FOR AS LONG AS EITHER DAVID OR ROBERT NIELSEN CAN REMEMBER, TREES HAVE SURROUNDED THEM. IN THEIR YOUTH, THEY ROMPED AMONG THE TOWERING WHITE OAKS, WESTERN HEMLOCKS, AND GRAND FIRS THAT SURROUNDED THEIR HOME ON SAN JUAN ISLAND JUST BELOW THE CANADIAN BORDER. WHEN THEIR FAMILY MOVED TO BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON DURING GRADE SCHOOL, THEY SPENT THEIR TIME HIKING AND RIDING DIRT BIKES THROUGH THE FORESTS BORDERING THEIR TOWN. SO, WHEN THEY BOTH DECIDED TO GO INTO LOGGING AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, NO ONE WAS SURPRISED. CHANCES WERE, A LITTLE OF THE SAP THEY PLAYED IN HAD SOAKED INTO THEIR SOULS.
After a few years working independently, the two decided to pool their skills in 1979 and open their own company. Thus, Nielsen Brothers Incorporated was born, now one of the most extensive logging operations in Northwest Washington. They operate out of a 109-year-old wooden building located on the waterfront in Bellingham and work throughout the Western Cascade region.
Due to their upbringing, the health of the forests that they work in weighs heavily upon them. They are not interlopers looking for a quick buck: they consider themselves stewards of the woods where they harvest trees. “We want the areas we work in to thrive after we leave,” says Rob Nielsen. “This is our backyard.” That ethos extends throughout the 75-person operation.
Modern logging barely resembles the norm of only a few decades ago. Gone are the chainsaw teams cutting a wide swath, often in dangerous situations, with heavy equipment close behind to harvest the wood, rarely caring about the damage they left behind. Nowadays, foresters survey the land in advance, buffering critical areas. On steep slopes, they set up yarders, machines with tall towers designed to lift logs out of gullies so as to leave minimal damage behind after the fellers have dropped trees. On flatter plots, large shovels quickly and efficiently take trees down. The brothers’ company has built the roads and bridges the trucks drive on. Many have become popular backcountry access points for hikers, bikers, hunters, and others.
One of the keys to their operation is their people, an extension of the brothers themselves. Many of their employees have been with them for decades, casting their lot in life with the Nielsen brothers. “It’s a simple formula,” says Rob. “You take care of your people, and they will take care of you.” David, the younger of the two, spends most of his days in the field running their crews. His gruff demeanor, sometimes needed on the job site, barely conceals his big heart. Rob runs the office and manages amid the laughter that is commonly heard emanating from the third-floor windows to the street below.
Although both brothers are in their mid-sixties, they show no sign of slowing down. After a lifetime of roaming the woods, they are happiest there. It’s a feeling that seems to have been passed on. Rob’s daughter works in the office; their sister and brother-in-law also work for them. That seems right.