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.”
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.
“A town that tries to stay locked into putting old-growth timber through its sawmill doesn’t have a future,” said Harper, who has made Happy Camp his home since the late 1970s. “From a community standpoint, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. To stay alive, a little town like Happy Camp has got to diversify.”
Most everyone in Happy Camp blames the town’s plight on meddling environmentalists and distant bureaucrats who have sought to save wildlife at the expense of people.
“The tree huggers killed the town,” declared property agent Charlie Bowling, who helps absentee owners manage their empty houses. “There’s no way for anyone to make a living here. Just about every place here is for sale, even if you don’t see a sign up.”
Environmentalists acknowledge the hardship faced by Happy Camp and other timber towns but contend that the economic crisis was brought on by over-cutting and automation of the mills, not by environmental restrictions.
During the 1980s, says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, private operators and the Forest Service began logging at a much faster rate than trees could grow to replace those felled for lumber. “They cut in that decade what should have been cut over three decades,” he charged.
Now, less than 10% of the region’s old-growth forests are left, he said, and if timber communities are to survive, forest managers must adopt the approach of “sustained yield"--harvesting forests at a slower pace, to match their growth rate.
“If you want to have a forest, you can’t cut it all,” Pope said. “It would be remarkable if the environmental community had the power to shut down four mills in Happy Camp, but we don’t have that power.”
Even so, the perception that big-city environmentalists control the future of towns such as Happy Camp has fueled the spirit of the “state of Jefferson” independence movement that arose in the region two generations ago.
It was in November, 1941, when a group of armed men set up a roadblock on a major highway near the Oregon border and declared their intention to stage a symbolic protest and “secede” from the union every Thursday until further notice.
State governments in Sacramento and Salem, the rebels complained, were unfairly restricting their access to timber and minerals. The new enlightened state of Jefferson--named after Thomas Jefferson, who penned this country’s Declaration of Independence--would include the northern counties of California and the southern counties of Oregon.
Ten days later, the revolt was stopped in its tracks when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. But reminders of the movement pop up on store signs and place names across the region: The road north from Happy Camp to Oregon, for example, is called the “State of Jefferson Scenic Byway.”
Jim Waddell, a timber manager at the mill until it shut down, personifies the modern-day spirit of the Jefferson movement.
A ruddy, broad-shouldered outdoorsman, he contends that plenty of timber still remains in the forests around Happy Camp and could be harvested if the government would just step aside. He says he personally knows 135 people who are out of work and estimates that half of the town’s businesses have closed down in the past few years.
“We’re sure not running out of trees,” he says. “It’s sad to see the community die when we’re surrounded by so much resources.”
When Deanna Miller moved to Happy Camp in 1978, she believed it was the perfect place to raise a family.
She works as a teller at Scott Valley Bank and, until last year, her husband worked at the mills. Now, he has a job at a sawmill in Yreka and comes home only on the weekends to be with her and their three boys, ages 15, 14 and 6.
“Raising the boys during the week without their father around is hard,” she said. “There are a lot of families like that. It hurts. Families are being pulled apart.”
Longtime residents such as Miller also lament the surging population of welfare families.
County officials cannot say how many of those families are old-timers who have fallen on hard times or newcomers attracted by rents as low as $350 for a three-bedroom house.
The records show that 361 households in Happy Camp receive public assistance, such as Aid to Families to Dependent Children, food stamps, Medi-Cal, general assistance or foster care, said Siskiyou County welfare director Sher Huss.
Even a conservative figure of two people per household means that over 720 people--65% of Happy Camp’s population--get some sort of aid. In beleaguered Siskiyou County as a whole, Huss said, 28% of the population is on public assistance.
Unable to reverse their fortunes, the people of Happy Camp--loggers and environmentalists, merchants and militia members, miners and fishermen--have fought bitterly among themselves over the town’s future.
“The sad thing is we’ve got a town divided,” says Waddell. “We can’t even get together to get more economic help for the town with everybody screaming at each other.”
The greatest turmoil has been aroused by the New 49ers, the mining club that has become Happy Camp’s biggest employer--with 27 workers--by luring “recreational miners” to try their luck dredging the river for gold.
The club was founded nine years ago by McCracken, a former Navy SEAL who offers members the chance to work 50 miles of mining claims he has acquired along the river. McCracken charges an initiation fee of $300 and dues of $470 a year--and offers a complete line of mining equipment at his Happy Camp store.
Critics contend that McCracken is playing on the hopes of unsuspecting amateurs who fool themselves into thinking they can get rich along the Klamath. The river was already picked over by the original 49ers, they note, and McCracken has had the chance to mine the claims too.
Some residents also accuse McCracken of seeking to take over the town, contending that he commandeered the local Lions Club by stacking its meetings with supporters and getting his own people elected as officers.
But the crew-cut, steely-eyed McCracken dismisses such charges. His club, he says, gives beginners a chance to try mining without spending thousands of dollars to buy their own claims. And his Lions Club activities, he says, are simply part of his civic duty to help Happy Camp get back on its feet.
“When you have a large segment of the community that is dependent on assistance programs, what is going to happen to this community in the next five or 10 years?” he asks. “I predict outdoor recreation becomes the mainstay. There’s hiking, fishing, hunting, mountain biking, rafting--and there’s a lot of gold in the river.”