The president of the Chamber of Commerce in the heart of timber country is out of work.
The "Olympic Logger" newspaper that Mike Indelicato edited here for nearly three years folded May 20. "The poor condition of the timber industry economy has taken its toll on us," he wrote in the last issue. "We are just the latest victim of the economy."
But Indelicato hasn't given up. Like many others in logging country these days, he is battling adversity, running hard for the job of county commissioner.
Located at the fork of the Calawah and Bogachiel rivers, this westernmost municipality in the contiguous 48 states is fighting for more than economic survival. Typical of logging towns throughout the Pacific Northwest, Forks is fighting for its very existence.
There are signs the battle may be turning in its favor, although the outcome is not certain.
The depressed state of the timber industry--suffering from continued high interest rates, the lack of new home construction and sales and foreign competition--has sparked a large-scale exodus from the self-styled "Logging Capital of the World."
In 1980, the census recorded 3,160 residents. Nobody knows for sure how many are left, but some put the present population at 2,000. Many have gone to Alaska to work, others are "down at the mountain," as they call Mount St. Helens, whose volcanic windfall of timber still is being logged.
Nor are precise unemployment figures available for Forks. But most everyone agrees the latest countywide figure of 19.1 percent understates the rate in this area. Indelicato estimates 34.5 percent of those left are out of work.
Once there were more than 40 mills here making cedar shakes, a rustic roofing product. The mainstay of the local economy, the mills accounted for as many as 1,000 jobs. Now fewer than a handful operate, employing directly and indirectly only 100 or so.
"We've lived through a couple of booms and now we're probably seeing the biggest recession we've seen," said Carroll Lunsford, vice president and manager of the Forks branch of the Northwestern National Bank.
His bank has many loans outstanding, a good number of them in arrears, to the operators of mills that make cedar shakes.
"We're just hoping they can survive," said Lunsford, "that we can all survive . . . . "
As recently as two years ago, this logging center on the majestic, rain-drenched Olympic peninsula of northwestern Washington was teeming with people. Housing was almost impossible to find, even at the premium prices that prevailed. Rentals were just as scarce. Many newcomers lived in their travel trailers, if they could find a space.
So-called "tramp" loggers came here from Oregon, Alaska and other corners of the West. Their children jammed the public schools. Reservations at the Forks Motel had to be made months in advance. Anyone who wanted to could work, and Art's Place Tavern opened at 10 in the morning and served as a sort of informal hiring hall.
"You could go down to any tavern, any restaurant, anyplace, sit down and people would yank you up for work," recalls Ron Hix, 34, who's mostly unemployed these days.
"Everybody was going around with big smiles," agreed Don McClory, a woodcarver who moved here from Seattle to cash in on the boom. "Everybody had a shake mill. Everybody was making money hand over fist."
The face of Forks in the summer of 1982 is markedly different. Near the north end of town, the owners of Clallam Manor Apartments have converted a third of the 30 or so units into a motel to make ends meet.
For-sale signs are common in most "additions," as the newer subdivisions are called. Prices on three-bedroom homes have dropped $7,500 in 18 months, and still there are no buyers. Rents also have dropped by 15 to 25 percent, and vacancies have never been higher.
Those with money for a downpayment, explained realtor Sheila Wahlgren, "don't want to spend it right now because they might need it to live on if they get laid off."
Nowhere is the boom and bust in Forks more evident than at the Elk Creek Mobile Home Park, with street lights, paved roads and hook-ups for 73 trailers, but only two tenants. "When they started building this place," explained Paul Hampton, the resident manager, "things were still going on around here. Then when it opened up, everything started going in the other direction."
One of those who left, Alan Griswold, went to work at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard near Seattle six or seven months ago, leaving his wife and two children in a tract home here. "It's nothing unusual," shrugged Debby Griswold, a clerk typist for the state. "Both my neighbors are in the same situation."
Soon she, too, will be leaving to join her husband. "The only people selling homes are those who've been out of town so long they can't carry them anymore and are losing thousands of dollars just to dump them," she said.
School enrollments reflect the rise and fall of Forks. The public schools peaked in 1978-1979 with 1,721 students. By last September, the number was down to 1,545. By this May, nearly 100 more students were gone.
Without a turnaround in another year, predicts Clyde Knight, executive vice president of the Shake and Shingle Manufacturers Association, "the population of Forks will be decimated by two-thirds and the town will be what it was before the shake industry picked it up right after World War II. Just a wide place in the road."
At Jim Blankenship's Forks Shake Co., production is off two-thirds and only six men are working, fewer than half the normal number. Other operators are doing worse, said Blankenship: "Some are bankrupt, some are just plain down, just sitting there, most of them, just waiting. I don't know how they get by. A lot have left the area."
Closed mills can be seen on the main roads and side streets, the victims of a shrunken market, subsidized Canadian competition and stringent new fire and safety laws in states such as California, a major market for the Forks-sawed product. Shake manufacturers are lobbying hard in Washington for a countervailing tariff, but the outcome is uncertain.
A tentative bright spot in the dismal employment picture here is exporting logs to Korea, China and Japan by ITT-Rayonier. The giant lumber company owns 410,000 acres in Washington, most of it on the Olympic peninsula, and overseas orders have kept most of its 250 employes working, albeit on an uncertain schedule.
Overall, however, the amount of timber harvested on the peninsula has plummeted from half a billion board feet in 1979 to 175 million last year and only 65 million during the first half of 1982. Under a new state "relief act" to aid the ailing timber industry, companies have defaulted with minimal penalties on 109 government sales of timber on which they had bid--44 of them on the peninsula. Among the defaulters was ITT-Rayonier, which had bid $6.9 million for 15 million board feet.
The impact of the general downturn on the local economy and social fabric of Forks is palpable.
Between last October and this May, the number of families receiving welfare jumped from 111 to 189--a 70 percent increase--while those on food stamps have risen 30 percent from 326 to 424.
Alcoholism also is on the rise. "Despite the fact that the population has decreased and many people have moved away, my case load has increased," said David Wind, who runs the Fork Commmunity Hospital's treatment program. "Lack of work is the primary problem."
Retailers are "hanging on but that's about all," said Lorraine Maris, publisher of the weekly "Forks Forum," which recently shrunk from broadsheet to tabloid size and laid off its only reporter. The paper's classified ads are up, she said, "but the nature is scary. A lot are selling things that a year ago they were looking to buy--stereos, second cars, RVs, horses, things that were luxuries."
The good news is that, somehow, a handful of new small businesses have appeared in recent months. Chamber of Commerce membership is up from 58 to 98, and so are business telephone lines, from 931 to 980 since the start of 1982.
With the weather improving, tourist traffic has picked up a bit, filling the town's two motels most nights. Art's Place Tavern, which had pushed back its opening time to 3 p.m. as the economy slumped, now is starting business at noon, in hopes of catching some of the summer sidewalk tourist trade.
At the Seattle First National Bank, branch manager S. W. Lilly reports "the deposit picture has leveled off the last few months. We're not going to die and blow away like everybody seems to think."
If anything has changed here in recent months, it's the attitude, according to Lunsford, the Northwestern National banker. "Things were so tough for so long, people really became depressed," he said. "Now, they see some light. People here are real fighters."
Jeanie Maxwell is one who refuses to despair, even though her logger husband--when he could get work--has been far from her and their three small children for nearly two years.
"It could be worse, that's the way we look at it," she said, sitting in her living room adorned with religious art. "And it's really deepened our faith. We say if this is God's plan, this is what we'll do, this is what will happen. There's gonna be an end to it sometime. If you sit and think of the negatives, you're gonna be miserable."