Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Little Alfie: 20 years later

When a modest timber sale became big news across Minnesota

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It’s a tale of politics and the rule of law. About stewardship and proper forest management. And it’s also about espionage, a guy in a bear suit, and a dog with a colorful name stealing someone’s meal.

Even the name of the controversy had a folksy charm to it: Little Alfie. So called because the tract of timber at the center of the issue was near Lake Alf, and a forester at the Superior National Forest advertised the sale as “Little Alfie.”

In the end, there was nothing little about it. For one thing, the pine was nice and long and straight, perfect for the log homes for which sawmiller Tony Vukelich purchased the stumpage. And the controversy was big too, resulting in a logger truck rally in Orr, a sit-in protest by anti-logging activists that lasted for weeks, and a court case against cutting the trees, all of which attracted news media from all over the state waiting to see how it would all play out.

Twenty years later, the tale of the controversy lives on throughout the logging community, particularly in the town of Orr, where Vukelich still lives and where lessons learned haven’t been forgotten over the past twenty years.

On a recent afternoon, Vukelich got together for lunch at the T Pattenn Café in Orr with Tim Olson, who along with his brother Gregg, owned the logging company that harvested the Little Alfie site, off the Echo Trail, south of Buyck. Also at lunch was retired Boise forester Dick Olson (no relation to Tim), who also had a front row view of the battle from twenty years before. The trio reminisced about their years in the north woods, but particularly about the controversy that came to a head twenty years ago.

“It’s a legacy,” Tim Olson says. “Everybody came together and rallied and fought it. And Tony did some great things with it.”

Vukelich’s business was actually four miles north of Orr at Cusson, which a century ago was the site of the main logging camp of the Virginia Rainy Lake Lumber Company, started by the famed Weyerhaeuser family, which of course remains an icon in the timber industry. VRL’s sawmill 45 miles to the south in the city of Virginia was the largest sawmill in the world at that time.

Ultimately the VRL sawmill closed, and so did the logging camp in Cusson. Years later, Vukelich purchased the Cusson site, and in 1984 started his own sawmill, naming it Cusson Camp as a nod to the location’s rich history.

Originally, Cusson Camp was a wholesale sawmill, sawing timbers for treatment. But soon the nearby Voyageur Log Homes began purchasing long pine timbers, and Vukelich started to specialize in long pine timbers, both for the exterior of log homes, and for the interiors, too. Voyageur was an excellent customer, but builders and homeowners working to finish the log homes came to Cusson Camp looking, for the finest pine paneling and flooring, as well.

To manufacture his products, Vukelich most often purchased red and white pine bolts from area loggers, but when Superior National Forest offered the Little Alfie tract for sale in 1995, Vukelich decided to bid.

The Forest Service had good reason to offer the tract for sale, planning to thin the red pine, allowing the sun to shine on the smaller white pine so it would flourish.

“I spent a lot of time in there looking at the wood and everything,” Vukelich remembers. “I sawed a lot of long timbers, up to thirty feet. That’s why I wanted it. I usually didn’t bid on timber sales, and I’d never bid on a federal one, because I let the loggers do that, and then I’d buy their timber. But this happened to be a strict pine sale and a lot of loggers wouldn’t want to bid on it because it was a lot of money just for the pine, and there was nothing else in there for them. There wasn’t any aspen or jack pine or anything.”

Vukelich wound up with the winning bid, and planned to start harvesting the following winter of 1996-97. Little did he know, there was a problem—a technicality—with the sale as constructed by the Forest Service: Little Alfie was actually outside the boundaries of the management plan for that area.

“The pine that was in the plan,” Vukelich says, “they nixed that plot for wildlife reasons. So they had this pine just down the road from that sale area that needed to be thinned, and it had already been cut. So they said, let’s just substitute this pine for it. And that’s what they did.”

Eventually, anti-logging forces found out about the snafu and got involved. They wanted to save the white pine there, and also claimed the trees in question were “old-growth,” which didn’t turn out to be true. A fire had ravaged the area in 1888, so the pines were around 110 years old, and besides, the site had been thinned in 1985, meaning Little Alfie didn’t meet the definition of “old growth.”

Vukelich had hired Gheen logger Cliff Shermer to harvest the site. When Shermer headed down Forest Highway 200 to Little Alfie with his feller buncher on the back of a low-boy, he was met by a bunch of protestors from a group called Earth First, a camp fire—and a bear.

“When we got to Dano Creek,” Shermer recalls, “they were set up and had a bonfire in the road so we couldn’t proceed on to the sale. So we had to stop. That hill down to Dano Creek is super steep, so that wasn’t easy. I wasn’t happy. So while we’re waiting for somebody to come—the feds or whatever—a guy in a bear suit came and chained himself to the front of our truck.

“I don’t know if he was supposed to be Smoky the Bear, or who the hell he was,” Shermer chuckled.

He can laugh now, but twenty years ago, it wasn’t at all funny.

“I was irate,” Shermer says. “Once he unchained himself, I had to back that low-boy and buncher right back up that hill.

Still, Vukelich was—and is—a reasonable man. One day after work at the mill, he and his dog Pink jumped into Tony’s pickup and drove to the sale to see what was on the protesters’ minds. When they arrived, Pink got himself into a bit of trouble.

“I probably didn’t get up there until around 6 o’clock,” Vukelich says. “Pink and I walked down the hill, and so I sit down with them around the fire, and we were talking. I just tried to explain to them what’s going on up here. They were very nice, they offered me coffee. I wasn’t paying any attention to where Pink was and out of the corner of my eye, there’s pink chewing away at this cake pan. They had grilled some vegetables, and they were letting it cool, and he ate it up. I felt terrible. So the next day, I was in the café having breakfast, and Joe Shermer, Clifford’s brother, and bunch of other guys from Cook were going to go up there and see what’s going on, so I bought a bunch of bags of donuts and Bismarcks and stuff and asked Joe to bring them to those kids because the dog ate their meal last night.”

In fact, for all of the wrangling and disagreement, the fight remained mostly cordial and non-confrontational—notwithstanding the guy in the bear suit.

But it was serious business for Vukelich, who needed that Little Alfie timber, not the headache that came with the controversy. He had a mill to run.

“It was a little bit of an ordeal,” he says. “That was going to be my wood for the year. I bought open market wood too, but there wasn’t a lot of wood available that year. That was another reason I wanted to get that one.”

Without wood, Vukelich once estimated he was losing $6,000 in sales each day. Fortunately for Vukelich, the state’s loggers and forest products community rallied around him, and the cause he’d stumbled into.

“A lot of people came and helped during it,” he says. “I was without timber for a year, and Boise opened up some wood for me that they wouldn’t have cut otherwise.”

Vukelich also had assistance from an unlikely and unexpected source, a spy of sorts, who was able to infiltrate the enviros and conduct a little espionage.

“There was a guy who had a cabin near here,” Vukelich recalls. “He was a chiropractor in the Twin Cities at that time. I met him by selling him lumber, and we became friends. So he calls me and he tells me he just had a customer, he adjusted her back, and she said she was going up to northern Minnesota on the Echo Trail to protest a timber sale. He said they hadn’t started cutting, but they’re going to start Monday. I said, that’s not the Alfie sale, and he said yeah it was! So I got a hold of the Forest Service, and they had some people up there.

“But then how this thing developed,” Vukelich continued. “the chiropractor, he infiltrated—he just loved this—Earth First. He went to their meetings, and he filled me in through the whole process. He got in costume, too. He let his beard grow, and when he’d go to their meetings, he’d wear plaid flannel shirts, the whole deal.”

Still, the controversy dragged on. The Forest Service was in a pickle because Little Alfie wasn’t technically in their plan. Mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society wanted to save the white pine, which entailed just fourteen percent of the volume on the sale. The sides negotiated and Vukelich agreed not to harvest the white pine as well as some of the red pine. But that still left plenty of long, straight red pine, perfect for kind of timbers he loved to saw. Everybody was happy.

Well, almost. Earth First wouldn’t join the agreement and continued the blockade. Another fringe environmental group called Earth Protector went to court and sued to stop the harvest completely, claiming old growth timber shouldn’t that the Forest Service should conduct an environmental impact study of the sale.

With the lawsuit pending, the timber harvest was on hold through all of 1997. Environmentalists kept protesting, but loggers rallied, too. Cars all over the north woods had pink ribbons as a show of support for Vukelich—pink was the chosen color in honor of Vukelich’s dinner-stealing constant companion. There were more formal events as well, including a memorable meeting between Vukelich and Congressman Jim Oberstar in Virginia.

“I got a call to go down to Carpenters Hall down in Virginia,” Vukelich says. “So I go down there, and all the local politicians are there because Oberstar’s going to be there. So the Congressman comes in, and I’d never met him before. He comes up and shakes my hand, and he genuflects with this big smile on his face. And he says, ‘you’re the bugger that’s getting more press than I am!’”

At other times during the controversy, Vukelich was offered other, more confrontational, means of support, but those were politely declined.

“I asked folks not to do some stuff,” Vukelich says.

Eventually, he had his day in court. In January of 1998 in a St. Paul courtroom, Federal Judge John Tunheim heard arguments from both sides, including David Oberstar, representing the Timber Producers.

Two weeks later, Judge Tunheim ruled in Vukelich’s and the Forest Service’s favor, granting a motion for summary judgment. Earth Protector quickly appealed, but an administrative panel of the Eighth District Court of Appeals denied that last ditch effort. Vukelich would finally be able to re-focus on Cusson Camp, but not before one last round of media coverage.

“When the court decided we could go ahead and log,” he says, “up at the mill there were five of these satellite trucks from the different TV stations from all over the state.”

Finally, on the morning of Feb. 13, 1998, harvesting operations began. This time, Shermer’s crew was busy elsewhere, so Gregg and Tim Olson were called on to do the work. After more than two years of controversy and legal wrangling, the thinning took about a week.

“Good sale to cut because it had been thinned once,” Tim Olson says. “We worked hard to protect the young white pine growing up.”

“Greg (Olson) ran the buncher,” Vukelich adds. “He’d pick up the trees and actually walk them and drop them down so he wouldn’t hurt the white pine.”

Twenty years later, Vukelich and the Olsons share lunch, coffee, and more than a few laughs over the battle fought and won two decades before. They pored over Vukelich’s scrapbook, filled with newspaper clippings and photos from the Little Alfie controversy.

Twenty years after the harvest, there are lessons learned, including this one from Vukelich, wh had never bid on a federal sale before Little Alfie:

“I never bid on another one.” he says.

At the same tiue, court challenges to timber sales in Minnesota have mostly stopped, and many say that’s thanks to the victory at Little Alfie.

Most importantly, there’s the forest, thick with regenerating white pine.

“These are beautiful trees,” Vukelich said during a recent visit to the site with Dick Olson.

“Their goal was to release the white pine,” Olson says. “It worked.”

That’s Vukelich’s legacy. He didn’t ask for this fight. Little Alfie came to him. And what folks who were close to the battle remember, is not only the cause, the wood, and the forest, but also the dignified manner with which Vukelich navigated the entire situation.

“I think when you look back at it,” Tim Olson says, “there were a lot of us that were really young and rebels and we really wanted to fight it. But Tony’s level-headed, and he’s very calm, and we was very patient with it, and it turned out really well.”

Ray Higgins

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