Hayfork, CA: After the Fall
It was 1996, and 150 people had just lost their jobs. Sierra Pacific Industries had closed its Hayfork lumber mill, the last one standing after dozens of smaller mills had died out one by one, choked by increasingly harsh industry conditions that made it impossible for most to survive. The mill was the final vestige of the old growth timber industry, the last large employer in the town, and its closing ended an era of rural prosperity.
“It was a livelihood here,” says Don Ferguson, explaining that the industry likely supplied more than 50% of the town’s wages. “When it went, it went hard.”
Ferguson is a born and raised Hayforker, heir to a legacy of logging. He started logging after graduating high school in 1974, working in the remote forests of Northern California to produce timber, the commodity that would shape his life. He remembers the heyday of logging fondly, a time when businesses flourished, logging trucks roared through the streets, and bars were always packed, especially on Saturdays.
“Hell, we were like a family,” he says. Until the mills closed.
The closing of Hayfork’s final mill echoed what was happening in hundreds of communities across the Pacific Northwest: businesses shuttering, families moving away, and thousands unsure of where rent money would come from. Places of relative prosperity now faced an uncertain future.
Embedded in Trinity County, Hayfork was once the bustling portal to a vast expanse of federal forest land offering millions in timber profits. For decades, timber thrived and kept the economy afloat. Until people questioned what was happening to the land out there.
Joseph Bower was an environmental activist in a town of loggers clinging to survival.
“I had to start carrying a gun,” Bowers says matter-of-factly, “I was getting death threats.” Bower is 81, and he was in his 30s when so many people in Hayfork were boiling with vitriol at him that he feared for his life. The sheriff at the time told him to carry a shotgun in his car when he went out, which he did—unloaded with a box of shells on the passenger seat.
Bower Talks About Getting Death Threats
In the early 90s, the apex of the Timber Wars, environmentalists were raging against the timber industry for rampant environmental damage and clear cuts that left telltale bald spots across the landscape–and the environmentalists were winning. Bower was part of a growing movement of citizen activists across the region advocating for reforms to protect the land from industry, including heavy hitters like the Sierra Club.
Bower, along with other advocates, acted as a local watchdog for these organizations, taking note of planned timber harvests on federal lands, and helping utilize legal actions to prevent them.
“See, [the Forest Service] got sued every time somebody put up a sting around here,” Ferguson says. “Joseph Bower was the biggest thorn in the loggers’ and the Forest Service’s side.”
As timber sales stalled on Forest Service lands, businesses bit the dust one by one. Newly unemployed people in town were mad as hell, and as Ferguson describes it, it was easy to blame Bower for the slowing of timber harvest because his efforts were public and sometimes even covered in news outlets, making him a focal point.
“I was the most prominent one,” Bower says. “I put my neck out where other people don’t.”
People accused him of wrecking the town. Destroying their lives. At least five or six men called him and threatened to kill him, Bower says, former timber workers staring down the barrel of poverty and unemployment. They usually called at night, and they were usually drunk.
Bower remembers one man in particular, now dead, who called on a regular basis to threaten him.
“‘You ruined my life. I’m going to kill you.’ That was his usual refrain,” Bower says. It was even more unsettling that the guy had a reputation for being violent and a blackout drinker, and he lived a mile away from Bower’s house.
He wasn’t safe from reproach when he made the 20 minute drive from his home to town, either. People confronted him at the post office, in restaurants, in the streets.
Bower’s 20-plus years of advocacy started with Agent Orange, the caustic chemical that eventually earned notoriety for it’s use in the Vietnam War. He heard about a few people getting sick out in the woods, including some loggers who were sent out to work in forests that had been doused. Some digging confirmed the Forest Service was spraying the forests with Agent Orange, a practice used at the time to control undesirable species competing with their softwood crops.
So he linked up with the Sierra Club, supporting their effort to get the issue taken to court. From there, he continued his advocacy, even when things became heated.
Bower is sympathetic to the community’s loss. But, he says, he was a single actor part of something bigger—many different advocacy groups took on timber, and it became a national argument.
“They had warning all through the 80s that this whole system was not working,” he says of those working in the timber industry, “They never recognized that they were overcutting drastically, creating all these other problems with road failures, wildlife problems, endangered species they were creating. It never dawned on them that was to blame.”
In Bower’s view, the loggers saw the problem as external, the fault of the environmentalists, and he became the scapegoat they needed. And anywhere he went, he ran the risk of confrontation, the receiving end of a collective hyperbole in which he represented the reason why people suffered.
The survival of the Northern Spotted Owl has been tremulous for decades. Its habitat weaves throughout Pacific Northwest timber country, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the timber industry muscled through it, a final death knell wreaking destruction until the violin cry of extinction swelled in the background.
This small, intense-eyed bird is often cited as the cause of death in timber industry autopsies. Don Ferguson to this day links that turn in his fate directly to the spotted owl, or rather “the goddamn spotted owl.”
It became the flashpoint of the Timber Wars when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as “threatened” in 1990, and in 1991, quickly after, a court injunction was issued by a Federal District Judge imposing a moratorium on logging in the owl’s habitat, a final nail in timber’s coffin that made it virtually impossible for mills to access timber from federal lands. U.S. timber sales plunged from $1.6 billion in 1990 to $450 million in 1996, a decline of two thirds in a period of six years. In the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where Hayfork is, sales went from $32 million in 1990 to $6 million in 1995 (the year before the last mill closed).
Mostly big businesses survived, many moving operations from the rural Northwest to places with more private lands, less regulation, or both. For some, this meant other places in California; for others, South America and Asia. The local timber industry, once a thriving economy, became a shell of what it once was.
Ferguson, along with hundreds of people he knew, lost his job during this time. By the time the last mill closed, he was already driving six hours away to work, the closest logging job he could find.
“When the mill closed, I was living in Placerville, and living here, staying there during the week, because of the spotted owl,” Ferguson says.
He did this for three years, driving home Friday nights and leaving again on Sunday, until he felt the toll on his family was too much and he managed to find local work, taking a pay cut from $15 to $11 an hour to be closer to his family.
The town is full of stories like this. Vulnerable marriages crumbled under the strain of poverty. A handful of suicides happened. And there was a de facto culling of the population that left behind the few timber workers spared, and the few that hung on.
“A lot of my friends moved. Some of them lost their homes. Some just sold their homes and left,” Ferguson says. “Shoot, I knew all of them, and some of them commuted, went to work, and came home on the weekends like I did. They stayed here, and they just struggled.”
A lot of families turned to federal assistance, although as many tell it, a lot of men would refuse welfare out of pride, and then their wives would insist on food stamps to make sure the family was fed. The town was mired in the slow grind of poverty and its attendant ailments: domestic violence, alcoholism, addiction, and crime.
“For a spotted owl to cause a whole industry to go down,” Ferguson says, shaking his head emphatically, “there’s no reason for it. It shouldn’t be the destruction of a community or an occupation. It just doesn’t seem moral.”
“Trinity County is a casualty of the environmental movement,” is the first thing Roger Jaegel, who lived there during and after the timber wars, says about the barriers the county faces. In a state that is among the country’s wealthiest and most liberal, Trinity County is poor and home to Republican and conservative fringe politics; it is currently the poorest county in the state, and it stayed red this last election, with half of its votes going to Trump.
Jaegel, now 71 and retired, served in political office on the Trinity County board of supervisors from 2004 to 2012, and also worked for the Forest Service for years before quitting in 1995.
He is still actively involved in local groups dedicated to economic revival and sustainable natural resource management.
But finding a way forward to fix the damage is a hard problem to solve.
The fallout of the Timber Wars created deep-rooted hardship in rural places throughout the Pacific Northwest, but the toll wasn’t just economic.
These days many Forest Service agencies, under lasting scrutiny since the era of profit-directed timber harvest, are beleaguered by limited funds and capacity.
“We have internal barriers of having the right staff at the right time,” says Tom Hall, District Ranger on the Shasta Trinity National Forest’s management unit located in Hayfork. “And there is an expected reduction in budget.”
Environmental policies themselves can also slow work. The Forest Service shifted gears from profit-aligned management to ecological restoration, seeking to repair damage from decades of logging and other human impacts, but the agency is challenged by the very same laws that stopped prior overharvest. Onerous regulatory procedures and requirements for just planning projects can stretch out for years, often meaning significant lag time before work can be done.
A long-held criticism from Republicans, the burden of inefficient regulation is lived as a common truth for those who work in natural resources, including Forest Service personnel and natural resource specialists.
“Planning is a hurdle,” Hall says. “There are somewhat different regulations for us than other entities, and those combined with litigation, that focus of external groups to sue—those two things combine to make it difficult.”
The result is an ongoing challenge in the effort to restore the damage done, borne out in overcrowded forests, and tolls to watershed and landscape health.
For those whose communities were thrown into turmoil under the banner of forest health, these limitations are palpable, if not necessarily understood.
“You know the spotted owl,” Ferguson says, “the forest service was so hit by that, the forest service didn’t want to fight it. For some reason they didn’t want to put in a fight against the environmentalists.”
And Ferguson, like many timber war survivors with an axe to grind, harbors residual blame, faulting the Forest Service for what happened then, and what’s happening now.
“There’s a lot of issues, them not managing the forest. I’m not sure what they do down there.”
The timber wars dealt injuries that exist in living memory. Environmentalists characterized loggers as “forest rapists,” immoral, and greedy. It was a fight, and both sides assigned ethical blame. But the loggers were on the losing side, and the attacks on their identity salted the wounds of displacement and economic hardship.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Ferguson says of logging. “It don’t mean that you’re a radical and you want to go out there and wipe out the goddamn forest. Hell, I never ever thought that ever. I thought, go out there and do a job and be proud of it. But you know you can’t have all this other shit from the far left just stabbing you.”
Ferguson on Environmentalism
The feeling for some in these rural communities was one of having been attacked and ignored by the public and by the environmental actors that once focused national attention and policy on them. They held their own protests to advocate for their jobs and communities, but as many describe it, they felt like no one was listening.
“This ain’t the only town,” Ferguson says. “There’s thousands of towns that went through this same thing, and nobody cared—other than the people who went through it.”
The damage from these battles is not easily forgiven, and for some, experiences like this have hardened into political ideology. Don Ferguson describes environmentalism as “brainwashing” and repeatedly cites the failure of the environmental movement to actually manage the land.
Operating outside the singular narrative often prescribed to his political leanings, Ferguson believes in climate change and in the importance of caring for the land. But he doesn’t trust environmentalists and resents agencies like the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency because he perceives them as inefficient.
“I voted for Trump,” says Don Ferguson. “He’s trying to get some of these entities to come up with some revenue. He’s actually trying to fix the management of the Forest Service, get these environmentalists outta there, these restrictions.”
Many of the displaced people in rural places fall on one side of the deep fractures splitting the nation, a division between urban and rural, environmentalists and proponents of natural resource industries, a division rooted in a disagreement about where the balance between land and economy lies.
Jaegel believes this clash set a course for the current political trajectory. “I think that Donald Trump – and I didn’t vote for him, God help me, I would never — but Donald Trump is an indicator of how bad things have gotten,” he says. “So, in my view, people need to start paying attention.”
Trinity County faces all sorts of challenges on the path to economic recovery—a limited labor pool, limited industrial space, relatively expensive land, expensive transportation. The list goes on.
“We were supposed to transfer to a new economy and it just never happened,” says Keith Groves, current member of the Trinity County Board of Supervisors, of the post-timber era.
Maintaining basic infrastructure is a continual battle. Schools fight for funding, and to even stay open. County and local agencies are strapped for funds, and the jobs they offer don’t pay well; members of the local board of supervisors bring home a paltry $25,000 salary compared with larger counties that pay into the hundreds of thousands. Currently, 24.6% of the population lives in poverty.
Federal lands comprise approximately 80% of Trinity County. In counties with large federal land bases a percentage of federal timber profits is allocated to support their budgets, offsetting industry impacts on roads and resources, and replacing the deficit in private property tax revenue.
In Trinity county these timber receipts were a significant portion of the budget, and accounted for millions annually during the timber era. According to Headwaters Economics, timber receipts in Trinity County dwindled 65% from $10.3 million in 1986 to $3.5 million in 2015.
Without these federally-managed industries, many rural counties are left in a stagnant position.
“When you take 70% out of your economic pie,” says Groves, “there’s nothing to go to because so much is taken out.”
Rural counties throughout the nation rely on federal funding, such as Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes to support their budgets. In some places, these funds represent up to 70% of county budgets.
“It’s one of these issues where everybody is in agreement that the system needs to be fixed, but Republicans want to start cutting trees, and the Democrats don’t,” Groves says. “Basically, Trinity is a third-world country because it’s based on natural resources, and we live in a country that no longer believes in natural resource utilization.”
The task for counties like Trinity is to utilize their natural resources successfully and negotiate for policies that will help get them out of dependence. But according to Groves, they are usually voiceless at policy tables, and the bulk of policies imported from state and federal governments often work against their efforts to transition their economies.
While not the case for all, or perhaps even most rural politicians, this sentiment is held by enough rural voters and representatives to matter.
“Why can’t we fix this?” Jaegel says. “People have been wrestling with these questions for a long time. And it’s all about political power. Trinity County doesn’t have enough votes to matter. And that is the problem, that is why rural counties are having the problems that they are.”
Ferguson and Bower still live in Hayfork, a 20 minute drive apart on a road winding through bucolic fields dotted with cattle and barns. In an unfolding of events far less dramatic than the collapse of the industry itself, Hayfork moved forward.
The anger waned, Bower says, and the town settled into itself again. “People like simple answers, and when you have a big problem, it’s good to have a scapegoat,” he surmises of the anger he weathered in those days.
The response in post-timber communities was a wave of community-based organizations, such as Wallowa Resources and The Watershed Research and Training Center, that advocated for a middle ground wedding sustainable land management and jobs. This effort became the community-based forestry movement that is still active today, advocating in networks and coalitions such as Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
These days, Bower remains involved with local efforts to address regional land management issues, working alongside former loggers who may have once hated him or even incited violence against him.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he says.
Bower On Working With Timber Proponents
Ferguson is 62, and still works as a logger. He’s divorced, and his two boys live at home with him, one of them a logger too. More than 20 years later, Ferguson still has pro-logger paraphernalia decorating his house, still remembers that time freshly.
“Some committed suicide because they lost their homes,” Ferguson says, “out of work, something they done all their life. They don’t know anything else.”
No longer logging communities, these places adapted and become something else. But the repercussions of the Timber Wars that shaped their lives still reverberate.
“I think a logger is one of the biggest environmentalists there can be,” Ferguson says. “Because he’s out there, and he wants to take care of the woods. He wouldn’t want to destroy it because he wouldn’t have a job.”