that I was as startled by the clarity of his answer as he apparently was by the directness of my question.
“I was a worker in the vineyard,” he finally replied.
And after listening for a moment for the echo of his own words he said, “Yes, that’s it. I was a worker in the vineyard.”
Godspeed, my vineyard friend, Godspeed.