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Timber Town's Decline Rivals That of Spotted Owl : Economy: As jobs vanish in Happy Camp, many blame effort to save bird. Others point to over-cutting.

October 23, 1995|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAPPY CAMP, Calif. — Where logging trucks once ruled the pavement, the streets now are nearly silent. The auto parts store, the burger place, the Chevron station and even the Silver Eagle bar are closed down and boarded up.

Fathers leave their families behind for days or weeks at a time to take jobs in other towns--or states. Houses sit empty as homeowners move away without hope of finding renters or buyers.

In this once-thriving Klamath River timber town 15 miles south of Oregon, the biggest growth industry is welfare, as families of unemployed loggers seek aid and welfare recipients from other towns flock here for cheap rent. Now, more than half of Happy Camp's 1,100 residents receive public assistance, county officials say.

"Sometime back, this must have been a happy town," said Joyce Pickett, a cook at the Pizza House on Highway 96, Happy Camp's main drag. "Now it's dying."

Such dismal scenes have become commonplace in small towns across Northern California as rural residents try to cope with a depression triggered by sharp reductions in logging to save the endangered spotted owl, which long made its home in undisturbed forests.

Communities that sprang up to harvest seemingly endless public and private forests suddenly find their towns on the verge of extinction unless they can attract tourists or new kinds of business.

From Covelo to Weed and from Hayfork to Portola, the rugged, self-reliant people of timber country see their way of life disappearing nearly as fast as the spotted owl.

"It's a crying shame," said David Hayes, owner of the Double J Sports and Spirits store in Happy Camp. "All the good people seem to be leaving and you get what's left."

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Even in a region where economic suffering is widespread, the troubles in Happy Camp leap out. For two years running, the town has been listed by the Washington D.C.-based National Assn. of Counties as one of the 10 most endangered communities in America.

Sitting in the narrow valley of the scenic Klamath River and surrounded by national forests of fir and pine, Happy Camp was once an idyllic town where families could escape the ills of urban life.

Even today it is the kind of place where residents chop their own firewood, can their own fruits and vegetables, and hunt game to put meat on their tables. Not only does everyone know everyone else, they know each other's pickup trucks.

The town is so isolated that driving to Yreka, the Siskiyou County seat, requires a 60-mile trek over a narrow, winding road. And life is so quiet that the main tourist attraction--apart from the fast-flowing river--is the town dump, where bears come to eat household garbage and humans come to watch.

Until the Gold Rush, the land where Happy Camp now sits was a popular gathering place for the Karuk Indians, whose descendants still live in the area.

No one today is quite sure how the town got its name, but it most likely dates to 1852, when the first prospectors found gold in the river and proclaimed themselves exceedingly happy, said Siskiyou County Historical Society Executive Secretary Pat Montgomery.

To this day, the locals call themselves "Happy Campers."

But in the 1990s, the town is far from the Happiest Place on Earth. Many residents are angry and bitter over their situation, battling among themselves over who is to blame and how to save their town.

Not long ago, there were four sawmills in the Happy Camp area, cutting a steady stream of trees from the surrounding Klamath National Forest, an "old growth" forest of centuries-old trees that was largely left untouched until the late 1950s.

At its peak in the mid-1980s, the Klamath's 350,000-acre Happy Camp District was producing 50 million board feet of timber annually and the town's population had swollen to 2,500--more than twice its level today.

"It used to be you couldn't drive up and down the road for fear of your life because of the logging trucks, and they were always in a hurry," said Dave McCracken, who has set up a controversial gold mining business in what used to be the Happy Camp pharmacy.

But heavy logging of the old-growth forest resulted in destruction of the habitat of the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, two birds now on the nation's endangered species list.

As a result, Forest Service officials were forced to reduce the Happy Camp District harvest to 8 million board feet a year, said District Ranger George Harper. Trees planted to replace the old-growth forest will not be big enough to harvest for decades.

With so little timber available, Stone Container Corp. shut down the town's last remaining mill a year ago. Logs cut in the Happy Camp area are now hauled to more modern, automated mills in Coos Bay, Ore.--a major timber export center.

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