Lumbering Towns Now Take Light Steps -- Communities, Loggers Move Slowly Toward Uncertain Future Without Mainstay Industry

DARRINGTON, Snohomish County - If there is a fitting symbol of the change convulsing Washington's timber towns, it might be this community's first espresso machine at its first 24-hour convenience store.

"The town needed it," said John Olson, owner of JVs Deli-Mart, who noted that the clientele of the year-old store ranges from loggers who still rise before dawn to urbanites on their way to the mountains to play.

While few cutters and choker setters sip lattes, Olson sells about 35 of them on a good day, primarily to female residents and tourists in town.

It is a small sign of how the Pacific Northwest's timber industry and culture are painfully adjusting to a curtailment of national forest timber sales because of the spotted owl.

Sales this year are down 80 percent overall from 1980s levels, and are virtually zero in places like the Olympic Peninsula, after logging on millions of acres of federal forest was halted to protect the owl, declared a threatened species last year.

Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revised an earlier, more expansive plan and proposed setting aside 8.2 million acres in Washington, Oregon and California forests as critical habitat for the owl.

In Darrington, the number of small logging contractors has dropped from about 15 a decade ago to two, said Esther Wright, whose husband, Art, recently liquidated the family's longtime logging firm and is commuting 45 miles to Everett to operate a trucking company.

"It's a sadness a lifestyle is gone," she said of the change.

But the couple has no plans to move. She serves on an economic development committee determined to shift Darrington's economy from one based 90 percent on timber to one diversified with tourism and small industry.

And somewhat tongue in cheek, she has suggested that the town tackle its roughneck reputation for hostility to outsiders with a new slogan: "Dare to Come to Darrington."

But some residents aren't convinced the relatively small steps they're taking will replace their traditional economy. Olson is hedging his bets by hanging on to his job at the Summit Timber mill while he runs his mini-mart.

While spotted-owl restrictions have brought tragedy to some logging families, as the timber industry warned, others are taking steps to move to other occupations, as environmentalists have predicted. And timber towns are refusing to roll over and die.

But make no mistake - times are not good.

In Forks, Clallam County, log-truck driver Barbara Mossman, who heads a group called American Loggers Solidarity, found work on just 39 days in the past eight months and has seen her family's income drop 61 percent. Despite that, she led an effort to open a school gym for dances to help keep the community's spirits up.

Brian Dalton of Morton, Lewis County, had to sell his logging business and go to work for a construction firm. While he wants to stay in the area, he bought a mobile home so that "if worst comes to worst, we can move."

Mental-health caseloads are up in Forks, said child caseworker Bert Jackson.

In Morton, family practitioner Dr. Steve Frey has seen an increase in spouse and child abuse that he links to unemployment, drinking and anxiety. He also has seen a rise in the proportion of his patients on welfare.

At the same time, many woods workers are finding new ways to earn a living. "It's ironic that every time we lose a mill or logging contractor, someone picks up the flag and starts a new business," said Bill Pickell, director of Washington Contract Loggers Association.

Other communities, and individuals, show signs of trying to adapt to vastly different circumstances than even a few years ago:

-- Forks has launched a campaign to improve the town's looks, is attracting businesses to manufacture finished wood products, and is awaiting a new state forest research center.

-- Ken and Diane Schostak of Forks shut down their logging business and last month conducted the first hikes for a new business called Nootka Jack, which leads schoolchildren on weeklong science and nature excursions.

-- Grays Harbor Community College in Aberdeen has started a program called "New Chance" to help loggers take the first step toward new careers. Of 32 who entered a similar program in Kitsap County, all ended up in training programs, from accounting and photography to getting their high-school diplomas, said vocational counselor Kathleen O'Neill.

-- In Randle, Lewis County, two-thirds of graduating seniors are going to college instead of following their parents into the woods or taking timber-related jobs. In 1983, the number of college-bound students was only 21 percent. "I don't hear kids saying anymore, `Oh, I can just get a job in the mill,' " said Mary Jane Meltz, the local high school counselor. "They (students) are very aware of what's going on."

The state has approved about $70 million in aid since 1989 to help timber communities in what Rich Nafziger, coordinator of Gov. Booth Gardner's timber team, calls "the most comprehensive economic development project the state has ever undertaken."

Washington state also is spending a few million dollars on employing woods workers to thin tree stands and improve streams.

But timber towns say it still is inadequate. Nearly half the money has simply extended unemployment benefits. Entrepreneurs still must seek private financing for new businesses to replace failing mills.

Re-education aid doesn't start until loggers are already unemployed. "We're telling the ones who want help training for a new job to come back when you're broke, and that's sad," said Kathy Simonis, a board member of Centralia Community College.

Yet most communities seem to be shifting from despair to determination. "You can't wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time," Michele Brown of the state Department of Community Development tells community groups.

Meanwhile, Darrington, a ruggedly independent community of Carolina Tarheel loggers, has started a weekend crafts market, added festivals to its annual bluegrass music gathering, is building a park and is studying a new sewer system should there be any serious growth. There are three new bed-and-breakfasts in town and a restaurant just reopened.

Residents, aware of the town's natural beauty (the White Horse and the Gold mountains tower over it), believe it "is one truckload of paint away from being the most beautiful in the Northwest," as one of them put it at a recent meeting.

But logging towns face some severe problems in trying to attract new investment.

For example, the towns of Randle, Packwood and Glenoma in Lewis County are not even incorporated, noted Doug Hayden, director of the area's community service center. There are no water or sewer systems. A telephone call almost anywhere is long distance. The biggest tourism draw has been Mount St. Helens, but a new access road and visitors center west of the peak are expected to drain visitors from the north.

"There's no magic Boeing assembly plant and all our worries are gone," said Darrington's Laurence Larsen, a hardware store owner and chairman of the town's Economic Advisory Committee.

And while some loggers have college degrees, others are ill-equipped to work outside the woods. "We do have people up here who are functionally illiterate," said the community college's Simonis. "They were able to do well with their disability because they were dinosaur slayers. Now the dinosaurs are gone."

And then there's the problem of adapting psychologically to changing careers after doing the same thing for decades in some cases.

"A man who has worked in the woods all his life doesn't want to sit behind a desk," said Larsen.

Between assistance from the state and the towns' own self-help efforts, there is more hope now for distressed communities than even a few months ago.

"We don't expect what we are doing to be an instant success, an instant panacea," said Kay Gabriel, director of the program for the Department of Community Development. "But there is life after the owl."