Timber towns search for a new economy

  • STRUGGLING: The once-bustling town of North Fork lost its last lumber mill in 1994

    Chris Smith
  • Supermarket owner Jim Willis says his store remains open only because he's "borrowed to the hilt"

    Chris Smith

NORTH FORK, Calif. - Hidden away in California's Sierra Nevada foothills, this town of 3,500 lies 16 miles from the nearest major road. Occupying, as the sign on the roadside says, "the exact center of California," it's a nice place to live: The air is crisp, everyone knows everyone else and the oak- and fir-covered mountains offer shelter from the outside world.

But nothing stirs on Main Street, and even the stores that aren't boarded up sit empty.

Like most other California logging towns, North Fork has fallen on hard times. Its last mill, which employed nearly 400 people at its peak, closed in 1994. North Fork then lost its bank, its doctor, its laundromat, its pharmacy and more than half its restaurants; in short, it lost many of the things that make a town a town.

Unemployment stands at 17 percent, according to a recent survey, and the majority of the workforce - 80 percent, by some estimates - now commutes to Fresno or Madera, both about an hour and 15 minutes away.

"Things have changed so drastically," says Jim Willis, who owns the North Fork Super Market. Willis says business has fallen by half since the mill closure. "I still have the store, though I'm borrowed to the hilt," he says. "Pretty soon I won't have a pot to pee in."

It is a familiar story all across the Sierras (and the Northwest), as towns like North Fork, dependent for so long on logging, struggle to pull themselves out of a decade-long decline. And it looks like there is no going back. Though some residents still hold out hope that timber might be part of an economic revival, they were dealt a serious setback by the Sierra Nevada Framework. It emphasizes survival of the California spotted owl, not survival of the logging industry.

"Everybody cries about it, but there isn't much that can be done," says Bill Elliott, owner of Sierra Video, who has lived in North Fork since 1962. "It's over."

A middle way?

Some residents, however, say that the Framework - which allows less than 10 percent of the Forest Service's 1991's timber cut - could have permitted enough logging to soften the blow for towns like North Fork.

"There's gotta be a middle way," says Don Dierberger, who owns the Bass Fork Minit Mart on the outskirts of town. Like many rural residents, Dierberger charges that the Framework doesn't allow for enough fire protection. He notes that logging, which would thin the dense underbrush that contributes to Los Alamos-style wildfires, would also provide jobs.

"I love the forest," he says. "That's why I live here. (But) we need to thin those trees."

To Laurel Ames, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a South Lake Tahoe environmental organization, such criticisms miss the point. "Some of these places that are really hurting just didn't do the preparation work," she says.

Most North Forkers would disagree. "It's always easy to look back and say, 'We should have seen it coming,' " says Barry Vesser, executive director of North Fork's Community Development Council. "But this town has been making its living on (timber) for 100 years."

Like other small-town community leaders, Vesser says economic diversification is the key. He hopes to attract a new industry to the old mill site. Meanwhile, funding is short and he admits, "It's a long and rocky road."

A congressional bailout passed last year will help in the short term, restoring some of the money counties lost when logging declined. Counties whose land included national forests traditionally received 25 percent of all revenues from those forests, and the money funded schools and county governments. When logging declined, though, North Fork lost much of this income. Madera County stands to receive $868,000 each year for the next five years to soften the blow.

The only rural Sierra Nevada county that supports the Framework is Nevada County, home to booming Grass Valley, with its high-tech jobs and cultural events. Its success, however, has more to do with geography than with planning.

"The magic formula is that we're close to Sacramento," admits Bruce Conklin, a member of the county's board of supervisors.

There's no quick fix for communities that aren't close to a big city. Often, the business environment just isn't good enough. Many areas aren't wired for high-speed computing, for instance, or there's no bank, or the hospitals and schools aren't up to urban standards.

"You have to have that critical mass to attract these people and these industries, to draw in businesses besides resource and recreation," says John Sheehan, executive director of Plumas Corp., which concentrates on tourism and economic development in Plumas County. "And you have to be close enough to a city to get the slop-over."

If North Fork can't find an internal solution, its future will increasingly lie over the hills in long commutes to Madera or Fresno - wherever residents can find jobs.

"Communities don't just dry up and blow away anymore, (but) that's not to say they don't decline," says Jonathan Kusel, executive director of Forest Community Research. He says real estate prices, even in rural California, preclude resettlement for most families.

Though some people tout recreation and tourism as the saviors of old resource-based towns, experts say this doesn't necessarily happen - and it doesn't ever happen right away.

"You can't necessarily substitute a tourism job for a timber job," says Tim Duane. "(You) need to make sure the new jobs match the skills of the people in the area."

"No, tourism's not gonna do it," Elliott says, shaking his head. "Why would you come through North Fork? Yosemite's over there," he says, pointing across the hills, toward the park entrance 20 miles to the north.

Restoring the land

Many see repairing a century of logging damage to forests and watersheds as an answer. The Framework proposes some streamside and other restoration work, but, as Duane explains, "It's hard to say whether Congress will come through and put its money where its mouth is."

Sheehan, who runs a watershed restoration operation, is skeptical. Citing the March mill closing in nearby Loyalton, which put 1,000 people out of work, Sheehan says, "You can't just say they'll all go out and do restoration. There isn't the money in it, particularly if you have to follow the guidelines of the Framework."

The same holds true for other industries that could fill the gap. Small-diameter logging, another possibility, isn't profitable for most mills; it's much cheaper to just buy foreign wood.

Although a number of biomass plants, in which brush and small trees are burned to generate energy, are scattered throughout the Sierras, many of them shut down when the mills closed. Despite California's electricity crisis last winter, prices aren't yet high enough to justify the cost of transporting wood to the remaining plants.

Jerami Middleton, 27, has lived in North Fork all his life, watching logging die and the town shut down around him. Using the old timber mill as a base, he and two others at Crossroads Recycled Lumber mine the past by salvaging old buildings. "You can't find material like this anymore," he says. "There's no old growth left."

Looking out at the hillside, Middleton points to the underbrush smothering the bigger trees and ratcheting up the fire risk. He believes a new tree-based industry could be created if there were the political will and money behind it to cut out the fire tinder.

"But it would take a major change in the way people think," he says. "That's the hard part."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Chris Smith

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