The Fall of the ‘Redwood Curtain’


Donna and Joseph Hufford aren’t used to thinking of themselves as cutting-edge people. Not by temperament. Certainly not by location.

Home is a dying logging town in northern Humboldt County, just a blur of peeling storefronts and redwood burl shops to drivers speeding by on U.S. 101, the north-south corridor that splits it in two.

Orick once boasted four sawmills and 3,000 residents. But as the timber industry that for decades sustained this North Coast region declined, so did Orick--and dozens of other rural communities like it.


Today, just 325 people and one small mill remain in town. Four churches have dwindled to two, and one of those has four active members. The only restaurant open year-round is a coffee shop, the Palm Cafe. There is no grocery store and the movie house closed years ago.

“Orick is like the elephant that dies in your front yard,” said Philip Nesset, the town’s part-time Presbyterian pastor. “Everyone can smell it, but nobody wants to bury it.”

But the Huffords and dozens of their neighbors refuse to give up. In some ways, their town is a symbol of the volatile past and the hopeful, but uncertain, future of California’s North Coast, the so-called Forgotten Coast.

Asked why they remain when so many others have left, Donna Hufford is taken aback.

“Moving away? That would be the easier alternative,” she said with a sternness that suggests the Huffords never take the easy way out.

For most of the 1980s and the early part of this decade, the three counties of the North Coast--Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino--endured unemployment rates far higher than the state average and a collective depression brought about by the passing of logging and fishing as a way of life.

Who to blame for the hard times depends on who you ask. Logging and fishing families cite government and interfering environmentalists for imposing severe restrictions on the amount of wood and fish they can harvest from the region’s forests, streams and coastal waters.


Environmentalists fault logging companies for overcutting forests, eroding hillsides and silting up stream beds vital to salmon habitat and a once-thriving fishing industry.

“The North Coast is changing because it has to change,” said Joe Gillespie, a Del Norte native who has been labeled a renegade by some neighbors because he helped found the environmental group Friends of Del Norte County.

“They’ve logged 90% of the forest. They aren’t going to get to log all the rest,” he said. “People have come to understand that the forests are more than just timber. They’re water and ecosystems.”

But whatever the arguments over the past, the people of the North Coast agree that now, even in towns as down and out as Orick, signs of rebirth are finally emerging. The region’s disparate communities are learning that they share a common love for the land and a common goal: survival.

“We’ve been lagging behind for a long time, but we are right on the verge of rolling into the 21st century,” said Del Norte County Supervisor Clyde Eller. “Come back in five, 10 years and we are going to be right up there with the rest of the world.”

A bold claim, perhaps, for a region so physically isolated from the rest of California that its residents joke about living “behind the Redwood Curtain.”

More than 140 years after Ulysses S. Grant reportedly was driven to drink by the loneliness of his Army posting at Ft. Humboldt, the North Coast remains sparsely populated. Barely more than 230,000 residents share 20% of California’s total land mass and one-quarter of the state’s coastline. The region’s largest town north of Arcata, Crescent City, is a tortuous, seven-hour drive from San Francisco.

But determined longtimers and an influx of newcomers from Southern California and elsewhere are coming up with new ideas, schemes for capitalizing on the North Coast’s distance from urban chaos. Together, they hope to transform it into a prime destination for eco-tourists, a haven for well-off retirees and a magnet for entrepreneurs producing innovative products.

From Del Norte, on the Oregon border, to Mendocino, close enough to San Francisco to be a favorite weekend getaway, people are finding inventive ways to keep hold of their small-town way of life while building the foundation of a new economy.

Hope in one county came with a new state prison. The two others see their future in launching businesses and sprucing up downtowns and town squares for the benefit of tourists drawn by the region’s rugged beauty.

“We are, as they say, an economy in transition,” said Alison Glassey, a social welfare administrator in Mendocino County. “We know that we are in transition. We just don’t know what we are transitioning to yet.”

Some help has come from the federal government, which began pouring tens of millions of dollars into the North Coast after 1991 when the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species and other environmental concerns left millions of acres of timberland off limits to logging.

The money went to retraining programs for loggers and development grants to rural communities hard hit when many mills shut down and logging businesses restructured or moved.

Although no one can say with certainty how many loggers were retrained and reemployed in the region, Humboldt and Mendocino counties have managed to slash their unemployment rates, boost family incomes and attract new people and new businesses in the last five years.

“I worry that we could get too good at what we do,” said Julie Fulkerson, a Humboldt County supervisor who owns a shop on Arcata’s town square that specializes in locally crafted products. “I’m afraid we’ll draw more people, more congestion.”

Del Norte, the smallest and most sparsely populated of the counties, is having the hardest time of it.

It is a place of wild beauty, of rocky coastline and rolling farmlands where dairy cows and Easter lilies are raised. Sea lions play in the ocean waves, a 20-minute drive from the banks of the Smith River, one of the nation’s most scenic, undammed waterways.

But transportation links to places east, west and south are poor and Del Norte’s blustery winds and fierce winter storms discourage tourists and businesses.

It is a county where more than half of the work force once held timber jobs. Today, only 3% work in the timber and paper industries.

In 1982, unemployment in Del Norte peaked at 23.8%. Now, it stands at 10.6%, a marked improvement but still the highest along the North Coast. The jobless rate in Humboldt is at the state average of 7.8% and Mendocino’s is slightly higher.

A decade ago, desperate to create jobs, the citizens of Del Norte relentlessly lobbied the state for the right to a new prison. Their efforts worked and Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum-security facility housing about 4,000 felons, opened outside Crescent City in December 1989.

With a staff of 1,260--40% of them local residents--Pelican Bay is the county’s largest overall employer. The largest private employer is a hospital that is partially subsidized by the prison. More than 60% of the businesses--most of them retail shops and restaurants--have fewer than five employees.

“Without the prison, there would be nothing in Del Norte,” said a labor market analyst for the state’s Economic Development Department.

Pelican Bay has so successfully created jobs that some people in Del Norte hope to lure a second prison to the county--a proposal that is not without controversy.

“If we put another prison in here, people will start identifying Del Norte as a penal colony,” said Martha McClure, a recently elected county supervisor.

In Humboldt County, where 1 in 3 workers held timber jobs in 1972, the number is now 1 in 10. Although the dwindling industry remains the county’s largest private employer, people have focused with more success on diversifying their economy than their neighbors to the north in Del Norte.

In Arcata--home to Humboldt State, the only four-year college on the North Coast--residents are aggressively promoting the creation of small businesses.

Arcata, which just elected the state’s first City Council dominated by the environmentally focused Green Party, is sometimes ridiculed by its neighbors for left-leaning politics. But those same neighbors also are envious of Arcata’s ability to lure specialty businesses.

Don Banducci, an outdoorsman, founded the car bike rack company Yakima Products in Arcata in 1979 because he liked its proximity to forests and rivers. He recently sold the business for $60 million. He now is a partner in two other start-up firms, one producing pricey glassware from recycled materials and the other pontoons for custom boats.

Entrepreneurs like him, Banducci said, are willing to deal with the added costs of shipping their products from Arcata to urban areas because of what Arcata offers. With his off-road vehicle filled with sports equipment, he likes to head to the nearby rivers and forests to fish, hunt or boat in the middle of the workweek.

Eureka, Arcata’s blue-collar neighbor across the Arcata Bay, is determined not to lag behind. It has declared 56 blocks of its long-neglected Old Town--radiating from a seedy fishing port--a redevelopment area and is restoring it as a Victorian seaport.

So far, the city has spent more than $50 million on the project, said Kevin Hamblin, Eureka’s director of community planning. Victorian homes built by wealthy lumber barons in the 1800s and brick commercial buildings are being renovated and given new facades. Gaslight-style street lamps have been installed and red brick sidewalks laid.

Mayor Nancy Flemming boasts about the handful of cruise ships that have stopped in Eureka on their way up to Alaska. She is negotiating with cruise lines to make Eureka a regular stop on their Los Angeles-to-Alaska trips.

“There is more of a feeling of hope now,” Flemming said.

Farther south in Mendocino, where only 4% of the workers hold lumber or paper mill jobs, apple orchards are giving way to wineries and bed-and-breakfast inns. Tourism jobs have jumped 7% in each of the last five years.

Mendocino also is seeing new start-up businesses, even in old logging towns such as Willits, 35 miles from its picturesque coastline.

“We’ve discovered that there is an entrepreneurial spirit in Willits,” said Mayor Bruce Burton, a sawmill owner who was born in the town. “Part of it is that the transplanted people, the ones who move here from somewhere else, soon figure out that if you are going to do well, you have to create a business because the jobs that exist don’t usually pay well.”

The growth in the wine industry--Mendocino County boasts more than 50 wineries--and bed-and-breakfasts are drawing more tourists from the Bay Area and beyond.

For years, the beautifully preserved village of Mendocino, on the coast, has been a premier tourist attraction. On summer days, its 1,000 residents are overrun by visitors who wander among its Victorian gingerbread homes and frequents its art galleries, shops and casual cafes.

An artist’s colony established in the village in the 1950s continues to thrive. In fact, the 1990 census found more people per capita employed in the arts in Mendocino County than in any other place in the state.

Tourism is becoming important even to towns like Ft. Bragg, Mendocino’s plain-faced neighbor to the north. Once the Pacific Coast’s largest salmon-producing port, Ft. Bragg is seeing a mini-boom in motels, boutiques and restaurants.

Although it is Mendocino County’s rugged, unspoiled coastline that still attracts most visitors--84% of them at last count-- increasing numbers of adventurous tourists are exploring inland.

“We tell people that Mendocino County today is what Sonoma was 40 years ago,” said Nancy Graham. “You don’t have to wait in line to taste wine in our wineries, and folks are still friendly here.”

Graham and her husband, Rod, own a bed-and-breakfast in Anderson Valley, between Willits and the coast. The Grahams were there 10 years ago when the wineries began replacing the valley’s apple orchards and note happily that the winemakers are luring ever more upscale visitors and new residents to an area once so isolated its residents created their own language, Boontling.

“When we moved here, we assumed we’d get our intellectual stimulation from the guests,” said Graham, who had worked as a business consultant in Davis before moving to Boonville. “It was frosting on the cake to discover how many interesting, accomplished people live here. They came for the same reason we did: to get away from stressful lives, traffic jams and foul air.”

With counties like Mendocino changing, in part, because of its newcomers, it is hardly surprising that viewpoints sometimes clash.

Jerry Turner, a furniture salesman who moved to Willits 20 years ago, is among the most enthusiastic of those considered newcomers.

“Several years ago, a number of individuals came together in Willits and asked the question: where are we going?” Turner said. “We knew that we were not going to stay with a traditional resource-based economy, that we were going somewhere else. Some of us thought the real assets here are a lot of good people with a good work ethic.”

Having quit his furniture job, Turner pours all his energy into a state-of-the-art electrical and mechanical assembly plant he built on the outskirts of town. He trains residents who once would have worked in the sawmills or forests to assemble machine tools for microchip manufacturers.

Although struggling, Willits Electronics has a work force of 22 and sold more than $2 million worth of assembled products last year, Turner said.

But old-timers, whose families generations ago cleared forest and fished freely for salmon, still yearn for the days when, as locals like to say, “there was no law north of the Klamath River.” Salvation, some old-timers insist, will only come when the forests recover, government regulations loosen and clear-cutting resumes.

“Mendocino is always going to be a natural resource extraction-based economy because this is timberland,” said John Mayfield, owner and president of Microphor, a manufacturing plant in Willits. “The best use of the land here is to raise trees.”

But in Orick, the Huffords and their neighbors have decided that the time has come to stop dwelling on the past. And so, they are planning on turning what they long viewed as their worst enemy into their best asset.

Just about anyone in town will tell you Orick’s troubles began in 1968, when Redwood National Park was created on 39,000 acres of prime timberland nearby.

In 1978, the troubles grew when the park doubled its size, virtually turning Orick into an anachronism--a logging town with no loggers or mills. The people who didn’t pack up and move away were mired in bitterness over the park’s very existence.

“What is happening is, finally, people are learning to work together,” said Margaret Gainer, whose nonprofit community development firm helped Orick put together its plan. “We’ve gotten tired of complaining that the world is changing around us. We’re ready to do something about it.”

Last spring, about 50 residents turned out for brainstorming sessions with a consultant from Gainer’s firm, hired with federal rural development grant money. They produced a plan optimistically titled “Taking Control of Orick’s Economic Future.”

In essence, the plan is a blueprint for transforming Orick from a wide spot on U.S. 101 to a destination for the more than 200,000 tourists who visit Redwood National Park each year.

Starting with the mundane--trash pickup around businesses and homes, hauling away junked cars and painting storefronts--Orick went on to apply in the fall for other grants to repair dilapidated homes and restore a creek trail that slices through town toward the ocean to the west and the park to the east.

Ultimately, Orick hopes to bill itself as the “Gateway to the Redwoods.”

The Huffords and others included rangers from the once-hated park in their strategy sessions, and are lobbying to have the park’s headquarters moved from Arcata, a 45-minute drive south, to Orick. They also hope to persuade park officials to allow a commercial developer to build a lodge in the forest for overnight visitors.

Eventually, Donna Hufford said, the town aims to attract a developer to build a year-round inn.

It is that kind of attitude that prompts Martha McClure, the Del Norte supervisor, to predict that the best of times for the North Coast lie ahead.

“We have problems, but they are not insurmountable,” she said, enjoying a pasta dinner near Crescent City’s port late this fall.

Laughing apologetically, McClure added: “We just had a week of the most incredible weather, the bluest skies. Everyone looked at each other and said: Don’t tell the people in L.A., don’t tell the people in San Francisco.”


California’s North Coast

California’s North Coast has experienced a profound shift away from logging and fishing--two industries that for decades were the region’s mainstay--toward service jobs, government employment and retail trade. As they create new businesses and slash their jobless rates, Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties are learning they share a common goal: survival. A statistical look at the three counties:

* Population

Del Norte: 27,600

Humboldt: 124,500

Mendocino: 84,300

* Ethnic makeup

Caucasian: 85%

Hispanic: 11.2%

American Indian: 2.7%

Asian or Pacific Islander: 3.6%


Mendocino County

* Largest employer:

Private: Louisiana Pacific Lumber Co., 275 employees

Public: School districts, 2,500 employees


Unemployment rate

1996 (thru Sept.): 8.8%

State avg.: 7.8%


Median household income

County: $31,294

State: $43,868


Population growth

1970s: 31%

1980s: 22%

1990-96: 22%


Estimated population

2000: 85,029


Del Norte County

* Largest employer:

Private: Sutter Coast Hospital, 400 employees

Public: Pelican Bay maximum security State Penitentiary, 1,260


Unemployment rate

1996 (thru Sept.): 10.6%

State avg.: 7.8%


Median household income

County: $22,937

State: $43,868


Population growth

1970s: 25%

1980s: 17%

1990-96: 22%


Estimated population

2000: 38,255


Humboldt County

* Largest employer:

Private: Pacific Lumber Co., 1,420 employees

Public: Humboldt County, 1,624


Unemployment rate

1996 (thru Sept.): 7.8%

State avg.: 7.8%


Median household income

County: $28,562

State: $43,868


Population growth

1970s: 8.7%

1980s: 9.8%

1990-96: 8.2%


Estimated population

2000: 156,744

Source: County Economic and Demographic Almanacs


About This Series

The New Californias has examined regions of the state in transition. Previously:

* Sierra Nueva: People and pollution threaten the Sierra Nevada.

* Crowded Valley: Central Valley faces choices for the next century.

* Last Frontier: New land rush in the Mojave Desert.


* Forgotten Coast: The North Coast fights for survival with the decline of fishing and logging as ways of life.