Alex W. Kirnak

B.S. Forestry, 1937

Alex W. Kirnak completed his first year of college at Mont Alto with a full scholarship from the Buhl Foundation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was awarded three additional scholarships during his undergraduate program. Serious complications from scarlet fever required him to complete junior and senior forestry courses during his final year, still graduating from Penn State with honors in 1937.

Kirnak then pursued his early aspirations of “entering the lumber business in the Pacific Northwest.” Lacking the money for train fare, he hitchhiked across the United States and arrived in Longview, Washington, eight days later with the clothes on his back, a homemade down sleeping bag and ground sheet, a camera, and $19. The timber industry was in desperate straits in the midst of the Great Depression, and was operating at about 30% capacity. It did not take Kirnak long to realize his chances of getting work through an employment office were zero.

After several days of pounding on the door of the Long-Bell Lumber Company’s vice president of timber and logging for a job, he got results. The vice president made a call to the main logging camp at Ryderwood, Washington: “I’m sending up a big green kid. Put him to work. If he doesn’t learn fast and work hard, run him off!” (Not the usual post-college career launch, but a Depression was on.) Salary was $110 per month with $40 deducted for room and board in camp.

The first day in the timber, Kirnak was paired with a veteran faller (whose partner had been injured), felling old-growth Douglas-firs, on springboards with hand tools. Kirnak took to the big timber like a duck to water. Then followed five years of log bucking, yarding, loading, rigging up, and being involved directly with Long-Bell’s conversion from railroad operations to log truck operations.

The hard physical exposure of felling and bucking big timber with hand tools led to his lifelong personal interest in power saws (as chainsaws were first called), and Kirnak was selected to be on one end of the first power saw ever that felled an old-growth Douglas-fir.

During these five years, Kirnak developed an improved accounting system for his camp’s unit (thanks to having taken an accounting course at Penn State!). Every other Saturday he reported production and cost results at the main office in Longview. Most of this work was done in the evenings after working all day in the timber.

World War II intervened and Kirnak served three years in the U.S. Navy, island-hopping in the Pacific as staff engineering officer of a flotilla of rocket-firing gunboats in the amphibious forces.

Upon his return to Long-Bell, Kirnak was assigned as trucking manager in the fifteen-year-old Tillamook Burn. His added wartime experience with radios led to his installing the first two-way radios in logging operations. By 1950 he also moved to Long-Bell’s sawmill operations in the Tillamook Burn, salvaging old-growth timber killed in the 1933 fire.

In 1954, Kirnak accepted an attractive offer by East Asiatic Company, an international conglomerate, to work as the Pacific Northwest international lumber sales manager. In that position he provided leadership in shipping the first pulled-to-length paper covered lumber cargo to destinations in Europe, Australia, South Africa, Asia, and South America. This was a prelude to container shipments that are common today.

After directing marketing and shipping of over half a billion feet (clear lumber only), Kirnak retired from corporate life in 1971. He received the Lumberman of the Year award in 1994 from the Portland Wholesale Lumber Association in recognition of his considerable accomplishments in logging, milling, and marketing and in community and industry service.

Following his retirement, Kirnak served as a consultant to the timber industry. He also was retained as defense expert by United States and Canadian chainsaw manufacturers in their defense of legal issues in 21 states and federal jurisdictions.

Kirnak served as co-executor of the estate of his lifelong friend, Ed Hoener, publisher of “The Timberman” magazine. The Hoener Trust gave full scholarships to needy and worthy forestry students at Oregon State University. Kirnak also served on the Hoener Trust advisory committee that oversees the investment and awards of the trust.

From his arrival in the Northwest, Kirnak was active in conservation efforts for wilderness areas and national parks. These activities included successful ten-year efforts with Olympic Parks Associates in preventing the 300,000-acre removal of the finest old-growth timber from Olympic National Park. The activities also included the fourteen-year successful efforts, until 1972, for congressional authorization to restore 48,000 acres to the Three Sisters Wilderness, removed previously by the USDA Forest Service in 1958; and ten years with the North Cascade Conservation Council, resulting in the creation of North Cascades National Park in 1968.

Beginning with the camera he took to the Northwest in 1937, Kirnak documented the harvest of old-growth timber, frequently carrying his camera in his lunch pail during those early years. He built an excellent portfolio that depicts the people, timber, and equipment tied to this historic trade. His spare time in the summer was spent mountain climbing and in the winter skiing.

Kirnak has maintained an active interest in Penn State’s School of Forest Resources, both through our Alumni Group and his continued ties with various School directors.

April 2006