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The Death Of A Timber Town : A Court Ban On Clear Cutting Toppled The Teetering Logging Industry In Forks, Wash. Now, Townspeople Are Making Ends Meet, Moving On And Mourning The End Of A Way Of Life.

February 23, 1992|PAUL SHUKOVSKY | Paul Shukovsky is an investigative and projects reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

DAVE WEAVER LIKES TO BRAG ABOUT HOW HE GOT HIS FIRST JOB IN Forks, a tiny timber town on the Olympic Peninsula, the "thumb" of Washington state. There were no formalities, no paperwork. He asked around and headed for a plywood mill he'd heard was handling lots of logs. His interview was short and to the point: The boss asked if he knew how to pull veneer--thin layers of wood peeled from a log with a giant lathe, which are glued together later to make plywood. " 'Give me your gloves,' I said." Pulling veneer is aerobics run amok. Panels of peeled Douglas fir careen from the lathe at a breakneck pace. Some men pluck and grab the unwieldy panels with the confidence of a big-league shortstop making a routine catch--others with the fluid motion of a dancer. Weaver, who looks like an athlete, stepped to the line. "And about 30 seconds later the boss said: 'Be here tomorrow morning. You start work at 6 o'clock. We'll fill out the application whenever we get time.' " A big man with an enormous chest, beefy shoulders and an Elvis haircut, Weaver tells this story as he stands in line at the Express Lane, a gas-and-go place where coffee costs a quarter if you bring your own mug. Parked out front in the pre-dawn darkness are a few battered pickup trucks, their beds loaded with fuel cans and logging gear. People around here call them "crummies." "There used to be a lot more crummies at the Express Lane," Weaver says as he strolls, coffee in hand, through the parking lot toward Tillicum Park. He rode them to dozens of jobs in the woods, jobs he could land anytime he needed them on the strength of his skill and reputation. Like a lot of loggers and millworkers, Weaver never finished high school. His father, a full-blooded Cherokee, had moved the family so frequently that Weaver "never knew the same school more than two years in a row." But with the way Dave Weaver handled himself in the mill, he could take home $20,000 a year and make a good life for his family. In 1990, though, they closed the mill where he'd spent his days cutting giant logs into perfect planks. The nearby Olympic National Forest surrounding Forks still has great stands of fir and Sitka spruce that were already old when Europeans got here, unbroken stretches of Christmas trees 200 feet tall and 50 feet around. But the U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than half of the old-growth trees in the 632,000-acre forest have been cut, and America has decided that what remains should be saved. That has left towns and men like Dave Weaver, who supported themselves by laying the tall trees down on vast, unrestrained clear-cuts, struggling to survive. Forks was one of the first to feel the pain.

Weaver leans sleepily against a signpost as the sky lightens, awkwardly trying to ignite a corn-cob pipe as he holds his coffee. It'll be a 55-mile bus ride into Port Angeles and the job it took him 11 months to find: fixing pinball machines and video games at Diamond Vending for $5.75 an hour. He doesn't complain about the commute or his long hours. So many of his friends are out of work that he's glad to have any job at all. The ability to do the job, to be self-sufficient, is what defines men here. And when the job is lost, sometimes the man is, too.

DRIVE IN ANY DIRECTION FROM FORKS AND IT WON'T BE LONG BEFORE YOU HIT a clear-cut. From a distance, some look like small patches of freshly shaven scalp. But others, like the enormous tract along nearby Burnt Mountain Road, cover miles--devastation as far as the eye can see.

During the peak years of the late 1970s and early '80s, loggers from the Forks area cut enough ancient trees every year to build about 30,000 three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath suburban homes. If logging continued at that pace, environmental groups feared, the last remnants of forests filled with 700-year-old trees would disappear, and a variety of rare species would be threatened with extinction. So the groups filed injunctions to preserve the ancient forest that remained. The result: In 1991, fewer than 2,000 of those "typical" homes could be built.

Timber workers knew their way of life was dying. Mills were being automated, lumber companies sent raw logs overseas for processing, and every year jobs disappeared. Thousands of jobs. But loggers clung to the idea that the old-growth forests would support them, if not forever, then at least for another generation as the U.S. Forest Service gradually reduced the tree harvest. The injunctions changed the equation. Then, last May, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer of Seattle, responding to what he called "deliberate, systematic" violations of environmental laws by federal agencies, put a temporary ban on new sales of old-growth timber in 17 national forests containing northern spotted owls.

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