Another Giant Gone: Gene Yahvah, 1926-2023

Another Giant Gone: Gene Yahvah, 1926-2023

Gene Yahvah died in Libby, Montana on May 23, 2023, his ninety-seventh birthday. He was a legend among Montana foresters and a walking tree encyclopedia who also happened to be one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet.

I last saw Gene at a Society of American Forester's dinner meeting in Libby in February. Gene was named an SAF Fellow in 1989 and a devout Christian who never met a stranger and who enjoyed passing out Gideon Bibles in his travels.

Although Gene walked with a walker that he hated he was otherwise his same smiling, cheerful self - not at all what you would expect to see in a man who would soon be 97. He reluctantly gave up downhill skiing when he was 87. Russ Hudson introduced us sometime in the early 1990s. He invited me to join him and two of his colleagues on a two-day tour of the old J.Neils Company forestlands in Northwest Montana. That's Gene on the left in the nearby photograph. Russ is in the center and the late John McBride is on the right. He died in 2018.

In my files, this photograph is labeled "The Three Amigos." Together, Russ, Gene and John brought about 125 years of woods wisdom to J. Neils and its successors: the St. Regis Paper Company and Champion International. They all retired when Plum Creek Timber Company bought Champion's 867,000 Montana acres in 1993.

Gene and his late wife, Bernice, set up housekeeping in a J.Neils logging camp at Rexford, Montana in 1950. They had graduated from Colorado State University two years earlier; he with a degree in Forest Management and she with a degree in Home Economics. During World War II, Gene had manned a 50 caliber machine gun on the U.S.S. Clarendon, a tactical transport ship operated in the South Pacific.

J. Neils hired Gene to supervise its logging, road construction and forestry operations on company lands in the Rexford, Montana area. All three of their children were born while they were living in the old Rexford townsite, which slipped beneath Lake Koocanusa after Libby Dam was completed in 1972.

Gene transferred from Rexford to Libby in 1961 to assume responsibility for 100,000 acres of J.Neils land. The Three Amigos, Gene, Russ and John, became synonymous with the company's widely admired forestry program. They stuck with it - using a 100-year forest plan developed for J. Neils in the 1920s - until 18.63 percent mortgage rates forced Champion to sell to Plum Creek. Rumor had it that Plum Creek tossed the plan because it didn’t fit their more aggressive harvesting plans.

Those who knew Gene recall a gentle man with a glowing smile and a heart of gold. But his slender build disguised a man whose mental toughness was hard to describe. During the 1984 Houghton Creek fire, he stayed in the seat on a massive Terex dozer for 36 hours, guided in the darkness by a much younger Steve Vincent, building fire lines in hopes of corralling the lightning caused and wind driven blaze. It jumped Highway 2 west of the Forest Service's Raven Work Center and would have burned eastward toward Kalispell had the wind not changed direction.

The morning that Gene was finally talked down from the dozer the Missoulian ran a story noting that "no forests of consequence" - meaning no old growth - had been lost in the conflagration, which burned mainly on private timberlands.

And what did Gene do? He took on an enormous replanting project on the 14,000 acres that Champion lost. In 1993 - nine years following the fire - the Sierra Club, published a picture book titled "Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, which included pictures of Houghton Creek and made no mention of the fact what was photographed was an enormous burn scar that had been replanted, not a clearcut.

The book led to Russ Hudson inviting me to join Gene, John and him on a two day tour of Champion lands in Northwest Montana. I subsequently worked with Russ on the last set of repeat photographs ever taken of the big woods where The Three Amigos worked side by side for nearly 40 years. Now Russ, who is widowed and lives in Arizona, is the last man standing.

When I saw Gene last February in Libby I asked him if he remembered our tour and what he remembered most about Houghton Creek.

"Yes, I remember our tour," he replied. "It was a lot of fun. You asked a lot of really good questions. What I remember most about the fire is that now it's hard to tell if it ever occurred. Newcomers around here are very surprised when I tell them the story."

For the record, the Missoulian got it wrong: There are no forests of no consequence. My late friend, Robert Buckman, a globally respected PhD forester who ran the Forest Service's PNW research station for many years, was always quick to remind me that there was at least as much biological diversity in an early seral forest as there was an old growth forest.

Jim Petersen, Founder and President
The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

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